Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Electoral College: Back To School

To many the system by which we choose the President of the United States seems confusing, overly-complex, old-fashioned and even unfair. I will be the first to admit that the current Electoral system is not perfect, but the republican (not the political party) principles behind it are. A simple National Popular Vote compromises those principles and thus I will never support that format. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not open to an amendment putting new, better ideas into practice. Although, by new ideas, I actually mean reviving “old ideas” posed and supported by the likes of Madison and Jefferson only decades after the Constitution was ratified.

“I am aware that some of these objections might be mitigated, if not removed; but not I suspect in a degree, to render the proposed modification of the Executive Department, an eligible substitute for the one existing. At the same time I am duly sensible of the evils incident to the existing one, and that a solid improvement of it is a desideratum that ought to be welcomed by all enlightened patriots.”
– James Madison to James Hillhouse, 17 May 1830

“On the subject of an election by a general ticket, or by districts, most persons here seem to have made up their minds.  All agree that an election by districts would be best, if it could be general…”
– Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 12 January 1800

What Madison and Jefferson were referring to was the process by which the individual states should choose their electors (aka, their electoral votes). The Constitution was never specific in that regard but instead let the state legislatures decide for themselves. Hence why, for example, Nebraska and Maine can split their electoral votes.

Even though various states have used various modes of electoral appointment over the years, currently (since the end of the Civil War) all states except for NE/ME appoint electoral votes via a statewide, winner-take-all “popular vote” (in 1800 language, “general ticket”).  That’s not the format many of the prominent Founders favored, but it unfortunately became a part of the American system due to political competitiveness. As Jefferson added “while ten States choose either by their legislatures or by a general ticket, it is folly and worse than folly for the other six not to do it,” i.e. everybody’s doing it!

So what Madison, Jefferson and the others suggested was a district system where a state’s Electors (electoral votes) were appointed through the winning of Congressional districts within each state.

“I agree entirely with you in thinking that the election of Presidential Electors by districts… The district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted…A constitutional establishment of that mode will doubtless aid in reconciling the smaller States to the other change which they will regard as a concession on their part. The States when voting for President by general tickets or by their Legislatures, are a string of beads; when they make their elections by districts, some of these differing in sentiment from others, and sympathizing with that of districts in other States, they are so knit together as to break the force of those geographical and other noxious parties which might render the repulsive too strong for the cohesive tendencies within the Political System.”
– James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823

In another letter, Madison again warns of some of the problems with “general tickets” (popular vote):

“If the election be referred immediately to the people, however, they may be liable to an excess of excitement on particular occasions. They will on ordinary occasions and where the Candidates are least known feel too little; yielding too much to the consideration, that in a question depending on Millions of votes, individual ones, are not worth the trouble of giving them. There would be great encouragement therefore for active partizans to push up their favorites to the Upper places on the list, and by that means force a choice between candidates, to either of whom, others lower on the list, would be preferred. Experience gives sufficient warning of such results.”
– James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

Hence, why he favored the district model:

“An election by Districts, instead of general tickets, & State Legislatures, and an avoidance of a decision by the House of Representatives voting by States, would certainly be changes much for the better…”
– James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

While many of the formally educated and armchair political scientists who presently advocate changing the electoral system would like to consider themselves modern geniuses, at least two of the most intelligent Founding Founders saw room for improvement to the system centuries ago. Not only did they quickly identify the previously unforeseen problem caused by a combination of democracy, factious competition and exploitation, but they just as quickly provided quite the fair and logical remedy. Following the advice of these two Founders would help perfect the electoral system, and thus further protect and promote the republican principles enshrined in the Constitution.

 

For more reading:

James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823

James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

James Madison to James Hillhouse, 17 May 1830

Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 12 January 1800

Wallbuilders Article on the Electoral College

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Deism – You Keep Using That Word

DeismReligiously Classifying America’s Founding Fathers

Part 2: Deism Defined

It would be impossible to determine the validity of the claims cited in the previous introduction to this series, without first establishing what the actual definition of the term”deism” constitutes. Most modern dictionaries similarly define deism as being something along the lines of:

“A religious belief holding that God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws but does not intervene in human affairs through miracles or supernatural revelation”[1]

“The belief in a single God who does not act to influence events, and whose existence has no connection with religions, religious buildings, or religious books, etc.”[2]

“A movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe.” [3]

“Belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism ). Belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.”[4]

Historian and professor Jon Butler has, for example,described deism as having “masqueraded as religion but was thoroughly irreligious” arguing that “Deists admitted the justice of religious claims, but they made religion irrelevant to contemporary life. The deists’ god was dead.”[5] Fellow historian and professor Gregg L. Frazer gives a slightly more accurate definition, referring to deism as “the primary expression of natural religion in the eighteenth century…a belief system on its own and a critique of Christianity” and that its essence was “the effective absence of God and the denial of any written revelation.”[6]  

