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The Declaration of Independence and God:

A conversation I had today reminded me of something I meant to blog about: The Declaration of Independence, many argue, contemplates a Creator God, not a God who sets forth rules for human behavior, who judges such behavior, or who intercedes in human events, whether directly or subtly. And this, the argument goes, reflects the general attitudes of the Framers or at least of the political system they wished to establish.

But I don't think this is a sound way of reading the Declaration. It's true that the opening paragraphs refer to "Nature's God" and a "Creator":

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But even this Creator of course is seen as endowing people with "unalienable Rights," which seems to suggest a Creator as arbiter of morality and rights. And, more importantly, consider the closing paragraph:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. -- And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

God is thus not just Nature's God and the Creator, but also the "Supreme Judge of the world," to whom people may appeal to judge or witness "the rectitude of [their] intentions," and whose "Divine Providence" is said to "protect[]" them."

To be sure, one can only draw so much from a single historical document; for instance, it's possible that particular references in the document were seen as largely rhetorical flourishes (though I'm not sure that this is so, since my sense is that very many educated Americans of the Framing generation did indeed have a pretty conventional understanding of God as creator, judge, and source of protection). But those who focus on the Creator and Nature's God language in the document do often try to draw something from that one document. And if we look to the document, we see it discussing God as judge and protector, and not just God as creator.

I should note that I say all this as a secular person; it's not that I want the Declaration to reflect this sort of religious sensibility -- I'm just reporting on the sensibility that it appears to me to in fact reflect.

ohwilleke:
A historical gloss is relevant. Many of the Founders were deists and that was a popular religious viewpoint at the time of the Declaration of Independence in the colonies (and across the pond in revolutionary France close in time). Also, Quakers were politically important at that time and had a less personified sense of God.

The Declaration of Independents studiously avoids religious expressions that would offend either Quakers or Deists, and would instead come across as sectarian.

Also, keep in mind that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution both incorporate the proto-scientific concept of natural law, not a modern positivist view. It was believed at that time that some Platonic ideal of just law was out there to be discovered by anyone willing to search his own consciousness and follow his gut rigorously. Judges were charged with discovering natural law in the cases before them.

What God endowed and created people with in this view was the Platonic ideals of natural law which were instictually present in every mentally sound person's consciousness waiting to be discovered. The existing of natural law does not imply necessarily any supernatural enforcement or arbitration of the law in this life.
11.18.2008 4:36pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Documents such as these are subject to so much historical and literary influence that, except where the point is one of the issues treated or otherwise known to have been contentious, any inferences from the language are dubious. Since we have plentiful evidence regarding the religious views of many of the Framers, including Thomas Jefferson, in the form of explicit statements of their views, it is really odd that so many people rely on such questionable evidence.
11.18.2008 4:39pm
frankcross (mail):
I think this makes sense but leaves out the important implication -- the dog that didn't bark. The Constitution omitted this religious flavor. The Declaration was to fire up the troops, the Constitution to create a system of governance. So I don't think the Declaration is necessarily a good guide for "the political system they wished to establish."
11.18.2008 4:45pm
Houston Lawyer:
Theologically, I have been taught in church that God is responsible for our rulers and that we are not entitled to bring armed rebellion against the government in any circumstances.
11.18.2008 4:51pm
wm13:
I think Bill Poser has it backwards: the phrases in the Declaration reflect the common, what one might call baseline, beliefs about God at the time it was written. Affirmative evidence is necessary (and available in some, but only some, cases) to establish that any particular signatory believed in anything other than the conventional view of God as creator, lawgiver and judge. I think it is safe to assume that the majority of signatories were quite comfortable with that view. In particular, Jefferson, who wrote "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever . . . ," seems to have conceived of God as judge, though perhaps one who executes his judgments through natural means.

Mind you, this view is some ways from the "what a friend we have in Jesus" view common in evangelical circles today.
11.18.2008 4:52pm
Virginia:
One frequently hears arguments that appealing to God to justify a law or government policy violates the letter and/or spirit of the First Amendment.

It seems unlikely that the founding generation, in adopting the First Amendment, thought they were precluding the sort of arguments they themselves had so conspicuously raised just a few years earlier.
11.18.2008 4:57pm
wooga:
If you accept the Declaration's premises that inalienable rights are endowed by God, and not the state, the federal Constitution Bill of Rights becomes a very clear list of "negative rights." In other words, "congress shall not do this" instead of "people hereby have a right to do this." This jives perfectly with the 9th and 10th Amendments. This is a very pro-individual and anti-statist view.

However, if you reject the premise that rights originate from God, you must (is there a counter argument?) conclude that rights flow from the State. In that case, you would be pre-disposed to expanding the role of government, adopting a collectivist over individualist view.

In other words, the importance you attach to the opening of the Declaration is a great indicator of your modern political affiliation.
11.18.2008 5:19pm
MarkField (mail):

Theologically, I have been taught in church that God is responsible for our rulers and that we are not entitled to bring armed rebellion against the government in any circumstances.


Tory.
11.18.2008 5:19pm
Redman:
Go to New England and look at all the public buildings still standing which were constructed within a generation of 1776. The statues, the carvings, the inscriptions, all leave no doubt that the 'state' believed in God and did not envision any separation of God from the state.
11.18.2008 5:46pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Here's my expert opinion on the matter from a post that the Cato Institute reproduced on political theology:


Nature’s God was theologically unitarian, universalist (did not eternally damn anyone) syncretist (most or all world religions worshipped Him), partially inspired the Christian Scriptures, and man’s reason was ultimate device for understanding Him. He was not quite the strict Deist God that some secular scholars have made Him out to be. But neither was He the Biblical God. Rather, somewhere in between.


If anyone is interested at American Creation all we do is debate this and like issues. We meticulously examine the primary sources.
11.18.2008 5:57pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

If you accept the Declaration's premises that inalienable rights are endowed by God, and not the state, the federal Constitution Bill of Rights becomes a very clear list of "negative rights." In other words, "congress shall not do this" instead of "people hereby have a right to do this."


I think it depends on one's conception of God. I am a political libertarian and though I wouldn't call the Founders a "libertarian" deity, He was far more classically liberal and republican than the Biblical God is. For one, the Biblical God grants no rights. The concept of unalienable rights is foreign to the Bible. The law of Moses represents the antithesis of political liberty; it governs virtually EVERY area of life. So ultimately if we have "rights" to do what the only what the Biblical God permits, then we have virtually no "rights" at all.
11.18.2008 6:10pm
Alligator:

However, if you reject the premise that rights originate from God, you must (is there a counter argument?) conclude that rights flow from the State.


