Noah Webster Calls the United States an "Empire of Reason"
Jonathan Rowe printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Sep 23, 2007 at 12:25:34 PM EST
Noah Webster is one of the "Christian Nation" crowd's favorite founders to quote, because in the 19th Century, many of his words seem to support their ideal. Yet, as Tom Peters noted on this page, almost all of those quotations come from after 1808 when "Webster underwent a profound religious conversion that changed both his politics and his religious outlook." He "bec[a]me[] skeptical of democracy, distrustful of government, and far more sympathetic to an alliance between church and state."

Before that time, most importantly when the US Constitution was being framed and ratified, he supported separation of church and state along the lines of Madison's and Jefferson's understanding of the concept.

I've never studied Webster's religious beliefs in detail. I know that in the 1800s when he was saying the things that David Barton et al. like to quote, he was a devout orthodox Christian. Perhaps his political change of mind was precipitated by a bona fide religious change of mind and before that he was, like America's key founders, a theistic rationalist.

Besides the writers of Federalist Papers, a number of notable founders, including Webster, explicated their understand of the meaning of the Constitution's text, and the Liberty Fund reproduces much of these writings. The evidence from these contemporaneous sources shows the Bible/Christian principles were little on the mind of the men who framed the Constitution at the time of the framing. I wouldn't sweep too far and assert the Bible/Christianity had no influence. The founders operated in a culture where churches played an important role and where the Bible/the Christian religion shaped morals, language, and literature for one thousand and several hundred odd years. Simply, I assert the founders did not view themselves as inspired Christians, looking primarily to the Bible to construct a "Christian Nation." This is an historical fiction, not taken very seriously in the academy, but damaging the minds of many in the home schooled crowd.

Harvard Professor Bernard Bailyn in his masterful study of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution identifies the following principle philosophical sources of America's founding (note, he stresses these as sources of America's Revolution, and though some differences may exist between the thought that produced the Revolution and that which produced the US Constitution, I have concluded that Bailyn's analysis generally applies to America's founding overall, that indeed it perfectly encapsulates American-Whig-republican thought of that era): 1) Biblical/Christian principles; 2) Classical/Greco-Roman principles; 3) English common law principles; 4) Enlightenment rationalist principles; and these 4 seemingly disparate strands of thought were synthesized in a vast body of preexisting literature by 5) British Whig-dissenters like Milton, Sidney and Locke from the earlier era, and Priestly, Price and Burgh who were contemporaries of America's founders. These British Whigs and America's founders were Enlightenment thinkers and as such they viewed Enlightenment rationalism or "man's reason" as the ultimate lens (or ultimate trump) through which all principles were to be viewed.

Now, this thought did have theological implications, and almost all of the thinkers were theists of some sort. However, the theology that best complemented the synthesis was not orthodox Christianity, but theistic rationalism. That's why Gregg Frazer refers to it as The Political Theology of America's Founding (the title to his Ph.D. thesis).

In any event, the following from Noah Webster pontificating on the principles of the US Constitution perfectly illustrates Bailyn's analysis. He refers to the Constitution as establishing an "Empire of Reason." It doesn't get any clearer than that that Webster believed Enlightenment or man's reason provided the ultimate foundation for the new United States of America. Webster views Judeo-Christianity as just another ideological source from which man's reason can pick the "rational" parts, and places Moses along side a pantheon of pagan law givers like Fohi, Confucius, Solon, Lycurgus, Numa, Mango Capac, Zamolxis and Odin. The entire thing is well worth reading. The following is just the introduction:

Of all the memorable eras that have marked the progress of men from the savage state to the refinements of luxury, that which has combined them into society, under a wise system of government, and given form to a nation, has ever been recorded and celebrated as the most important. Legislators have ever been deemed the greatest benefactors of mankind--respected when living, and often deified after their death. Hence the fame of Fohi and Confucius--of Moses, Solon and Lycurgus--of Romulus and Numa--of Alfred, Peter the Great, and Mango Capac; whose names will be celebrated through all ages, for framing and improving constitutions of government, which introduced order into society and secured the benefits of law to millions of the human race.

This western world now beholds an era important beyond conception, and which posterity will number with the age of Czar of Muscovy, and with the promulgation of the Jewish laws at Mount Sinai. The names of those men who have digested a system of constitutions for the American empire, will be enrolled with those of Zamolxis and Odin, and celebrated by posterity with the honors which less enlightened nations have paid to the fabled demi-gods of antiquity.

But the origin of the AMERICAN REPUBLIC is distinguished by peculiar circumstances. Other nations have been driven together by fear and necessity--the governments have generally been the result of a single man's observations; or the offspring of particular interests. IN the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected--the legislators of antiquity are consulted--as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, in it an empire of reason.