Flaws in Frazer’s definition force him to have to create his own term, Theistic Rationalism,  to classify the more unorthodox Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton). Frazer refuses to consider any of these individuals to be, in even the slightest sense, Christians.  But he runs into a significant problem because by his definition, these men couldn’t be considered deists. If Frazer would have applied the more historically and practically correct definition, then he’d have struggled less. The various problems with Frazer’s means of classification and terminology will likely be addressed throughout this series, but for an excellent analysis of Frazer, see The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism by Bill Fortenberry.[7]

The most accurate approach to understanding the ideas intended to be communicated by a historical figure is to look at the definitions of the words used according to their historical context. Given how frequently the meanings and connotations of words change, a modern dictionary is not always a reliable source.  The earliest confirmed occurrence of an entry for the word “deism”in an English dictionary can be found in Edward Phillip’s  The New World of English Words. First published in 1658, the third-edition from 1720 defines deism as “the belief of those who only acknowledge one God, without distinction of persons.”[8]

In the 1726 edition of his An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (first published in 1721 with the final 30th edition published in 1802), fellow English lexicographer Nathan Bailey defined deism as:

“the Belief of those who, denying all revealed Religion, acknowledge only the Natural. viz the Existence of one God, his Providence, Virtue and Vice, the Immortality of the Soul. and Rewards and Punishments after Death.”[9]

Previous to his death in 1742, Bailey also published a second, but less popular, volume in 1727 closely titled  The Universal Etymological English Dictionary that contained additional words not contained in the first. In his initial volume and its later revisions, Bailey gave a simple definition for “deists” as  being “those who adhere to Deism.” However, in this second volume, which was intended to be more technical, he provided a subtly different but more enlightening definition for the word “deists”:

“a sect among the Christians of most or all denominations, who believe there is one God, a Providence, the immortality of the soul, virtue and vice, rewards and punishments: but reject revelation, and believe no more than what natural light discovers to them, and believe no other article of the Christian religion or any other.”[10]

Bailey’s second definition indicates that, during that time period, deists were considered as being a sub-classification within Christianity. These early definitions are nearly synonymous with the later terms non-Trinitarian and Unitarian which both came into more popular usage during the mid-late 18th Century in attempts to lump together the various sects of Christians who rejected the Athanasian Creed. Essentially, within the religion of Christianity, the first sub-classification would be into Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians (or Unitarians). Each of these two categories contained sects that eventually branched out further, for example the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches being the three main Trinitarian groups and the Arians and Socinians being the two main Unitarian groups.

As evidenced by Samuel Johnston’s A Dictionary of the English Language, the definition for deism had already starting shedding most of its inherent Christian influence by 1755. In his best-selling dictionary of the 18th Century, Johnston gave a simplified definition for deism, referring to it as being “the opinion of those that only acknowledge one God, without the reception of revealed religion.”[11]  This lack of descriptiveness in this definition might help explain why so many were incorrectly deists during the Enlightenment.

It would not be until the closing years of the Founding Era that a dictionary would again provide a more accurate definition for deism. Founder Noah Webster, in his 1828 work, the first edition of what would become the most popular line of American-English dictionaries in history, defined deism as being:

“The belief or system of religious opinions of those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny revelation: or deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to discover by the light of reason, independent and exclusive of any revelation from God. Hence deism implies infidelity or a disbelief in the divine origin of the [Christian] Scriptures.”[12]

Webster also made sure to differentiate between deism, theism and atheism writing that :

“[Theism is] the belief or acknowledgment of the existence of a God, as opposed to atheism. Theism differs from deism, for although deism implies a belief in the existence of a God, yet it signifies in modern usage a denial of revelation, which theism does not.” [13]

These definitions from Webster are the ones that should be considered the most historically and practically correct for what the word deism entails, as distinguished from theism (for our purposes, Christianity) and atheism. Though the word deism quickly lost its Christian roots, equally interchangeable words eventually came into usage that accurately describe what deism originally was intended to identify. Thus when henceforth referenced, the terms non-Trinitarian and Unitarian should and will be considered as being classifications within Christianity, albeit with doctrinal distinctions being addressed.

By using these correct definitions, this series will reasonable demonstrate that while not every American Founding Father can be classified as an orthodox Christian, none but an extremely small minority can be considered as adherents of deism.