I disagree. In my opinion, these rights attach because I am a human and there is no reason why they should have to originate with anyone or anything apart from my classification as a human being. I am in no way interested in expanding government, nor do I prefer a collectivist view of rights.

I also disagree with those who have asserted that the Founding Fathers did not intend for a separation of God and state. In "Report on the Virginia Resolutions," James Madison wrote:

Both of these rights, the liberty of conscience and of the press, rest equally on the original ground of not being delegated by the Constitution, and consequently withheld from the government.


In "Memorial and Remonstrance," Madison writes that free exercise means the right of every citizen to follow the "dictates of his conscience" regarding religion. He argued against a proposed tax that would benefit the Christian denomination of each citizen's choosing or a general school fund because religion was off limits to the government:

The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man t exercise it as these may dictate... Either then, we must say, that the Will of the Legislature is the only measure of their authority; and that in the plenitude of this authority, they may sweep away all our fundamental rights; r, that they are bound to leave this particular right [the right of religious freedom] untouched and sacred...


Not the words of someone who hadn't contemplated a separation of church and state.
11.18.2008 6:25pm
wooga:

I disagree. In my opinion, these rights attach because I am a human and there is no reason why they should have to originate with anyone or anything apart from my classification as a human being. I am in no way interested in expanding government, nor do I prefer a collectivist view of rights.


How are those rights defined? What are they? To say your rights simply attach because you are human, without any reference to a 'giver' of such rights (be it the state or some divine power), there is no way to figure out what those rights are. If the source is the state, we have a written record. If the source is God, we have 'revelation' of the rights. If there is no source other than 'being human', then how in the world do you get a 'right to keep and bear arms'?
11.18.2008 6:43pm
FWB (mail):

Not the words of someone who hadn't contemplated a separation of church and state.


True but in the same discussion Madison and others stated they would leave control of religion, speech, and the press to the states. This was the reason given for prefacing the thrid amendment (our current first) with the words "Congress shall make". These same folks stated the state level constitutions would control the states NOT some judicial invention 150 yrs later.

FOr those who want to learn more about the Founders religious beliefs, try here:

http://www.americanvision.com/christianlifecharacter.aspx


So ultimately if we have "rights" to do what the only what the Biblical God permits, then we have virtually no "rights" at all.


Actually God grants one all Rights, the greatest of which is free will to choose or not choose to follow his commandments. One may choose whichever one wants. One accepts the consequences of one's choice.

Dominus providebit!
11.18.2008 6:46pm
ray_g:
I always view references to "God" in writings from that period like I view quotes from and references to Lenin from writing that came out of the Soviet Union - it was the expected (required?) form and style of the period, but really didn't have much to do with the points they were trying to make.

(I except from this writings that were intended to address matters of theology.)
11.18.2008 6:48pm
Yankev (mail):

For one, the Biblical God grants no rights. The concept of unalienable rights is foreign to the Bible. The law of Moses represents the antithesis of political liberty; it governs virtually EVERY area of life.
He does, however, impose any number of obligations or responsibilities. Though some of these obligations are directly toward Him, other obligations run toward other people (e.g. the obligation to compensate someone for bodily injury) and can be enforced by the injured party in civil courts, an institution that is Biblically mandated.

And the Bible as far as I know is the first source for the concept that even a king has limits to his legitimate powers.
11.18.2008 6:54pm
guy in the veal calf office (mail) (www):
one can only draw so much from a single historical document

What I draw is admiration for the signatories' intelligence, skill and, as much as anything, courage. And I get goosebumps.
11.18.2008 6:56pm
cboldt (mail):
-- The concept of unalienable rights is foreign to the Bible. --
.
I take "inalienable" as a simple and non-contentious adjective. For an object to be "alienable," it must be possible for one person to transfer possession and control of it to another. Property is alienable, money likewise. Inalienable "objects" have a very personal quality about them. Your life, your liberty, and your pursuit of whatever floats your boat. That we value these things (life and liberty) is what makes us human.
11.18.2008 7:32pm
JM Hanes:
EV:

As ohwilleke suggests, interpreting terms like "nature's god" from a post-enlightenment perspective (shorn of once widely understood connotations) is a tricky business. In similar fashion, understanding what was originally meant by "happiness" for example, requires some familiarity with classical philosophy in which the founders were well grounded. Most of us would probably not immediately conjure up a state of tranquil equilibrium derived from virtue, wisdom, justice and thrift.

There is, however, a second even more significant context which is rarely mentioned in discussions of this sort. To take the Declaration as a representation of the signers' collective concept of God or faith is to miss the point entirely. The founders were essentially pitting their nascent form of governance against the divine right of kings. The Declaration was an appeal to world opinion predicated on a countervaling authority of sufficient weight to trump the putative source of a monarch's right to rule. Republican democracy transcended the religious agency of kings, being engendered by both the "laws of nature and of nature's God." To ignore to the doubling down on nature here is to ignore the central dual imperative being asserted. Franklin's substitution of "self-evident" for "sacred" is a rather explicit confirmation of the underlying theme.

The concepts at the heart of this argument would have needed little explanation in the late 18th century. The fact that they have such minimal currency now, means that most of the quasi-religious conclusions premised upon the Declaration's references to God and/or divine providence are necessarily flawed in important respects.

The ostensible nature of God, as you've framed the issue above, is really a sidebar to the main event. There were compelling political reasons for citing the most supreme of supreme authorities, and for augmenting domain(s) of such authority, both moral and physical, relative to the domain of kings. So too, for positing a creator whose power to endorse, direct, judge or, most importantly, endow any and every man with unalienable rights vastly exceeds any power a mere king might claim to accord, direct or deny. The Declaration was not an affirmation of God's role in human affairs, it was the denial of such a role, and such legitimacy, to kings.
11.18.2008 8:12pm
Aleks:
I think this is a pretty far out extrapolation from an of-hand phrase. IMO, the Declaration is simply the first document in American Civic Religion-- God does exist and cares about the world which He made, but that's all we're going to say on the subject lest we provoke a theological fracas.
11.18.2008 8:20pm
frankcross (mail):
wooga, if rights come from God, there's no reason to think the Framers got his positions right. God might be a collectivist.
11.18.2008 8:58pm
Ricardo (mail):
However, if you reject the premise that rights originate from God, you must (is there a counter argument?) conclude that rights flow from the State. In that case, you would be pre-disposed to expanding the role of government, adopting a collectivist over individualist view.

