On Thursday, I’ll be in conversation with Dr. Keisha Blain, a New York Times bestselling author, about her new biography on Fannie Lou Hammer, Until I Am Free. (ICYMI: I talked about You Never Forget Your First at the Alexandria Library. )
I try to limit my intake of obvious misrepresentations about the founding era, and in particular, lazy ones favored by politicians and their enablers. I really do! But I’m rarely successful at it, and this weekend was no exception.
In “The Conservatives Dreading—And Preparing—for Civil War,” Atlantic journalist Emma Green is in conversation with Ryan Williams, president of the Claremont Institute, “the intellectual home of America’s Trumpist right.” (The word intellectual is used twice in this piece. Intellect is “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract or academic matters.” That does not describe the subject of the article.) Green questions the role of race in this alleged forthcoming war “because the people in [Williams’] orbit spend lots of time opposing progressive programs.” But she never questions an erroneous claim Williams makes to establish a precedent.
Green’s response? “Writing in the Claremont universe often has a dire tone to it….are you guys, like, stockpiling weapons?” She moves on. Twice. Green includes the quote in her introduction. The prevarication is left behind, unchallenged on a respected publication, lending it “pretty unanimous” authority.
I’d love to see Washington frenemy James “Father of the Constitution” Madison react to Williams’ claim that “Washington [was] leading the way” when it came to the Constitution. And I doubt Washington, the subject of my last book, would be pleased with it, either. He gave up power after the Revolution because he didn’t want the infant nation to rely on a religious or military leader any more than a king. Washington didn’t even want to attend the Constitutional Convention, but the North and South were already fighting. The General from Virginia was a powerful symbol of national unity, so he gave into the founders’ peer pressure and presided over the Constitutional Convention from a raised platform, where he said very little.
If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.
The salutations of the Clergy of the Town of Newport on my arrival in the State of Rhode Island are rendered the more acceptable on account of the liberal sentiments and just ideas which they are known to entertain respecting civil and religious liberty….the families of these States may enjoy peace and prosperity, with all the blessings attendant on civil and religious liberty.”
May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Washington sent many letters assuring Americans of their religious freedom. I could keep citing primary sources, but the real issue here is that Ryan Williams didn’t, and he wasn’t asked to. Spoiler: He can’t. It’s possible that he’s confused the Declaration of Independence, which argues that men had basic rights “endowed by their Creator,” with the Constitution of the United States, which makes no references to a deity. But don’t take my word for it. Search the National Archives transcription of the Constitution for “God,” “Creator,” or “Christian”—no results. If the founders had wanted religion in there, they could have established a national religion—a norm in the era—but they did not. It would only cause Americans to “vex and oppress each other,” James Madison wrote.
If Green had googled Williams’ assertion, she would have likely found a great quote from the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli (now Libya), which ensured American commercial shipping rights and safe passage in the Mediterranean:
As the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on a Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims); and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The founders’ are all over that treaty. Washington, the progenitor, tasked a former aide de camp, David Humphreys, to negotiate it; John Adams, president by the time it was completed, signed it; the Senate unanimously (as in all of them) ratified it.
Green pursues Williams’ alarmist conception of the future to dominate, asking if “America can hang together in 2021 without Christianity at its core.” Again, let’s get back to basics. Remember those 13 colonies? They were settlements of the British, a Christian nation, but when Americans declared independence, church membership declined. After the Revolution, America became the first country to abolish religious requirements for holding office. Monetary contributions to local parishes were made voluntary. “(I)t does me no injury for my neighbor to believe in twenty gods or no God,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Many of the founders were culturally Christian, which Williams, and wishful thinkers like him, have long had a hard time processing. In the 19th century, Americans craved a national identity, and demographically, they were dominated by Christianity. (“One nation under god” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, as historian Kevin Kruse explores in a book with the same name.)
If we’re hewing close to the archives, it’s clear that the framers didn’t rely on Christian principles when drafting the Constitution. Their words, their actions, and their public responses and participation in political events demonstrated a “pretty unanimous” commitment to a secular-based form of government—full stop.
I could expand on the more nuanced topic of civic virtue, but I’m afraid we have to turn to Fox News.
“Your state of Wyoming is one of the states that benefits most from the increase in the child tax credit,” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace lamented on Sunday after his guest, Republican Senator John Barrasso, offered vague and contradictory reasons for opposing President Joe Biden’s social policy spending bill. It calls for an expansion of the child tax credit, as did President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which Barrasso supported. But his party isn’t in power, so the Republican Senator insists “Joe Biden’s policies have been hurting the people of Wyoming,” and far worse.
“You called the reconciliation bill a freight train to socialism,” Wallace pointed out. “You and all of the Republicans were refusing the normal course—the bipartisan passage of raising the debt limit. So I guess the question to you and a lot of Republicans is are you viewing these issues on the merits or are you just playing partisan politics?”
Barrasso attempted a hollow association with Early America, insisting Biden’s policies in opposition to “the way our country was founded.” But the country was founded with legalized slavery; women and children had few rights. Biden’s policies can be described as in opposition to that, too.
If Barrasso read almost any book on the founding era, he would encounter George Washington’s Farewell Address. When Washington left the presidency, he denounced political parties as America’s “worst enemy.” He refused to publicly affiliate himself with one while in office, predicting the very “baneful effects” that have played a role in the Big Lie, the January 6th insurrection, and Republican intransigence. Parties, he said, would cultivate “the spirit of revenge” and enable the rise of “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” who will “usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
I don’t expect Williams, Barrasso, or Green to have a historian’s understanding of the founding era, or any other in American history. But I do expect evidence—a quotation, a title of a book— for claims made about it. And they should too.
ON A RELATED NOTE:
ON A RELATABLE NOTE:
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