Early American Lessons to Make Modern America Great Again, Part 1
(With the rise of nationalism and populism in politics and the ongoing moral deterioration, perhaps more conservatives will be open to reexamining the roots of American prosperity. The following is a modified essay from my June 13, 2016 talk at the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club meeting. Feel free to pass it on to your moderate and conservative friends.)
What made early America great? Was is our economic industry or political fortitude? Or were these the fruit of something greater? What can we do today to replicate that greatness? Let us look at our history.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” [Washington, Farewell Address, 1796]
We love to talk about the Founding Fathers. Many of us would love to go back to these simpler times with a smaller government and more freedom. But what produced those freedoms?
Washington’s farewell address gives part of the answer: religion and morality. And it is important to note that his speech was not his own but the product of Madison, Hamilton and Jay.
America was not perfect then. She had her sins, especially slavery. But she was in much better health than today. Let us dig into history further to explore some reasons for this.
In 1842, Judge Mellen Chamberlain interviewed 91-year-old Levi Preston, a soldier at the Battle of Concord of 1775. He asked the war vet if he had fought because of the Stamp Act or the tea tax. Preston replied, “No”.
“Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Lock about the eternal principles of liberty,” Chamberlain finally asked.
“Never heard of ‘em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.”
“Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?”
“Young man, what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to…”
It was not the vaulted works of Sidney or Lock that the average early American followed. It was the Bible. The well-to-do and highly educated men, like Jefferson and Madison, read Lock and other writers but the typical American did not have access to these writers. Early Americans learned political freedom and self-rule because they learned their Catechism and Bible from…the churches.
The three main denominations during the Colonial era were Congregationalists of New England and the Presbyterians and Anglicans of the Middle and Southern colonies. All three confessed that God was sovereign (not man) and man was depraved (not good). Such fundamental beliefs, embedded in early American society, were the intellectual tools under-girding political involvement. For if only God has all power then dictators could not legitimately claim such. And if man was basically a sinner, power should not be concentrated in his hands.
Theology had political implications.
And this theology predated the rationales for the American Revolution by several hundred years. The leaders of the Reformation of the 1500s argued for armed resistance under certain conditions (Calvin, Beza, etc.) And it was codified in the Presbyterian’s Larger Catechism in the mid-1600s:
Question 135: What are the duties requireth in the sixth commandment?…just defence against violence…and protection and defending the innocent.
Question 136: What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment? The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away of life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defence.
Churches today still believe these doctrines but churches today do not have the same social influence as the early churches of America did. What did that influence look like?
First of all, ministers were the most trained and intellectually minded leaders of society. They preached twice on Sunday with long expositional sermons that required an attentive audience that could follow syllogistic reasoning. These sermons were often sources of news and commentary on the issues of the day. Ministers also typically taught at the local school or tutored. They were intimately involved in catechizing the children of the church as well. And their sermons were nation-wide best sellers.
Unlike today, the vast majority of colonists attended church, while many of their children were taught in Christian schools or by ministerial tutors. It was from the pulpit that citizens learned of their God-given rights. And they learned their lessons well.
In 1775, the Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia publicly stood for the war even as they urged moderation. Historians point out that the British politician, Horace Walpole, complained to the Parliament, “there is no use crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”
As historian Gordon S. Wood aptly summarized, “it was the clergy who made the Revolution meaningful for most common people,” because “for every gentleman who read a scholarly pamphlet and delved into Whig and ancient history for an explanation of events, there were dozens of ordinary people who read the Bible and looked to their ministers for an interpretation of what the Revolution meant.”
On June 11, 1775, John Adams wrote in his diary: “The clergy this way [Pennsylvania] are beginning to engage in politics, and they engage with a fervor that will produce wonderful effects.”
It was not only strong churches with strong ministers that created the moral atmosphere of freedom and moral rectitude but also the schools.
If education helps create a great nation, and early America was a great nation, shouldn’t we consider what and how they educated in early America? They learned their ABCs to be sure but not exactly how we envision it. Their ABCs were the alphabet, Bible and catechism.
Christian instruction was intimately intertwined with the scholastic instruction of the day. Bible instruction (not just reading) was required as well as memorization of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
The most popular school book for over 100 years, the New England Primer, reinforced what was taught in the churches: the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man and the need of a Savior. The most popular poem, The Day of Doom, had 224 stanzas, all about the Second Coming of Christ.
Such a robust schooling coupled with a masculine theology in the church certainly influenced the nation toward an upright practice such as the Founders believed necessary for a healthy Republic:
“Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” John Adams, 1778[continued in Part 2]
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