To say that rights originate from God is quite different to say that rights "flow from the State" -- these aren't analogous statements. What does it mean to say rights originate from God -- will God stop a rights-violation in progress? If not, will He punish the offender in this life? Of course not. I suppose you could fall back on presumed punishment in the afterlife as an indicator for rights violations (as a necessary but not sufficient condition) but the Christian God will only punish those who haven't asked for forgiveness for their sins.

Cass Sunstein has defended the argument that rights do indeed flow from the State and those rights not enshrined in law are worthless. This strikes me as very wrong, though (Tom Palmer has a good rebuttal posted on www.tomgpalmer.com). If I have a right, that means "you shouldn't do that to me" -- it's an expression of morality. I think we have a right to not have people jump in line in front of us while waiting. This is a right that is respected and enforced through social norms, not through the state.
11.18.2008 9:15pm
Pazdispenser (mail):
JM Hanes -

Well done there. You have definitely broadened my perspective on this issue.

So, in 1776 the really radical aspect of the Founders' endeavor was, not only refuting the divine right of kings, but showing the world that that was imminently right. Ninety years later, A. Lincoln's radical propsition was the right of ALL men to be free from slavery. Fifty years later, even as Woodrow Wilson threw many of them in prison, the sufferagettes ultimately proved that there was no self-evident reason for women to be denied the right to vote. Thirty years hence, we see the further recognition in Brown v. BofE and the many subsequent legislative efforts that not race, nor sex nor creed should be used to keep an American from their right to all that life 'n liberty 'n happiness.

And, now we stand as a society where the radical proposition that two people of the same sex should also have equal protection to that happiness proposition has us all in a tizzy. However the various founding fathers viewed their creator (and as it has been noted, it wasnt just Church of England and puritan strains thereof, but Deists and Quakers to consider) in such desperate ways, that after getting over the shock of all that has transpired these past 230 years, they would surely say, "it is no more appropriate for Mormons and Catholics and African-American churches to decide on someone else's marriage, than it is appropriate for Evangelicals to press their prayers in public school or Orthodox Jews to insist Gentiles keep kosher, or Muslims impose Sharia on their community."

THIS is the radical notion of the American promise has it has been handed down to us today. Separating the church from the state was the radical proposition put forth in the DoI, and it is the radical notion all true Americans must commit to today.
11.18.2008 9:26pm
MarkField (mail):

The founders were essentially pitting their nascent form of governance against the divine right of kings.


The British had given up the divine right of kings theory in the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9. Thus, for example, Blackstone (Bk. 1, ch. 3) states "THE executive power of the English nation being vested in a single person, by the general consent of the people....THE grand fundamental maxim upon which the jus coronae, or right of succession to the throne of these kingdoms, depends, I take to be this: that the crown is, by common law and constitutional custom, hereditary; and this in a manner peculiar to itself: but that the right of inheritance may from time to time be changed or limited by act of parliament; under which limitations the crown still continues hereditary." (Slight editing for clarity; emphasis added.)

The Founders had no need to rebut the divine right argument with respect to George III, who made no such claim.
11.18.2008 9:32pm
traveler496:
I've always admired the poetry of the Declaration and (as a nonbeliever) pretty much ignored the God references when reading for meaning. But now that you force me to focus on the God references, I find the "endowed by Creator" passage difficult to ignore in good conscience, and my reaction is: Yikes, I'm glad that we have more than the Declaration to rely on by way of establishing our fundamental rights, because rights allegedly endowed to us by a nonexistent being aren't much of a leg to stand on.
11.18.2008 9:43pm
SC Public Defender:
Ha! MarkField wins the thread.
11.18.2008 9:54pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
FRB,

I've noticed American Vision has used BF Morris' book the "Christian Life and Character Civil Institutions of the US" as though somehow it "settles" the record. They sell their own version of the book but a free copy can be downloaded here. The book was written in the 19th Century and as such the original version is not protected by copyright.

Like a lot of works from that era, it is riddled with factual errors. History, like actual science, is an evolving science. In the modern era, we have much better access to the historic record. David Barton and others have hoodwinked a lot of religious conservatives into thinking there is a conspiracy among modern historians to "hide" or "revise" evidence of America's "Christian" Founding. There is probably a kernel of truth to his claim; historians have ideologies and biases and many modern historians view things through a secular leftist lens. However, the purely factual information you get from modern historians is more accurate than what you find in the 19th Century because we have better access to information and professional methods have advanced. You can make a similar analogy to medicine. There are many 19th Century medical doctors who might have been "good for their day" but would flunk out of medical school today.

I can show you misconduct of Jared Sparks, former President of Harvard University and premiere biographer and historian on the post-Founding era, that would utterly shock you. Celebrated biographer of George Washington made things up out of whole cloth about him. It was akin to the 18th Century practice of bleeding patients to help them get better.
11.18.2008 9:56pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Yikes. I meant to write "Celebrated biographer of George Washington, PARSON WEEMS, made things up out of whole cloth about him." Sparks himself was a celebrated biographer of GW. I wouldn't say he/Sparks "made things up out of whole cloth" on GW (though omitting Weems' name from my earlier makes it read as though I did). What Sparks did, by the way, was take a speech of George Washington's -- a proposed draft of his First Inaugural Address -- and ripped it up into pieces to give to various friends of his. The speech was not written in GW's hand but that of an aid. AND, GW didn't end up going with that speech. Both Madison and Sparks concluded (rightly) that the speech was odd and didn't well represent Washington's sentiments. And because of that Sparks felt free to tear it up into fragments and give to friends of his.
11.18.2008 10:01pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Mark Field,

The Founders still needed to rebut Blackstone's views about Parliament. As As Blackstone wrote on parliament: "It can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call it’s power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of parliament. True it is, that what they do, no authority upon earth can undo."

Gary North sums up the irony: “Blackstone was wrong: beginning eleven years later, the American colonies undid a lot of what Parliament had done.”
11.18.2008 10:15pm
David Warner:
MarkField,

"The Founders had no need to rebut the divine right argument with respect to George III, who made no such claim."

He claimed as much as he could get away with. See his later cousin Wilhelm for an idea just how much he might have claimed if not resisted by such as those who wrote the Declaration.

I'd go so far to say that it was the freedom of religion enjoyed by the English-speaking lands that allowed them to resist the 19th Century resurgence of the ancien regime. The continent, bereft of such freedom and pluralism, was not so fortunate.

The Scots/American Enlightenment differed in significant respects from the French, and thus also the German counter.
11.18.2008 10:18pm
MarkField (mail):

The Founders still needed to rebut Blackstone's views about Parliament. As Blackstone wrote on parliament: "It can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call it’s power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of parliament. True it is, that what they do, no authority upon earth can undo."


