Monday, March 18, 2019

Favorite Quotes from James Madison

James Madison, Jr. was born on March 16, 1751 and died June 28, 1836. He was an American statesman, lawyer, diplomat, philosopher, and Founding Father who served as the fourth president of the United States from 1809 to 1817. Known as the "Father of the Constitution" he helped to shape the new American Republic. In retirement at Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia, Madison spoke out against the disruptive states' rights influences that by the 1830's threatened to shatter the Federal Union. In a note opened after his death in 1836, he stated, "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."

Republic vs. Democracy 

“The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.” Federalist No. 10 

“[W]e may define a republic to be…a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior…” Federalist No. 39 

Separation and Division of Power 

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Federalist No. 47 

“The compound Government of the United States is without a model, and to be explained by itself, not by similitudes or analogies.” Outline, September, 1829 (Madison, 1865, IV, page 18) 

“The two vital characteristics of the political system of the United States are, first, that the Government holds its powers by a charter granted to it by the people; second, that the powers of government are formed in two grand divisions — one vested in a Government over the whole community, the other in a number of independent Governments over its component parts. Hitherto charters have been written grants of privileges by Governments to the people. Here they are written grants of power by the people to their Governments.” Supplement to the letter of November 27, 1830, to A. Stevenson (Madison, 1865, IV, pages 138-139) 

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Federalist No. 51 

Interpreting the Constitution 

“I have always supposed that the meaning of a law, and, for a like reason, of a constitution, so far as it depends on judicial interpretation, was to result from a course of particular decisions, and not those from a previous and abstract comment on the subject.” Letter to Judge Roan, September 2, 1819 (Madison, 1865, III, page 143) 

“The ‘Federalist’ may fairly enough be regarded as the most authentic exposition of the text of the federal Constitution as understood by the Body [Constitutional Convention] which prepared & and the Authorities [state ratifying conventions] which accepted it.” Letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 8, 1825 (Peterson, 1974, 2. page 383) 

Legislation and Law 

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” Letter to Edmund Pendleton, January 21, 1792 (Madison, 1865, I, page 546) 

“I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Statement before Congress, 4 Annals of Congress 179 (1794) 

“The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” Speech, House of Representatives (January 10, 1794) 

“As far as laws are necessary to mark with precision the duties of those who are to obey them, and to take from those who are to administer them a discretion which might be abused, their number is the price of liberty. As far as laws exceed this limit they are a nuisance; a nuisance of the most pestilent kind.” Notes on the Confederacy—April, 1787 Representation 

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Federalist No. 57 

Factions and Power 

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Federalist No. 10 

“A Government like ours has so many safety-valves, giving vent to overheated passions, that it carries within itself a relief against the infirmities from which the best of human Institutions cannot be exempt.” Letter to General La Fayette, November 25, 1820 (Madison, 1865, III, pages 189-191) 

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations …” Speech at the Virginia Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution (June 6, 1788) 

Right to Bear Arms 

“[T]he advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” Federalist No. 46 Resistance “Extreme cases of oppression justify… a resort to the original right of resistance, a right belonging to every community, under every form of Government…” Letter to N. P. Trist, December, 1831 (Madison, 1865, IV, page 206) 

Freedom of Speech and Press 

“[T]he right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon…has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.” Virginia Resolutions, 1798 

“[T]o the press alone; checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Madison's Report on the Virginia Resolutions (in the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress) 

Freedom of Religion 

“[W]e hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, "that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785 

“Among the features peculiar to the political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect…Equal laws, protecting equal rights, are found, as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good will among citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony, and most favorable to the advancement of truth.” Letter to Dr. De La Motta, August 1820 (Madison, 1865, III, pages 178-179) 

“Conscience is the most sacred of all property …” "Property," March 27, 1792 (Madison, 1865, IV, page 478) 

“The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters and capacities to be impressed with it.” Letter to Rev. Frederick Beasley (November 20, 1825) 


“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 (Madison, 1865, III, page 276 

“Liberty and Learning; both best supported when leaning each on the other.” Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 (Madison, 1865, III, page 279) 

"Madison" refers to Madison, James, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, Published by order of Congress, 4 volumes, Edited by Philip R. Fendall (Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1865)

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Knowledge will forever govern Ignorance

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” – James Madison to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822.

One of the biggest threats to civility and progress is ignorance – but this is not the ignorance you may usually think of. In many ways we are a highly-educated society. Many of our generation excel in the knowledge of science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and their applications in business and industry. However by comparison, the level of knowledge of fundamental principles of human equality, liberty, and divine rights under the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as well as of the history of the American Founding, is seriously lacking. Numerous studies have shown that the average student, as well as the average citizen, is totally unaware of the principles of government that guarantee our freedoms and of each individual’s responsibility to understand and uphold such freedoms. This ignorance is manifest in schools, universities, and in the media.

