Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Role of Religion in Birthing the American Revolution

I have repeatedly written on my understanding of Princeton's thoughtleadership and the American revolution. With that in mind I would like to compare my understanding with those of some contemporary and popular historians.  Miles S. Mullin, II helps us limit the scope of this comparison to a few people:
'Albeit with greater quality, effectiveness, and persuasiveness, historian Thomas Kidd offers a similar corrective, while Richard Bushman, Nathan Hatch, and Rhys Isaac and others have demonstrated the crucial role that religion played in birthing the revolution.'
So, let's start with Thomas Kidd who mentioned John Witherspoon in a blogpost on the Top Five Forgotten Founder, claiming:
'The best book on Witherspoon is Jeffry Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic.'
In a review of this book by Bradley J. Longfield in the Journal of Law and Religion we read:
'In his lectures on moral philosophy, Witherspoon became the chief conveyor to America of the moral system of Francis Hutcheson and the Scottish Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart.'
If this is what Bradley J. Longfield learns from Jeffry Morrison's book I would not recommend it to those who want to understand Princeton's thoughtleadership leading up to the American revolution. The claim that Witherspoon introduced Scottish Common Sense Realism to America is misleading to say the least. Reverend Ashbel Green's opposition to Samuel Stanhope Smith's teachings circled precisely around this issue: how should we understand Witherspoon's link to Scottish Common Sense Realism. To just claim, as does Bradford Bow in his article, that reverend Ashbel Green was anti-enlightenment illustrates that there is a whole army of folks who don't understand the direct link between Presbyterianism and Scottish enlightenment.

John Witherspoon was not a simple conveyor of Hutcheson's moral system or Scottish Common Sense realism, but a Presbyterian who used both in his democratization project. At the heart of this democratization project was the Clarity of Scripture, which continued to play a central role in reformed theology during the 19th century. The fact that the Clarity of Scripture had been at the core of Princeton's educational endeavour all along was underlined again by Reverend Abraham Gosman at the inauguration of Geerhardus Vos as professor of biblical theology in 1894:
´the student cannot take with any satisfaction or certainty the books of the Bible as trustworthy or authoritative without an investigation of his own´
Let's see what Thomas Kidd writes in his review of Jeffry Morrison's John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic.

Matt Reynolds links Thomas Kidd's approach to a classification by John Witte, which goes like this:

'religiously and politically, the American founders were a diverse lot. Emory University scholar John Witte has helpfully assembled them into four groups: Puritans, who favored the Godly commonwealth model of colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut; civic republicans, who synthesized non-sectarian Protestant morality with an ethic of public spiritedness redolent of ancient Greece and Rome; evangelicals, who preached the redeeming power of the new birth; and Enlightenment skeptics, who sought the scientific axioms behind a divinely-ordered cosmos.'
It's obvious from this little quote that the reunification of the old and new side presbyterians was a major event in American history.

Without this reunification effort, which was in full swing in 1751 and was succesfully concluded in 1758, the fundraising for Princeton in England and Scotland by Samuel Davies and Gilbert Tennent would probably not have succeeded.

The fundraising tour by Davies and Tennent to Great Brittain 1753 should also be placed in the context of the 18th century London dissenters lobby network.

Appointing John Witherspoon was obviously in line with Princeton's longterm goal and in line with the old side - new side reunification.

Mark Reynolds points to Thomas Kidd's focus on the virtue-generating potential of religion. This seems to me a typical anachronistic reading into the 18th century of views popular in some (evangelical) circles today.

A review of John Witte's book Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment: Essential Rights and Libertie.

A really great book on the origin of the American revolution is Gary Will's Inventing America: Jefferson's declaration of Indepencence:
'Hutcheson’s system of moral philosophy particularly, Wills contends, contains the key to decoding the theory of the nature and proper functions of government embedded in the Declaration.'
This comes very close to my own interpretation which is that Hutcheson and Reid's ideas would have never led to a revolution without the radicalized Calvinist interpretation by Samuel Finley & John Witherspoon.

The fact that Jefferson did his undergraduate work at the College of William and Mary under William Small of Aberdeen who taught moral philosophy, rhetoric, and belles-lettres, underlines how popular Hutcheson's moral philosophy was in America in the period leading up to the American revolution.

Caroline Robbins writes:
'For an explicit statement, thirty years before Lexington of "when it is that colonies may turn independent," one must turn to the work of Francis Hutcheson'
'Hutcheson's debt to Locke and the tradition he represents was shared by all his contemporaries'

However, a strong argument for Hutcheson as major source of the declaration (distinguishing him from John Locke) of indepencence is his argument against slavery.

A comment by Ronald Hamowy which links Locke and Hutcheson together over against other Scottish thinkers:
'Almost all the evidence Wills has marshalled to support his assertion that the Declaration is really a document of Scottish moral philosophy collapses when one recognizes how far the sentiments expressed by Jefferson differ from those of Hume, Smith, and Ferguson, and how closely they accord with Locke. In writing the Declaration, Jefferson had either Locke or Hutcheson in mind, but certainly not the other Scottish writers.'
Telling how John Witherspoon became the champion of the American revolution while Hume, Smith and Ferguson became half-hearted supporters of rebellion against tyranny. If Ronald Hamowy is correct that 'the general drift of Scottish political thought was in the direction of moderation and reform in conflicts with civil authority.' it immediately reminds of Witherspoon's role in the conflict in the Scottish Church before he left to teach at Princeton.

This confirms that when Witherspoon talked about common sense this was much more a reference to Shaftesbury then to Thomas Reid.

Libertarian Ronald Hamowy did his doctoral thesis under F.A. Hayek at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and is obviously out to prove that Hutcheson had limited influence in revolutionary America. It's interesting how Hamowy provides ammunition against his fellow libertarian Rothbard who could not understand how presbyterianism and enlightenment could go together.

This topic is discussed  at American Creation as well, especially the link to Chris Rodda's review of David Barton's book is valuable:
'I expose one of his big anachronisms — that Thomas Jefferson was taught Scottish Common Sense philosophy as part of his own education'
'Either David Barton is wrong that the differing Enlightenment philosophies were a simple matter of religion vs. atheism and secularism or the Rev. John Witherspoon was teaching a philosophy that spawned secularists and deists like Hume and Smith!'
Apparently a big debate raged on this in 2012 among the historians. 

It's crystal clear Chris Rodda is 100% correct on this matter while Mike Huckabee exposes themselves as a fact-free populists by claiming:
“David Barton is maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America’s early days.”
Same holds true for Bachmann and Gingrich and the Republican National Committee who hired him to mobilize Christians for George W. Bush.

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