Agreed. Here, for example, is James Wilson speaking to the PA ratifying convention on November 26, 1787:

“There necessarily exists in every government a power from which there is no appeal; and which, for that reason, may be termed supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable. Sir William Blackstone will tell you that in Britain the power is lodged in the British Parliament; that the parliament may alter the form of the government; and that its power is absolute and without control. The idea of a constitution, limiting and superintending the operations of legislative authority, seems not to have been accurately understood in Britain. …. The British constitution is just what the British parliament pleases. …

To control the power and conduct of the legislature, by an overruling constitution, was an improvement in the science and practice of government reserved to the American States.

Perhaps some politician who has not considered, with sufficient accuracy, our political systems, would answer that, in our governments, the supreme power was vested in the constitutions. This opinion approaches a step nearer to the truth, but does not reach it. The truth is that in our governments the supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power remains in the People. As our constitutions are superior to our legislatures, so the people are superior to our constitutions…. The consequence is that the people may change the constitutions whenever and however they please.”
11.18.2008 10:32pm
Alligator:
wooga:

How are those rights defined? What are they?

John Locke has some ideas about this. Roughly put, we limit our rights in exchange for the benefits of living in a society. How and to what extent those rights are limited depends on the society.

To say your rights simply attach because you are human, without any reference to a 'giver' of such rights (be it the state or some divine power), there is no way to figure out what those rights are.

Until you limits your rights through society, your rights are unlimited. What else could they be? If you were the only person on earth, what right would you lack?

If the source is the state, we have a written record. If the source is God, we have 'revelation' of the rights. If there is no source other than 'being human', then how in the world do you get a 'right to keep and bear arms'?

The Second Amendment limits state action, it does not create a right. You have the right to keep and bear arms before you enter society, but you're the only one who can enforce it. Once you enter the American society, the Second Amendment ensure explicit protection so that (theoretically) there would be no question as to whether you limited that right by living in a society.
[Disclaimer: I have studied very little philosophy and only mention Locke's theory as a counter-example.]

FWB:

True but in the same discussion Madison and others stated they would leave control of religion, speech, and the press to the states.


I think the tax bill at issue in "Memorial and Remonstrance" was in the Virginia Assembly; "Report on the Virginia Resolutions" concerned the Alien and Sedition Act in Congress. I skimmed through the latter just now and didn't see any mention of allowing the states to regulate religion, speech and press. (Doesn't mean it's not there, just that I can't find the passage. It sounds familiar.) Even assuming that Madison thought the states could control religion -- and I think "Memorial and Remonstrance" proves he didn't -- his statements in "Report on the Virginia Resolutions" still show that his belief in the separation of religion and the federal government.
11.18.2008 11:04pm
ReaderY:
My understanding is that Thomas Jefferson's original draft ommitted such references. They were put in by Sam Adams &company, who thought the declaration should have religious references.

Many of the Framers were Deists, and many weren't. They weren't a mponolithic group.
11.18.2008 11:51pm
Randy R. (mail):
" In particular, Jefferson, who wrote "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever . . . ," seems to have conceived of God as judge, though perhaps one who executes his judgments through natural means. "

Considering the fact that Jefferson owned slaves, I don't think the was saying that God will judge him. I rather suspect that Jefferson thought that while there are grievances that HE holds against England, he is free to invoke the justice of God. But when others might have a grievance against Jefferson, he will likely claim that justice is for mortals to execute and plead for a separation of church and state.

In other words, like most people, he cooks the books in his favor.
11.19.2008 12:46am
Milhouse (www):
Randy, in that passage Jefferson was talking about slavery. And he explicitly wrote that he feared God would judge America for it.
11.19.2008 1:52am
◄Dave► (mail) (www):
I wrote a comprehensive essay on this very topic a year ago entitled "Sovereign Rights," where I unpack the famous passage in the DoI:
...Nevertheless, he and all of our founders were as accustomed to using religious flourishes in their everyday language as many of us still are today, particularly with our epithets.

Most modern Americans invoke deities in their speech several times a day and 99% of the time, they are neither thinking about a god, nor showing any reverence for one, usually quite the opposite. Just as our lively blasphemous oaths could be made godlessly without changing our meaning, though perhaps our passion, so could Jefferson’s famous passage.

I think the sentence can be fairly restated thus:
We freeborn Americans are sovereign individuals, each on par with King George III himself, with the inalienable right to live our lives as freemen, pursuing our own happiness, subservient to no one.
This way no “creator” is mentioned, yet it still enshrines the classical liberal concept they were expounding, that we Americans are born as free men and women, not the subjects, serfs, or slaves of any ruling entity...
I then go into some detail discussing word definitions, and explaining the nature of the sovereign individual in a republic. Some might find it interesting reading. ◄Dave►
11.19.2008 2:48am
a knight (mail) (www):
The Deism of the late 17th and 1st half of the 18th centuries encompasses a wide variation of theological viewpoints. Common ideas that seemed to run throughout the whole gamut of these were that: there is One God, not a Trinity, and that this God was never manifest outside of Natural Laws. ALL miracles are fantasies.

Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, so it seem proper to investigate what his religious beliefs were in order to understand the meaning of: "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God".

Jefferson's Deistic religious views were strongly influenced by Dr. Joseph Priestley. The first mention of Priestley I've discovered in Jefferson's Writings was in a letter to Tench Coxe, May 1, 1794 (Jefferson (ME), Vol. IX, pp 284-286); but he was almost certainly well-aware of Priestley's works before this time. Thomas Jefferson firmly believed that Christianity had been perverted with the dogma of Trinitarianism in the 3rd century A.D., and felt that Athanasius had been a villain in the purge of Arians. This is the schism that separated Jefferson's religion from almost the entirety of America's contemporary Christian sects. This was Jefferson's "God of Nature". Here's an example from one of Jefferson's letters:
"The blasphemy and absurdity of the five points of Calvin, and the impossibility of defending them, render their advocates impatient of reasoning, irritable, and prone to denunciation. In Boston, however, and its neighborhood, Unitarianism has advanced to so great strength, as now to humble this haughtiest of all religious sects; insomuch, that they condescend to interchange with them and the other sects, the civilities of preaching freely and frequently in each others' meeting-houses. In Rhode Island, on the other hand, no sectarian preacher will permit an Unitarian to pollute his desk. In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women. They have their night meetings and praying parties, where, attended by their priests, and sometimes by a henpecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus, in terms as amatory and carnal, as their modesty would permit them to use to a mere earthly lover."
Thomas Jefferson, Letter To Doctor Thomas Cooper, November 2, 1822; Jefferson (ME), Vol XV, pp 403-406

Here's another excerpt of a Jefferson Letter:
I hold the precepts of Jesus, as delivered by Himself, to be the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man. I adhere to the principles of the first age; and consider all subsequent innovations as corruptions of His religion, having no foundation in what came from Him. The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are, to my understanding, mere relapses into polytheism, differing from paganism only by being more unintelligible. The religion of Jesus is founded in the Unity of God, and this principle chiefly, gave it triumph over the rabble of heathen gods then acknowledged. Thinking men of all nations rallied readily to the doctrine of one only God, and embraced it with the pure-morals which Jesus inculcated. If the freedom of religion, guaranteed to us by law in theory, can ever rise in practice under the overbearing inquisition of public opinion, truth will prevail over fanaticism, and the genuine doctrines of Jesus, so long perverted by His pseudo priests, will again be restored to their original purity. This reformation will advance with the other improvements of the human mind, but too late for me to witness it.