Some basic questions to test our knowledge:
  • What are the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence? 
  • What is liberty? How is it maintained? 
  • What is tyranny? How is it kept in check? 
  • What is the supreme law or primary duty of government? 
  • What is the purpose of the law? How do we judge between just and unjust laws? 
  • Are all men and women created equal? How are we equal? 
  • What is the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution? 
  • What are the purposes of the Constitution? Does it establish a democracy or a republic? What are the differences between a democracy and a republic? 
  • What are the three branches of the federal government? Why are there three branches? What are their roles and duties? 
  • What is the Bill of Rights? What rights does the first amendment guarantee? 
  • What is federalism? What is the relationship between federal and state governments? 
  • What are the duties and responsibilities of citizens to government? To one another? 
  • What are the roles of virtue and religion in a free society? 
  • Can liberty subsist without civic virtue? 
One of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest concerns was that Americans become educated in a way “to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.” (Letter to John Tyler, 1810). We are generally failing as a nation and as a society in this vital ingredient to maintain our constitutional republic. This fundamental ignorance seriously hampers our civility, our common discourse, and our progress as a nation. Even more significantly, it places in jeopardy our rights and our liberty.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Slave-turned-Poet, Phillis Wheatley

On Virtue 
By: Phillis Wheatley 

O' Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive 
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare 
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach. 
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt 
Thine height t' explore, or fathom thy profound. 
But, O my soul, sink not into despair, 
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand 
Would now embrace thee, hovers o'er thine head. 
Fain would the heav'n-born soul with her converse, 
Then seek, then court her for her promis'd bliss. 

Auspicious queen, thine heav'nly pinions spread, 
And lead celestial Chastity along; 
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends, 
Array'd in glory from the orbs above. 
Attend me, Virtue, thro' my youthful years! 
O leave me not to the false joys of time! 
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss. 
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee, 
To give me an higher appellation still, 
 Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay, 
 O thou, enthron'd with Cherubs in the realms of day. 

"Slave-turned-poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) was enslaved and sold when she was 7 or 8 (her exact birth year is unknown). [She was] named after “The Phillis,” the ship that took her to Boston in 1761. Her owner, John Wheatley, a progressive for the time, saw that Wheatley was bright and encouraged her education. By age 14, Wheatley had written her first poem. In 1770, Wheatley wrote an elegy for the deceased Reverend George Whitefield, which became published throughout New England. Her young age, her sex, her heritage, and the short amount of time she had lived in the English-speaking world all contributed to her renown in her readers’ eyes.

Without any formal education, she not only learned English but excelled at the art of the language in a remarkably short amount of time. Wheatley’s growing fame, in combination with her poor health, led the Wheatley family to send her to London, where, at age 20, she published her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Shortly after being published, Wheatley was emancipated from her slave owners. She married John Peters a few years after.

But neither her literary success nor her marriage were able to bring her out of poverty. Her frailty due to continued illness, combined with the financial challenges of the Revolutionary War, prevented her from ever publishing her second book of poems. In 1784, Wheatley lost her husband to debtors’ prison, and all three of her children died infancy. Phillis Wheatley herself died on December 9, 1784."

University of Massachusetts Boston's Wheatley Hall was named after her in 1985. Image above is of a painting that hangs in the hall.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Iron Glove of Tyranny

       The primary justification for the American Revolution was that it was a rebellion against tyranny.  The American colonists believed that it was not only their right, but also their duty, to overthrow the British monarchy, which they felt had engaged in both civil and religious tyranny, or despotism. As Thomas Jefferson penned in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, “Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. In the writings of Locke and Sidney, among others, the signers of the Declaration, and the Patriots of 1776, found their political principles and “self-evident” truths, confirming that the fight for the cause of liberty and self-government was not only justified, but worth their blood.

       John Locke (1632-1704) was an Oxford scholar, medical researcher and physician, political operative, economist and ideologue for a revolutionary movement, as well as being one of the great philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Recognized as a primary source for the political theory of natural rights behind the Declaration, Locke defined tyranny in his “Essay Concerning the True, Original, Extent and End of Civil-Government”[1]:

"Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to." (Chapter 18, sec. 199).

"[Tyranny is] ... when the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion." (Chapter 18, sec. 199)

"Whenever the power that is put in any hands for the government of the people, and the protection of our properties, is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass or subdue them to the arbitrary and irregular commands of those that have it; there it presently becomes tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many." (Chapter 18, sec. 201)

"The legislature acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties or fortunes of the people." (Chapter 19, sec. 221)

     When such conditions exist, wrote Locke, the people are justified in exercising their power to resume their original God-given liberty, and establish a new government. He said, “…whenever the Legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience … [Power then] devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and, by the Establishment of a new Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society.  (Chapter 19, sec. 222). However, as Jefferson and his fellow signers agreed, Locke states that “such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavor to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the end for which government was at first erected . . . (Ch. 19, sec. 225))(italics show comparative phraseology used in the Declaration).

