Our Founding Fathers

On July 4, 11776, our founders declared in the Declaration of Independence: “we hold theses Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty,pursuits Pursuit of Happiness.”  With these words, they began the process of shaping a government that obtains its powers from “the Consent of the Governed.” The Constitution continues in a similar fashion, professing the desire of the people of the United States to “establish Justice”, and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” to ourselves and our posterity.”  These are powerful words, and the goals expressed in them have shaped this nation.  What kinds of men authored these documents?

When I read Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, her brief description of the philosophical and religious perspectives of our first Presidents intrigued me.  Albright’s own belief in religious tolerance may certainly impact her vision of our founding fathers.  Particularly pertinent is her belief that religion should not be  a source of conflict and hate.  It is reasonable that she focuses on similar attributes in our founding fathers.

What were the beliefs of the men who shaped these documents?  What is it that inspired George Washington and others to create our Constitutional form of government?  How is that these men created a government based on concepts of liberty, freedom and democracy?  What caused them to enact a Constitution that gave so much power and dignity to the common man?  Albright believes they considered themselves to be like the Israelites, guided by God through the wilderness, presumably to the promised land, the a United States.

Almost certainly, the vast majority of early colonial leaders were closely associated with clearly defined religious denominations: Primarily Congregationalists, Puritans, and Anglicans. In contrast are the less clear cut beliefs of a small group of pivotal individuals who took center stage as authors of the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.  Their letters and speeches suggest they were deep thinkers, wise and thoughtful, “primarily political–not spiritual theorists” who focused  on “civil concepts: democracy, liberty, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, jury trial, all of the fundamental rights we hold dear.”

Consistent with their own political and philosophical beliefs, these men were highly respectful of the wide scope of religious and philosophical beliefs found among the citizenry.  What do we know about their beliefs?  Their religious beliefs appear not to have been stagnant.  They grew and changed as they faced the challenges of building a nation.  Historians describe them as very religious, not very religious, atheists or Deists, depending at least in part on the perspective of the various historians who write about the, while relying on whatever quotes fits.  Without question, they seem to have believed that this new nation should welcome people of different beliefs.

Our first President, George Washington, often acknowledged the importance of a supreme being, while advocating “scrupulous support for religious tolerance” including “Mohametans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or Atheists”.  In Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, R.I., he wrote: “The government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  He made frequent references to a deity, nonetheless, ministers of his time, including the Rev. Bird Wilson, Episcopalian, and Rev. James Abercrombie, Rector of Washington’s church, described him as a “Deist”.  Certainly as Secretary Albright indicates, he was committed to the right of every citizen to worship “according to the dictates of his own conscience”, as he did himself.

Our second President, John Adams, is described by Secretary Albright as a Unitarian who considered liberty “a gift from God” and democracy “a creation of man”.  She describes him as having had little use for the concept of the Trinity.  A prolific writer in the area of philosophical and religious issues, his various writings provide little clarity as to his personal beliefs. Like Jefferson, his religious and philosophical views were intertwined.  His primary concerns appear to have been civil rather than religious.  As a statesman he was dedicated to religious tolerance. Treatises about him quote him as inconsistently stating both that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people” and in contrast that “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”  I wonder whether this statement was in response to world events of his time.  He expressed concern that people “are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority”, as demonstrated by “every page of the history of the whole world.” Almost certainly a reference to the French Revolution which occurred almost simultaneously with our own, but with a level of brutality we never experienced.

Albright describes Thomas Jefferson, our third President, as a student of science and ethics.  The controversial nature of his beliefs is evidenced by his opponents’ attacks against him, labeling him an atheist. His own words make this suggestion highly suspect. In his letter to Benjamin Rush, in 1800, he acknowledges God, stating: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  But he certainly ascribes to a very personal system of beliefs: “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any part of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself.  Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”  He had little good to say about Christian clergy, describing them as the “greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus”.  Ouch, my dad would loudly protest against any suggestion that his life’s work is an obstacle to the teachings of Jesus!!

Jefferson is the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.  He and George Mason, authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776.  In addition to codifying rights including freedom from excessive bond, separation of the powers of the three branches of government, the right to freedom of the press, and the right to jury trial, the document states that: all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience”; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Jefferson wrote respectfully of atheists in a letter to Thomas Law in June 1814: “If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him whence arises the morality of the Atheist? … Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”  In a speech to the Virginia Convention in June 1778, he proclaimed:  “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects…For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”  Finally he states: “Say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my God and myself alone.”  Letter to John Adams, January 1817.