Display:
And most early American politicians held at least nominal church membership, along with their acceptance of 18thC rationalism. The Barton types have no clue that Nature's God just started the clocks running and did not become involved in managing the time. And, they will not acknowledge the impact of the Enlightenment on early American political thought because to do so would damage their cause. The Barton types tie themselves to the founding even though Christian fundamentalism as it is practiced today did not exist at the time. Wow, Bailyn . . . Ideological Origins is interesting reading.

by gertrudes on Tue Oct 02, 2007 at 07:55:01 PM EST
I think you are right that the fundamentalism of Barton didn't quite exist back then as it does now; you hardly hear anyone from that era talk about being "born again."  However, the Calvinism that was socially and legally entrenched from the Colonial era may have been pretty close to it.  Other than that, the closest connection evangelicals and Catholics can make to the founding era religion is the broad rubric of "orthodox Trinitarian" Christianity.

by Jonathan Rowe on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 09:05:09 AM EST
Parent


Colonial Calvinism looks quite a bit like much of what we see from some fundamentalists today, particularly the D. James Kennedy sort. The fundamentalist movement, as such, did not appear until the late 19thC and the current movement still generally follows its anti-intellectual and anti-modern beliefs. However, I have always thought that Christian fundamentalism in the US has antecedents in the early 19thC with the wide-spread rise of evangelicalism with all its emotional appeal, particularly in the south. Much like fundamentalism of the present, early and mid 19thC southern evangelicalism contained strong anti-intellectual, anti-reform, and literalist, elements (see John Boles, though, as most historians of 19thC US religion, Boles rejects using the term "fundamentalist" to describe antebellum evangelicals). I have seen early and mid 19thC references to "second birth" and "second birthday" and the idea of conversion via a demonstrable experience was important to many 19thC evangelicals. Even assuming the shift away from reason to Romanticism and eventually the goo of Victorian popular culture account for some of the fundamentalist style elements of earlier evangelicalism, I am very divided on when I think fundamentalism was really born. I enjoy your entries. Interpretation is a wonderful thing.

by gertrudes on Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 06:17:56 PM EST


WWW Talk To Action


Cognitive Dissonance & Dominionism Denial
There is new research on why people are averse to hearing or learning about the views of ideological opponents. Based on evaluation of five......
By Frederick Clarkson (290 comments)
Will the Air Force Do Anything To Rein In Its Dynamic Duo of Gay-Bashing, Misogynistic Bloggers?
"I always get nervous when I see female pastors/chaplains. Here is why everyone should as well: "First, women are not called to be pastors,......
By Chris Rodda (95 comments)
The Legacy of Big Oil
The media is ablaze with the upcoming publication of David Grann's book, Killers of the Flower Moon. The shocking non fiction account of the......
By wilkyjr (58 comments)
Gimme That Old Time Dominionism Denial
Over the years, I have written a great deal here and in other venues about the explicitly theocratic movement called dominionism -- which has......
By Frederick Clarkson (62 comments)
History Advisor to Members of Congress Completely Twists Jefferson's Words to Support Muslim Ban
Pseudo-historian David Barton, best known for his misquoting of our country's founders to promote the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation,......
By Chris Rodda (59 comments)
"Christian Fighter Pilot" Calls First Lesbian Air Force Academy Commandant a Liar
In a new post on his "Christian Fighter Pilot" blog titled "BGen Kristin Goodwin and the USAFA Honor Code," Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan......
By Chris Rodda (79 comments)
Catholic Right Leader Unapologetic about Call for 'Death to Liberal Professors' -- UPDATED
Today, Donald Trump appointed C-FAM Executive Vice President Lisa Correnti to the US Delegation To UN Commission On Status Of Women. (C-FAM is a......
By Frederick Clarkson (80 comments)
Controlling Information
     Yesterday I listened to Russ Limbaugh.  Rush advised listeners it would be best that they not listen to CNN,MSNBC, ABC, CBS and......
By wilkyjr (57 comments)
Is Bannon Fifth-Columning the Pope?
In December 2016 I wrote about how White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who likes to flash his Catholic credentials when it comes to......
By Frank Cocozzelli (117 comments)
Ross Douthat's Hackery on the Seemingly Incongruous Alliance of Bannon & Burke
Conservative Catholic writer Ross Douthat has dissembled again. This time, in a February 15, 2017 New York Times op-ed titled The Trump Era's Catholic......
By Frank Cocozzelli (44 comments)
`So-Called Patriots' Attack The Rule Of Law
Every so often, right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan lurches out of the far-right fever swamp where he has resided for the past 50 years to......
By Rob Boston (58 comments)
Bad Faith from Focus on the Family
Here is one from the archives, Feb 12, 2011, that serves as a reminder of how deeply disingenuous people can be. Appeals to seek......
By Frederick Clarkson (129 comments)
The Legacy of George Wallace
"One need not accept any of those views to agree that they had appealed to real concerns of real people, not to mindless, unreasoning......
By wilkyjr (21 comments)
Betsy DeVos's Mudsill View of Public Education
My Talk to Action colleague Rachel Tabachnick has been doing yeoman's work in explaining Betsy DeVos's long-term strategy for decimating universal public education. If......
By Frank Cocozzelli (39 comments)
Prince and DeVos Families at Intersection of Radical Free Market Privatizers and Religious Right
This post from 2011 surfaces important information about President-Elect Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. -- FC Erik Prince, Brother of Betsy......
By Rachel Tabachnick (117 comments)