     Alongside Locke, in the Revolutionary War period, Algernon Sidney was a popular hero and was regarded as the “true martyr of liberty.” His writings were well-known to all of the Founding Fathers, were found with Locke’s two Treatises on Government in colonial libraries, and were generally known to the American public at the time of the revolution.[2]  Published in England over twenty-five years before the revolution, Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government[3] became the Colonists’ second testator or witness to Locke’s line of reasoning regarding tyranny. Sidney wrote:

“Those multitudes that enter into such contracts, and thereupon form civil societies, act according to their own will: Those that are engaged in none, take their authority from the law of nature; their rights cannot be limited or diminished by any one man, or number of men; and consequently whoever does it, or attempts the doing of it, violates the most sacred laws of God and nature.” II:5:81.

“For if the liberty of one man cannot be limited or diminished by one, or any number of men [unless by common justice for crimes], and none can give away the right of another, 'tis plain that the ambition of one man, or of any faction of citizens, or the mutiny of an army, cannot give a right to any over the liberties of a whole nation.” II:5:82.

“They who admit of no participants in power, and acknowledge no rule but their own will, set up an interest in themselves against that of their own people, lose their affections, which is their most important treasure, and incur their hatred, from whence results their greatest danger.” II:30:242.

     However, unlike Locke, Sidney adds an important dimension to the argument, stating that that religion and virtue are the springs of good government, and those leaders who are the “enemy to virtue and religion” are also “an enemy of mankind.”  Sidney writes, "Virtue is the dictate of reason, or the remains of divine light, by which men are made beneficent and beneficial to each other. Religion proceeds from the same spring; and tends to the same end; and the good of mankind so entirely depends upon the two, that no people ever enjoyed anything worth desiring that was not the product of them; and whatsoever any have suffered that [which] deserves to be abhorred and feared, has proceeded either from the defect of these, or the wrath of God against them. If any [leader] therefore has been an enemy to virtue and religion, he must also have been an enemy to mankind, and most especially to the people under him." II:27:212.  

     In this regard, the revolutionary war may be viewed as much a battle against “the corruption of 18th century British high society,”[4] as it was a rebellion against financial oppression and excessive taxes.  While the Founders and American colonists were very concerned with their civil liberty and economic freedom, demanding “no taxation without representation,” they were equally (or even more) concerned with their religious liberty, particularly in preserving their rights of individual conscience and public morality.[5]  Historian Edmund Morgan suggests that “the [revolutionary] movement in all its phases, from the resistance against Parliamentary taxation in the 1760’s to the establishment of a national government in the 1790’s … was affected, not to say guided, by a set of values inherited from the age of Puritanism,” which he calls collectively the “Puritan Ethic.”[6] A careful reading of the grievances of the thirteen colonies in the Declaration evidences both economic and political, as well as moral causes for declaring their independence from Great Britain, including including “works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy.”

     Even after the war was concluded, and the Constitution was signed September 17, 1787, the citizens of the several states were still wary of tyranny and of giving the new federal government too much power. One delegate to the Constitutional Debates for Ratification in North Carolina warned about the concession of excessive power to rulers and the risk of tyranny:

“Mr. Chairman, I wonder that these gentlemen, learned in the law, should quibble upon words. I care not whether it be called a compact, agreement, covenant, bargain, or what. Its intent is a concession of power, on the part of the people, to their rulers. We know that private interest governs mankind generally. Power belongs originally to the people; but if rulers be not well guarded, that power may be usurped from themPeople ought to be cautious in giving away power. These gentlemen say there is no occasion for general rules: every one has one for himself. Every one has an unalienable right of thinking for himself. There can be no inconvenience from laying down general rules. If we give away more power than we ought, we put ourselves in the situation of a man who puts on an iron glove, which he can never take off till he breaks his arm. Let us beware of the iron glove of tyranny. Power is generally taken from the people by imposing on their understanding, or by fetters [shackles].” --William Goudy, July 21, 1788.[7] 

May we learn from the lessons of history, the writings of Locke and Sidney, and the Declaration of Independence itself, and “beware of the iron glove of tyranny.”