Previous In This Series: Introduction           |       Up Next In This Series: Christianity Defined

Notes:

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2013)
  2. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster Inc., 2014)
  4. Random House Dictionary (Random House, Inc. 2013)
  5. Jon Butler, Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, edited by Richard D. Brown (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000) “Was There a Revolutionary Millennium?” p.333
  6. Gregg L. Frazer, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall and Jeffry H. Morrison (Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2009) “Alexander Hamilton, Theistic Rationalist”, p. 105
  7. Bill Fortenberry, The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism (Increasing Learning) online
  8. Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words (London: 1720) p. 210, online
  9. Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1726) p.222, online
  10. Nathan Bailey, The Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1731) p.227 online
  11. Samuel Johnson and John Walker, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: William Pickering, Chauncey Lane; George Cowie & Co. Poultry, 1775)  p.190 online
  12. Noah Webster,American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) online
  13. Ibid. entry for “theism” online
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The Founders – Christians or Deists?

Religiously Classifying America’s Founding Fathers

Part 1: An Introduction

One of the most historically damaging and intellectually dishonest historical narratives promoted in the modern era is the claim that most or all of the American Founding fathers were adherents of deism. This introduction will be the first in a multi-part series of articles intended to help restore the factual historical narrative surrounding the religiosity of various individual American Founding Fathers.

There is a two-part cause behind this popularly accepted but factually incorrect narrative: 1.) the theological illiteracy of many modern observers, which often helps lead to 2.) the failure to define and properly use religious terminology.

It would prove very difficult for a sports-broadcaster to provide insightful commentary on a baseball game if they had never played or even watched the sport. It would be even worse if the broadcaster spent the majority of his career providing commentary for amateur figure-skating competitions. Regardless of whether or not the observer personally adheres to the religion of Christianity, they should at the least know the very basic doctrines of the religion if they are to analyze its place throughout American History.

Over the past century and aside from those few who specialize in the study of religion in the Founding Era, not many scholars or laymen (non-Christians and Christians alike) have seemed to display a solid command of the historical development of Christianity  in America. This should seem a bit unexpected, considering that the religion was the most popularly held in the United States in the Founding Era and remains as such today. Moreover, even less seem to understand the religious nature of deism during the time period commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. [1]

An insufficient knowledge of the basics of Christianity and the development of religious thought in the Western World during the 16th-18th Centuries tends to lead observers to use improper terminology when trying to communicate their analyses. While so many use the term deism, very few know what the term actually means in its historic context. When an observer does not possess a firm comprehension of the actual differences between Christianity and deism, they will struggle with correctly applying the terms. Herein lies the most problematic cause of the popular claim that most, if not all, of the Founders were deists.

Whether coming from the pen of a Christian or non-Christian, the following comments from some well-known historians, best-selling authors, professors and amateur writers/bloggers should help provide just a small sample of the extent to which this false narrative has seeped into the minds of the American populace:

“It is true that many of the distinguished political leaders of the Revolution were not very emotionally religious. At best, they only passively believed in organized Christianity, and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it. Most were deists or lukewarm churchgoers and scornful of religious emotion and enthusiasm.”[2]

“The Founding Fathers were at most deists… [and] were a very thin veneer on their society.”[3]

“The early presidents and patriots were generally deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the relevance of the Bible.”[4]

“The primary leaders of the so-called founding fathers of our nation were not Bible-believing Christians; they were deists. Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution.” [5]

“…the Founding Fathers were on the whole deists who had a very abstract conception of God, whose view of God was not a God who acted in the world today and manipulated events in a way that actually changed the course of human history.” [6]

“[The Founders] were Deists who did not believe the Bible was true. They were Freethinkers who relied on their reason, not their faith.” [7]

The next two articles in this series will separately look at how the terms “deism” and “Christianity” have been defined in the past and how they should be defined when classifying the Founders. The remainder of this series will feature several articles, each of which being devoted to determining how to religiously classify either a single individual or set of individuals from amongst the extensive group of Founding Fathers. When analyzing each Founder, two questions will be asked: 1.) was this Founder a deist? 2.) if not a deist, to what level of theistic Christian orthodoxy did they hold?

Up Next In This Series: Deism – You Keep Using That Word

Notes:

  1. See for example: Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America; Geoffrey R. Stone, The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?; Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America; Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By; Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity; David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers; Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers; Chris Rodda, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History; Isaac Kramnick, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State; Chris Pinto, The Hidden Faith of the Founding Fathers
  2. Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution. (New York: The Modern Library, 2002) p.129
  3. Gordon S. Wood,”The Radical Revolution,” American Heritage (December 1992 issue) p.52
  4. Steven Morris, “America’s Unchristian Beginnings,” The Los Angeles Times (August 3, 1995) p.B-9
  5. Tim Ferrell, “The Christian Nation Myth,” The Secular Web (Infidels Inc., 1999) online
  6. Jon Butler, “An Interview with Jon Butler … Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”(Interviewed by Rick Shenkman) online
  7. Ken Harding, “Our Founding Fathers Were Not Christians” (BibleTrash.com) online
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