Thomas Jefferson, Letter To The Reverend Jared Sparks, November 4, 1820; Jefferson (ME) Vol XV, pp 287, 288

Jefferson mentioned Athanasius several other times in his letters:
* Letter To William Canby, September 18, 1813; Jefferson (ME) Vol XIII; Pp 376-378
* Letter To Doctor Thomas Cooper, August 14, 1820; Jefferson (ME) Vol XV, pp 264-269
* Letter To John Adams, August 15, 1820; Jefferson (ME) Vol XV, pp 269-276
* Letter To Doctor Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822; Jefferson (ME) Vol XV, pp 383-385

John Adams was also a Deist, but not nearly the radical Jefferson was. He too believed that Athanasius had been a Christian heretic, yet at the same time did not wholeheartedly embrace Priestley, and at one time even compared their relative madness to each other. (John Adams, Letter To Thomas Jefferson, February, 1814; Jefferson (ME) Vol XIV, pp 104-111)

This is why the claim that America was founded as a Christian Nation is intellectually dishonest. There IS NO Christian gestalt; no one all encompassing umbrella theory that can cover all of the sects which claim to be Christian. The schisms are far too numerous, and spread across such great distances, that they can never be bridged. Unless someone can come up with a theory of One-Christianity which allows for the idea that the Trinity is analogous to the three-headed Dog God who guarded the gates of Hell in Greek/Roman mythology:
No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of Christianity; and was among the efficacious doctrines which gave it triumph over the polytheism of the ancients, sickened with the absurdities of their own theology. Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted from the Christian creed by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil government, wielded at the will of the fanatic Athanasius. The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs.

Thomas Jefferson, Letter To James Smith. Monticello, December 8, 1822.
11.19.2008 3:07am
a knight (mail) (www):
ohwilleke - No; late 17th and early 18th century Deism did not elevate Plato to a pedestal. In fact, many of the renown Deists of that time felt that he had perverted Socrates, and was a spiritualist. The music of the spheres, and the separation of the ideal from the real are two glaring examples of what they believed to be the blasphemy of Plato.
11.19.2008 3:18am
a knight (mail) (www):
Professor Volokh, I believe there is a better way to view the essence of "The Supreme Judge of The World".

Consider: "...a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."; and "To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world." The Supreme Judge of The World is mankind itself, not the god of Nature.
11.19.2008 3:29am
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
A Knight; I think a good question is whether what you've reproduced above from Jefferson qualifies as "Deism." It doesn't qualify as orthodox Trinitarian Christianity; but it still might not, arguably, qualify as "Deism" either. Case in point, Priestley believed the Bible was partially inspired and, surprisingly enough, believed the Book of Revelation to be inspired.
11.19.2008 7:45am
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

The Deism of the late 17th and 1st half of the 18th centuries encompasses a wide variation of theological viewpoints. Common ideas that seemed to run throughout the whole gamut of these were that: there is One God, not a Trinity, and that this God was never manifest outside of Natural Laws. ALL miracles are fantasies.


Adams certainly believed in some miracles as arguably did Franklin. Their spiritual mentor Priestley likewise believed in miracles, in particular Jesus' Resurrection. Though they believed in the unitarian view of the Resurrection. It was not of an Incarnate God making an infinite sacrifice for the sins of man. But rather God the Father doing for the most moral man what he might one day do for all good men, perhaps all men.

If Jefferson believed God never manifested himself outside of natural laws, then why did he seem to believe Jesus was on some kind of divine mission. The true Deists of the era thought Jesus was a fraud.

If Deism could be said to encompass "a wide variation of theological viewpoints," why couldn't we say the same thing about Christianity and simply define Jefferson's &Adams' creed as "Christian" (they were more likely to term themselves "Christians" not "Deists").
11.19.2008 8:05am
Brian S:
I had always understood that the natural law tradition was so named because it viewed morality as arising from man's nature - and that if you could sufficiently understand "man", you could deduce from your understanding the moral way for him to live.

This would mean that references to "nature's God" endowing men with rights does not necessarily imply anything beyond a Creator God, because the act of creation itself, by fixing man's nature, would be sufficient to establish the moral code by which we should live, if we could just understand our nature well enough to deduce it. If our nature is what underlies our morality, then we don't need what you could call a "historically active God", choosing some moment in time to make specific moral decisions and to communicate those decisions to someone on a mountaintop. All that work was done at the moment of creation.
11.19.2008 9:34am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
If we look at current public documents, the propensity to use some reference to the Deity is completely and utterly absent, despite the frequent reference to same in casual conversation.
So the idea that the FF used references to God as a place filler, or because they used it frequently in casual conversation and correspondence and for no other reason needs help.
They did, we don't?

If, on the other hand, it was pitched in to make the thing saleable, then we know that they thought their audience, the citizenry, would be impressed, which tells us, presuming they were right, about the citizenry of the time.

Since the DoI was ultimately sold, they must have judged their audience more or less correctly.

So, when considering whether this nation was founded as a Christian nation, it appears the FF thought the citizens thought so.
11.19.2008 9:46am
Bpbatista (mail):
Given the current state of church/state jurisprudence, is it unconstitutional to display the Declaration on public property and is it unconstitutional to require school children to study the Declaration?
11.19.2008 10:39am
MarkField (mail):
Richard, the estimates for such measures as church attendance in that time don't support any widespread devotion to religion in the period 1776-1800. The Second Great Awakening changed this dramatically, of course.