Respect for Others? or Political Correctness?
The term "political correctness" as used by Conservatives and Republicans has often puzzled me: what exactly do they mean by it? After reading Chip Berlin's piece here-- http://www.talk2action.org/story/2016/7/21/04356/9417 I thought about what he explained......
MTOLincoln (148 comments)
Fear
What I'm feeling now is fear.  I swear that it seems my nightmares are coming true with this new "president".  I'm also frustrated because so many people are not connecting all the dots! I've......
ArchaeoBob (52 comments)
"America - love it or LEAVE!"
I've been hearing that and similar sentiments fairly frequently in the last few days - far FAR more often than ever before.  Hearing about "consequences for burning the flag (actions) from Trump is chilling!......
ArchaeoBob (71 comments)
"Faked!" Meme
Keep your eyes and ears open for a possible move to try to discredit the people openly opposing Trump and the bigots, especially people who have experienced terrorism from the "Right"  (Christian Terrorism is......
ArchaeoBob (86 comments)
More aggressive proselytizing
My wife told me today of an experience she had this last week, where she was proselytized by a McDonald's employee while in the store. ......
ArchaeoBob (89 comments)
See if you recognize names on this list
This comes from the local newspaper, which was conservative before and took a hard right turn after it was sold. Hint: Sarah Palin's name is on it!  (It's also connected to Trump.) ......
ArchaeoBob (96 comments)
Unions: A Labor Day Discussion
This is a revision of an article which I posted on my personal board and also on Dailykos. I had an interesting discussion on a discussion board concerning Unions. I tried to piece it......
Xulon (94 comments)
Extremely obnoxious protesters at WitchsFest NYC: connected to NAR?
In July of this year, some extremely loud, obnoxious Christian-identified protesters showed up at WitchsFest, an annual Pagan street fair here in NYC.  Here's an account of the protest by Pagan writer Heather Greene......
Diane Vera (50 comments)
Capitalism and the Attack on the Imago Dei
I joined this site today, having been linked here by Crooksandliars' Blog Roundup. I thought I'd put up something I put up previously on my Wordpress blog and also at the DailyKos. As will......
Xulon (70 comments)
History of attitudes towards poverty and the churches.
Jesus is said to have stated that "The Poor will always be with you" and some Christians have used that to refuse to try to help the poor, because "they will always be with......
ArchaeoBob (59 comments)
Alternate economy medical treatment
Dogemperor wrote several times about the alternate economy structure that dominionists have built.  Well, it's actually made the news.  Pretty good article, although it doesn't get into how bad people could be (have been)......
ArchaeoBob (48 comments)
Evidence violence is more common than believed
Think I've been making things up about experiencing Christian Terrorism or exaggerating, or that it was an isolated incident?  I suggest you read this article (linked below in body), which is about our great......
ArchaeoBob (83 comments)
Central Florida Sheriff Preached Sermon in Uniform
If anyone has been following the craziness in Polk County Florida, they know that some really strange and troubling things have happened here.  We've had multiple separation of church and state lawsuits going at......
ArchaeoBob (51 comments)
Demon Mammon?
An anthropologist from outer space might be forgiven for concluding that the god of this world is Mammon. (Or, rather, The Market, as depicted by John McMurtry in his book The Cancer Stage of......
daerie (69 comments)
Anti-Sharia Fever in Texas: This is How It Starts
The mayor of a mid-size Texan city has emerged in recent months as the newest face of Islamophobia. Aligning herself with extremists hostile to Islam, Mayor Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas has helped......
JSanford (54 comments)

More Diaries...




All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. Comments, posts, stories, and all other content are owned by the authors. Everything else 2005 Talk to Action, LLC.