James Madison, the fourth President, and often identified as the “Father of the Constitution” authored major sections of the Federalist Papers, advocating for the passage of the Constitution.  He was certainly one of the greatest champions of that document. Because his early expressions of his religious views are said to have varied greatly from his private statements late in his life, it is difficult to set forth a concise statement of those beliefs.  Early in his political life he described that the “democratic will” is subordinate to the commands of God, but clarified that those commands are “heard and understood in the individual conscience”. Advocating for the Constitution’s language on the separation of church and state, he stated that “Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance;…in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”  Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.  Madison spoke and wrote frequently on the issue of religious freedom. He authored Federalist Papers #51, in which he wrote a slight variation of his theme, stating that: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

 Last, but not least, of our best remembered colonial leaders is Benjamin Franklin.  Never a President, and always somewhat apart from the main stream even of the late 18th century, his thoughts about faith, only months prior to his death are witty and plain-spoken: “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe…That the soul of man is immortal…As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.”
What does it matter? It is apparent that they were respected by their peers, that they were able to define themselves as men of integrity who embraced people of good will where ever they found them.  Certainly, in forging a government of people from such varied backgrounds they were able to shape the original “big tent” of which President Ronald Reagan spoke.  But further, they constructed a government in which people were able to come together as equals, with the interests of the majority and the interests of the various minorities all considered and given worth.  They gave respect to the individual, created a government based democratic values and expectations of liberty.  Most important, they gave our citizens a Constitution and Bill of Rights that became the basis for a government that has thrived for over 200 years.  Sadly, they did not protect us from the inhumanity of  slavery or insure the equal treatment of women and minorities.  But over the course of U.S. History. the concepts of liberty, equality and justice have prevailed and these fundamental rights were extended to all citizens.
                                                                                          Out of Many, One
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Madeleine Albright–Reflections on Religious Diversity in Colonial North America

A good place to start a discussion of Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, is at the beginning.  For purposes of this post, a better place to start is page 16, page 44 in my e-book.  Here she begins her exploration of the religious differences of the earliest colonies.  This precedes  her exploration of the role of faith in the formation of our nation, the United States of America.  While much of my commentary is based directly on The Mighty and the Almighty, I explored some of her references to understand a little more indepth (I know, it is only a post!) the issues she raised.

Differences in Faith in Colonial America

U.S. History 101 teaches us that the Pilgrims came to the New World to escape persecution in Europe and to build better lives.  Secretary Albright focuses on the way the patterns of that migration, and the related early religious conflicts, impacted the development of the colonies.  It is apparent that the English, Dutch, Spanish, French and other colonists brought with them differing views of religion and that their beliefs, and the conflicts among them concerning their beliefs, helped shape the political landscape then and now.

1) The Puritans arrived in the New World fleeing religious persecution in England.  John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, left England in hopes of building a community that would be a model for “how to live a righteous life,” “escape God’s judgment on the corrupt churches of Europe” and find a refuge from poverty and overpopulation in England while spreading the gospel.   Despite persecution by Anglicans in England, his Puritan colony determined to exclude from full citizenship in their community all but a select view within their own faith.

2) Roger Williams was a theologian in England. Ordained into the Anglican church, he became a Puritan at Cambridge.  Forced out of England, he settled briefly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In 1636 he established Providence Plantation after being banished by the Puritans from Salem/Boston.  His transgression, in the eyes of the leaders of that community, was to oppose taking the lands of Native Americans without compensation and advocating for the separation of church and religious functions. He opposed slavery and advocated for freedom of religion for all groups–Jews, Papists and Mohammedans.  He specifically said about the treatment of Jews elsewhere “for whose hard measure, I fear, the nations and England hath yet a score to pay”.  Like-minded settlers and minority groups, joined him in Rhode Island where they found a safe haven.  (This is important to me because my ancestor, John Lewis, was a founder of Westerly, Rhode Island, formed in 1661.)  Williams is said to have established the first Baptist Congregation in the colonies.  Williams renounced the practice of taking land by force from Native Americans and, instead, entered treaties with them.

3) Reverend Thomas Hooker, a popular Puritan preacher, founded the Hartford Settlement in 1636.  He first came into conflict with other Puritan leaders when he opposed the decision of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to limit voting rights to an elite group within the Puritan faith. He drafted portions of Connecticut’s Constitution which declared the “God given” right of people to pick their own leaders.  On May 31, 1638, he presented a sermon in which he espoused the belief that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people” and declared that “God has given us liberty, let us take it.” He also attracted followers who settled portions of Connecticut.

4) William Penn, was born Anglican.  He became a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker) at age 22.  He was imprisoned in England for his beliefs, eventually relocated to the colonies, after authoring a “charter of liberties” for Burlington Settlement in New Jersey. The charter guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections. He eventually settled in Pennsylvania Province where he drafted a“Frame of Government” that addressed such rights as freedom of worship, trial by jury, free election, fair trial and fair taxes.  In addition to Quakers, the province attracted Amish, Jews, Huguenots, Mennonites and others. Penn, like Williams, befriended the Native Americans and bought his lands from them rather than taking land by force.

6) While not part of the original 13 colonies, and not a focus of Secretary Albright’s book, Catholics colonized the Southern states and California beginning with the founding of missions in the late 1400s Spanish missionaries and by French traders as early as the late 1600s.  Catholics were also among the founders of Maryland.  Identified as “papists” Catholics were subject to persecution in some colonies until at least the late 1700’s.

There is, of course, far more to this early history than I can presume to understand or to research for my brief summary.  But the ways in which the colonies formed, and the close proximity of these varied and sometimes conflicting religious communities impacted their lives and ours.  The tragedies of their time are truly that–tragedies: the introduction of slavery into the new world, the early wars with native American populations on the East Coast, and the Salem witch trials.  The great successes include, first and foremost, that the colonies became an incubator for the values important to us today: liberty, separation of church and state, freedom of religion and democracy that were nurtured and grew, for over 100 years before the “forging of one nation.”

Next:  From the wisdom of a few men, a great document. The United States Constitution.