It's certainly true that the generalized references to "Nature's God" were intended as benign assurances to believers that nobody was an atheist and that all religions were considered beneficial (at least in Franklin's sense).
11.19.2008 10:46am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Mark. Prior to "Yankee Doodle", the budding army sang "Chester". So, while the folks sitting home may have sat home on Sundays, the folks out doing the heavy lifting had some different ideas.
If the citizenry were to be assured nobody involved in the DoI was an atheist, what religion(s) were the citizenry to presume the FF had, besides one or another view of Christianity?
In any event, the point that the DoI reflected current conversational habits is hard to support, since public documents do not, now.
11.19.2008 11:10am
Whadonna More:
J. Rowe, a knight, et al -

This gets my vote as the best VC comment thread since before the election season. Thanks.


EV -
God is thus not just Nature's God and the Creator, but also the "Supreme Judge of the world," to whom people may appeal to judge or witness "the rectitude of [their] intentions," and whose "Divine Providence" is said to "protect[]" them."

What's the lexical analysis that says Supreme Judge and Divine Providence are reference to a theistic god at all? They could be rhetorical-flourish synonyms for the Trinity, or they could be intentional ambiguity for the sake of the Unitarian, Quaker and Deists among the Congress.
11.19.2008 11:12am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Richard, the estimates for such measures as church attendance in that time don't support any widespread devotion to religion in the period 1776-1800. The Second Great Awakening changed this dramatically, of course.
There are different ways of evaluating the meaning of those figures. Because most colonies had established churches, for many people, not going to church was an expression of disapproval of being forced to fund a church with which they didn't agree. Patricia U. Bonomi's Under the Cope of Heaven makes the argument that religious sentiment was actually quite strong in the Revolutionary period, even if church attendance was not.

Significantly, most states had either constitutional or statutory requirements that one be a Christian (sometimes a Protestant) to hold office during and after the Revolution. Some, such as Pennsylvania's 1776 Constitution and the oath of delegates to the Delaware 1776 Constitutional Convention, required you to subscribe to a belief in the literal inerrancy of the Old and New Testaments. This doesn't sound the position that a bunch of people who didn't care much about religion would take.
11.19.2008 11:30am
Melancton Smith:
As pretty much an atheist, I've always read "Creator" to mean Nature.

I think they intended such a reading by their deliberate use of the word "Creator".

I am born with unalienable rights. Even animals understand that and defend their life with "red" tooth and claw. This is why self-defense rights cannot be infringed by the government.

Government certainly does not have authority to determine what constitutes a religious marriage. However, the terms of a state-recognized marriage perhaps fall within their purview.

"Marriage" is a term really overloaded. It represents a contract recognized by the state and can also have a religious connotation for those so inclined.

Regarding the source of rights...they by definition do not flow from the state. The Bill of Rights is misnamed. It is really a Bill of Government Limitations. Government agrees to not violate certain rights.

Government granted "rights" are really "privileges."
11.19.2008 11:49am
MarkField (mail):
There's no doubt that a public commitment to religion was essential for public office holders in this time frame. The question is how deep that commitment went in individual cases. We don't have good measures of that for most people, for the simple reason that no records survive. Church attendance is one way of getting at that problem, though there can be multiple reasons for failure to attend an established church. To the extent records exist of attendance at dissenting churches, those also don't support widespread church attendance at that time. Again, this changed dramatically beginning in about 1800.

Among the upper classes, where we do have some evidence of belief, it's fair to say that for most, religion was not terribly important to their lives (with some notable exceptions like John Jay). Religion was something polite people did, but one mustn't get too "enthusiastic" about it. Nor should one be an atheist; that was tacky.
11.19.2008 11:54am
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

Some, such as Pennsylvania's 1776 Constitution and the oath of delegates to the Delaware 1776 Constitutional Convention, required you to subscribe to a belief in the literal inerrancy of the Old and New Testaments.


I don't know off hand what happened to those provisions of Delaware's Constitution. I do know the story behind PA's. Quite interesting. By 1786 Ben Franklin as acting governor helped see it removed (it was replaced with a religious test that required simple belief in God). Benjamin Rush writing to Richard Price called the test a "stain" that needed to be removed from the American Revolution. When Franklin spoke of his disapproval of that religious test, he noted "that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration,..."

In other words Franklin as acting Governor of PA got rid of a religious test that he couldn't even pass. That should tell you something about the disconnect between the very heterodox religion of America's key Founders who wrote the Founding Documents (DOI and Constitution) and the more orthodox faith that was institutionalized at the state level.
11.19.2008 12:10pm
Alan P (mail):

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed


If God was the creator and arbiter of those rights, then why was a Government necessary to secure those rights? In fact, Jefferson recognized that these rights were not self effectuating but required Government to act, with the consent of the Governed, sometimes in ways that limited those rights.

I believe it is best to read the DOI as a simple legal brief for a breach of contract.

We have rights.

Governments exist to protect those rights.

This Government has acted in ways that are contrary to those rights against our consent.

Our obligations under our contract with the existing Government are no longer binding due to their breach.
11.19.2008 12:12pm
David Warner:
MarkField,

To borrow from a spirit kindred to that of the Founders, but from from a later era:

"I am not a pillar of the church but a buttress - I support it from the outside."

- Churchill

Like Churchill, there was a recognition that religion was of some fundamental importance to their lives in community, if not in isolation. To which religion, properly understood, would likely agree.
11.19.2008 12:18pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

There's no doubt that a public commitment to religion was essential for public office holders in this time frame. The question is how deep that commitment went in individual cases.
Agreed. But that these were legal requirements does suggest that religious sentiment was pretty strong among the population—or there would have been no perceived need for such tests.


Among the upper classes, where we do have some evidence of belief, it's fair to say that for most, religion was not terribly important to their lives (with some notable exceptions like John Jay). Religion was something polite people did, but one mustn't get too "enthusiastic" about it.
Remember that in the mid-19th century, "enthusiasm" was an insult. Christianity was still a fairly intellectual belief system at the time. Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From its Cultural Captivity has an interesting examination of how anti-intellectual captured American Christianity in the 19th century.

Nor should one be an atheist; that was tacky.
Even notorious freethinkers like Franklin don't seem to have been atheists; see his letter to Ezra Stiles shortly before Franklin's death in 1790.
11.19.2008 12:20pm
Dan Larsen (mail):
I ought to remind everyone that the Declaration of Independence was the work of a committee, not an individual. Thomas Jefferson's original draft was largely the deistic, non-religious document that some people claim the Declaration is. Most of the more overt religious references, particularly in the last paragraph, were added as amendments on the floor of the continental congress.

See here for Jefferson's original, with links to the committee of five's revision as well as the final draft:

http://www.duke.edu/eng169s2/group1/lex3/roughpl.htm
11.19.2008 12:21pm
trad and anon:
Who are these "many" who argue this, and why would anyone care? As a political document written by committee, the Declaration is a very poor guide to anyone's theological views. Insofar as it is a legal document, it has no contemporary force or effect.
11.19.2008 12:24pm
Randy R. (mail):
milhous: "Randy, in that passage Jefferson was talking about slavery. And he explicitly wrote that he feared God would judge America for it."

I know. So Jefferson seemed to think that somehow he was going to escape judgement?
11.19.2008 12:24pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Re Declaration as a committee document. Jefferson, Franklin and J. Adams comprised the majority of the committee and they more or less agreed a basic religious creed, i.e., there is an active Providential God, God is unitary not Triune, the Bible is not infallible, look to reason/nature as a trump and to the Bible to support the findings of man's reason not vice versa.
11.19.2008 12:34pm
random_computer_geek (mail):
The deists at the time of the Age of the Enlightenment appear to have been closer in ideologies to the agnostics of today. In some cases, maybe even shading into atheism ( "Question with boldness even the existence of a god." - Thomas Jefferson (letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787). Nature was used interchangeable with the idea of a first cause god that started the universe and then left it alone.

However, there appears to be little doubt that the FFs made a specific effort to keep a formalized theism (such as Christianity) out of the issues of state. As has be noted before, the Treaty of Tripoli specifically disavowed that the USA was Christian nation.

I think that the many permutations of God/Nature in the writings of the FF reflect the goal of The Enlightenment that reason was the source and basis of authority and the critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals . (Paraphrasing from the Wiki entry on the subject. It agrees with what I can recall from the few philosophy classes I took years ago as an engineering student and with reading I have been doing lately to help me better articulate to my daughters my thoughts regarding religion and god).
11.19.2008 12:42pm
a knight (mail) (www):
Jon Rowe, citations please.

Priestley, Joseph, and John Towill Rutt. 1817. The theological and miscellaneous works of Joseph Priestley. London: Printed by G. Smallfield. (Google Books)
The Introduction: Containing A View Of The Principal Arguments Against The Doctrines Of The Divinity And Prexistence Of Christ.

The question before the human race is, whether the God of Nature shall govern the world by His own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles? Or, in other words, whether authority is originally in the people? or whether it has descended for 1800 years in a succession of popes and bishops, or brought down from heaven by the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, in a phial of holy oil?

John Adams' Letter To Thomas Jefferson, June 20, 1815; Jefferson (ME), Volume XIV; pp 320-322
11.19.2008 12:44pm
just another commenter:
This is not on point re the Declaration or the Founders' view of God, but I nonetheless respond to the comment that


For one, the Biblical God grants no rights. The concept of unalienable rights is foreign to the Bible. The law of Moses represents the antithesis of political liberty; it governs virtually EVERY area of life.


This statement mistakenly equates "Biblical God" with "Old Testament God." The Old Testament view may have been very theocratic, governing all life, and so on.

But the New Testament has someone famous saying that we should render unto God that which is God's, and unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, which might be the earliest major statement of separation of Church and State.

Some of the NT letters also have parts that can be read to justify separation, too.

That leaves the "Biblical" position to have more room for debate, it seems to me.
11.19.2008 1:04pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Like I said Priestley believed in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth -- 100% human not God at all, but nonetheless a savior on a divine mission. J. Adams too believed in the resurrection and I'm fairly certain he was like Priestley a Socinian, as opposed to an Arian (who believed in a preexistent divine Jesus, but one who was created by and subordinate to God the Father; Richard Price whom Jefferson and Adams loved as well was an Arian and a friend of Joseph Priestley; look to Priestley and Price, not the strict deists for what the key FFs really believed).

But you can read Priestley's long sermon on the resurrection here.
11.19.2008 1:13pm
JM Hanes:
MarkField:

"The Founders had no need to rebut the divine right argument with respect to George III, who made no such claim."

I almost included a disclaimer about oversimplifying in the interest of brevity! Although I take your point, the Glorious Revolution played out differently in the various colonies, and Blackstone's theoretical substitution of Parliament for God, albeit within certain limits, was arguably as transitional as it was settled.

What is not moot, however, is that the Declaration was addressed to the attention of the world and that the founders did, in fact, explicitly pit themselves against the King, not Parliament, and the King's "history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states." Even if one were to stipulate that this was a form of political misdirection, the founders chose to mount their putatative assault on George III by trumping any and every manifestation of royal power with the rights of men -- rights which were superior and ultimately unalienable/inseparable by virtue of being both natural and divine.
11.19.2008 1:14pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Hanes is right. America's DOI directly inspired the French Revolution which was (if I am not mistaken) done in direct refutation of Divine Right of Kings.

Something interesting I've discovered is how many Americans (not just the Deists) were fervent Francophiles (expected, given the French were instrumental in securing victory against the British) and tried to justify and incorporate the principles of the French Revolution into their understanding of "Christianity." That is, until things started going haywire in France. After the dust settled folks started to understand the subtle but profound differences between the two Revolutions. They also realized that J. Adams and Burke were prophetic in opposing the French Revolution from the start.

But in the heat of the moment there was a revolutionary zeitgeist that saw the French Revolution as an ideological continuation of the American. Priestley and Price typified this where they argued the French Revolution would triumphantly usher in a "millenial republic" that fused Enlightenment republicanism with biblical theology.
11.19.2008 1:33pm
BillW:
"... the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God ..." — i.e. "... the Laws of Nature and [the Laws] of Nature's God ..." — seems to pretty clearly contemplate a "God who sets forth rules for human behavior".
11.19.2008 1:37pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
trad.
Wrong point.
Nobody is saying the DoI has some requirement that must be inserted into public policy.
The point is whether the DoI is an accurate indicator of the religious thought of the time. IMO, even if the FFs were all closet atheists, it looks as if they thought they needed references to the Divine in order to sell the DoI to the rest of the folks, which says something about whether the rest of the folks were believers.
11.19.2008 1:44pm
JM Hanes:
Pazdispenser:

"Ninety years later, A. Lincoln's radical propsition was the right of ALL men to be free from slavery."

A timely mention of Lincoln! We really have Lincoln to thank for the Declaration's status as American Scripture. It had lain gathering dust in obscurity for decades till he started casting about for a compelling way to to legitimize emancipation. Et voilá. Even folks who couldn't tell you the difference between the first and second amendments can tell you we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I personally, think the synergy (including a certain tension!) between the two documents is perhaps more uniquely American than either document taken on its own -- as are the discussions like the one that they prompt.
11.19.2008 1:44pm
JM Hanes:
Make that ***discussions like this one*** above.
11.19.2008 1:49pm
MarkField (mail):

Like Churchill, there was a recognition that religion was of some fundamental importance to their lives in community, if not in isolation.


That's probably fair.


But that these were legal requirements does suggest that religious sentiment was pretty strong among the population—or there would have been no perceived need for such tests.


The very fact that those tests phased out as a result of the Revolution also suggests that sentiment for any particular form of religion was not very strong. But yes, there certainly was a portion of the population for which religion was important and whom the test acts reassured.


the founders chose to mount their putatative assault on George III by trumping any and every manifestation of royal power with the rights of men -- rights which were superior and ultimately unalienable/inseparable by virtue of being both natural and divine.


I'd agree that they were asserting the Lockean view of the Glorious Revolution in the form of eternal truths, and (to take Jon Rowe's point) that this assertion was very helpful to the French revolutionaries. I think it remains accurate to say that they didn't need to assert divine claims against George III, because no one in England made any such claims on his behalf.
11.19.2008 1:49pm
MarkField (mail):
One more point on the general nature of religious belief in the period 1776-1800. As is generally true of other issues as well, the intensity of religious belief in the society at large goes through phases. The Founding era happened to be one in which religion played a generally less important role than it did before or after.
11.19.2008 1:51pm
JM Hanes:
MarkField:

"I think it remains accurate to say that they didn't need to assert divine claims against George III, because no one in England made any such claims on his behalf."

I think it's fair to say that they clearly felt the need to do so, since they did, in fact, do so. I also think it's fair to say that George III himself was not entirely convinced of the Blackstonian view, but I'd readily admit that's more quibble than counter to your basic point.
11.19.2008 2:15pm
JM Hanes:
MarkField:

Perhaps I should make it clear that I am not really disputing your description of the contemporary status quo with regard to royal/hereditary rights in England -- or even the idea that the Glorious Revolution paved the way for the American Revolution in many respects. I'm suggesting that's too narrow, and perhaps too retrospective, a lense through which to view the Declaration.
11.19.2008 2:31pm
Bob Van Burkleo (mail):
"... the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God ..." — i.e. "... the Laws of Nature and [the Laws] of Nature's God ..." — seems to pretty clearly contemplate a "God who sets forth rules for human behavior".

More for nature's behavior of which humanity is but a small part. And these laws are for us to discover and the 'holy texts' involve sciences not superstition. I mean I'm an atheist and I believe in metaphoric 'Laws of Nature and of Nature's God'. Comments like this have nothing to do with the mythic pantheons of magic sky fathers like Zeus, Odin, Jehovah and the like.
11.19.2008 2:31pm
MarkField (mail):
Jim, I think that if we're disagreeing it's at the margins. The way I see the DOI, it builds on Locke's theories, which were themselves based on natural law. I therefore see them as conventional expressions of the standard British viewpoint (something Jefferson himself suggested by describing the DOI as stating nothing new), rather than a pointed attack on divine right theory in, say, France or Russia.

That said, there's no doubt that the American Revolution was seen as more radical than the British and that monarchies in Europe opposed it very strongly for that reason.
11.19.2008 4:02pm
a knight (mail) (www):
Jon Rowe - thank-you; I've been reading Priestley here and there over the last month or so. I got curious about him through Jefferson's writings, and hadn't run into his mention of resurrection. It actually surprises me, and even he seems to admit that it doesn't square well with his theology. He went off the ranch here:
For this truth is of such a nature as to be incapable of strict, or mathematical demonstration, such as.that of twice two making four, but only of such proof as historical facts are capable of. But the evidence of a future state should not be undervalued on that account because there are no kinds of truth of which we have a more firm persuasion than of those of the historical kind; as for example, that such a person as Julius Cassar once lived at Rome, and that there exists at present such a city as Constantinople.

It's too bad that the text is such a poorly scanned volume. If I run across a better scanned version of this, I'll email you with the link.
11.19.2008 6:12pm
a knight (mail) (www):
Jon Rowe - In re: Early American Francophiles.

Revolutions in reality have a way of awakening individuals to the brutality of mob rule. Many American intellectuals were enthralled by Stalin in the 20's, only to flee in fear and renunciation as Trotskyists when news of the purges came to light. Sidney Hook is a good example for inflammatory use on this blog.

The Guillotine wielded by an incensed mob can dampen any reasonable person's revolutionary fervency. The storming of the Bastille must have released some very nasty individuals along with those unjustly imprisoned for political dissent.

That the American revolution did not devolve into a rampant chaotic mob vengeance against Tories throughout the colonies is in large due to the cool reflective minds of many American Founders, who understood that this would lead only to blood-feuds and incessant factional warring. The inability to strike across the Atlantic Ocean at their main object of hatred was also a factor.
11.19.2008 6:41pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Priestley's method and that of Price's was to put the Bible through the lens of man's reason. As such only those "reasonable" parts of the Bible were legitimately inspired. This is what Jefferson could respect about both of them (that plus "reason" led them all to deny the Trinity as "irrational"), that their "Christianity" was "reasonable" (in other words that "truth" had to meet the test of "reason").
11.19.2008 7:34pm
JM Hanes:
MarkField:

"The way I see the DOI, it builds on Locke's theories, which were themselves based on natural law. I therefore see them as conventional expressions of the standard British viewpoint...rather than a pointed attack on divine right theory in, say, France or Russia."

It seems to me that such a conclusion requires overweighting the language invoking natural law while simultaneously discounting the language invoking the divine. I see it as a both/and (dual imperative), not an either/or.

When it comes to Jefferson, I stopped taking anything he has said at face value long ago! The man was a politician to the core. Indeed, one of the most remarkable, and to my mind most engaging, things about him is that you can find a persuasive Jefferson quotation in support of almost any position on almost every side of almost any conceivable issue.

Thanks for the back and forth -- I did have to back up and review my Blackstone, a salutory exercise under any circumstances.
11.20.2008 12:50am
MarkField (mail):

When it comes to Jefferson, I stopped taking anything he has said at face value long ago! The man was a politician to the core. Indeed, one of the most remarkable, and to my mind most engaging, things about him is that you can find a persuasive Jefferson quotation in support of almost any position on almost every side of almost any conceivable issue.


Agreed. Jefferson is possibly the most fascinating American historical figure in part for this reason.
11.20.2008 11:02am
David Warner:
JM Hanes,

"When it comes to Jefferson, I stopped taking anything he has said at face value long ago! The man was a politician to the core. Indeed, one of the most remarkable, and to my mind most engaging, things about him is that you can find a persuasive Jefferson quotation in support of almost any position on almost every side of almost any conceivable issue."

Hmmm, reminds me of a certain President-elect...
11.21.2008 9:34am