[1] John Locke, “Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government,” Two Treatises of Government (Awnsham & John Churchill, London, 1698).
[2] Alan Craig Houston, Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage in England and America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 223-278.
[3] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (A. Millar, London, 1751).
[4] Marvin Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (Regnery Publishing, Washinton D.C., 1996) p. 142.
[5] See, e.g., Id., Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue; Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner, In Search of the Republic: Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government (Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey, 1987).
[6] Edmund S. Morgan, The Challenge of the American Revolution (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1976), pp. 88-138.
[7] “The Debates in the Several State Conventions, (North Carolina), on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,” Elliot's Debates, Volume 4 (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1891), p. 10.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Was the American Revolution a Religious Rebellion?

"The Battle of Lexington," at the Presbyterian Meetinghouse (1775) 

The colonies that in 1776 became the United States of America were settled by men and women of deep religious convictions who in the seventeenth century crossed the Atlantic Ocean to practice their faith freely. That the religious intensity of the original settlers would diminish to some extent over time was perhaps to be expected, but new waves of eighteenth century immigrants brought their own religious fervor across the Atlantic and the nation's first major religious revival in the middle of the eighteenth century injected new vigor into American religion. The result was that a religious people rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776, and that most American statesmen, when they began to form new governments at the state and national levels, shared the convictions of most of their constituents that religion was, to quote Alexis de Tocqueville's observation, 'indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.' ” (Library of Congress, Religion and the American Founding Exhibit).  Catholics, Jews, Dutch Calvinists, German Reformed pietists, Scottish Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other denominations joined Anglican or Congregational establishments in the American Colonies, and members of all faiths participated in the War for Independence. However, as described in the following article written by Richard Gardiner, “King George III and other highly placed Britons [also] called the colonists’ rebellion a ‘Presbyterian War.’”

“Though the events transpired almost a quarter of a millenium ago, the shelves down at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore routinely continue to display freshly researched, written, and published histories of the American Revolution, the founding fathers, and the genesis of the United States.[1] Yet there remains an element of the American founding era that is routinely underrepresented in these volumes—the role of religion. It is a factor of the Revolution that many historians minimize. The revolution, they maintain, was essentially secular in nature.

But “No understanding of the eighteenth century is possible” warned Carl Bridenbaugh, “if we unconsciously omit, or consciously jam out, the religious theme just because our own milieu is secular.”[2] Yet, as Kevin Phillips remarked, “Historians and commentators in the late twentieth-century United States have shrunk from emphasizing religion in their explanations of seventeenth and eighteenth century affairs.”[3] Phillips argued that this is a gross error insofar as “any serious investigation of the patterns of rebellion and loyalty during the 1775-1783 fighting in the United States leads to religion.”[4]

No one recognized this better than the foes of the American revolutionaries. Ambrose Serle, secretary to British General Howe in New York City, wrote to the British Secretary of State in 1776 telling him that the American Revolution was ultimately a religious war.[5] Serle’s insights are perhaps worthy of special consideration given his privileged vantage point. In light of his intelligence, education, broad perspective, and eyewitness status, Serle’s observations compel historians to incorporate his perspective into a comprehensive understanding of the conflict. Serle’s biographer, Edward Tatum, Jr., who wrote the introduction to Serle’s Diary put it in these terms:

“Serle was no ordinary observer but one whose training and philosophy gave point to his opinions and coherence to his judgments. In addition, his unique position as a civilian in intimate association with Lord Howe afforded him an unusual opportunity to see more than one aspect of a complicated situation.”[6]

Given Serle’s erudition, his observations cannot be summarily dismissed. Serle argued for a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the revolution beneath the secular facade. He boldly asserted that the revolution could not be sustained in America if it were not for the Presbyterian ministers who bred it.[7] He lamented the fact that almost every minister in America doubled as a politician. Most significantly, he echoed a chant by loyalists throughout America, namely, that at the bottom of the conflict was the Presbyterians’ desire to gain “the Establishment of their own Party.”[8] In other words, he claimed that the war was fueled by the Presbyterians’ desire to establish their religion as the official church of the new American government.

The same assessment may be made of Charles Inglis’ perspective. He had a front row seat to the entire revolution. He, too, was highly educated and erudite. He had close contacts with a large number of loyalists in the know. If anyone was a principal mouthpiece for the opinions of loyalists, Inglis was. And what did he say? “It is absolutely certain, that on the part of many, the present is a Religious War.”[9] Another such Tory during the war stated, “the American controversy is closely connected with Christianity in general, and with Protestantism in particular; and that, of consequence, it is of religious as well as of a civil nature.”[10]

The important fact that King George III and his deputies on both sides of the Atlantic alleged that the colonial rebellion was a religious endeavor is no longer widely publicized. A number of scholars have casually mentioned this phenomenon in passing. Kevin Phillips, in his 1998 study of the American Revolution, twice noted: “King George III and other highly placed Britons called the colonists’ rebellion a ‘Presbyterian War.’”[11] Historians of yesteryear were a bit more attentive to this feature. According to William H. Nelson, the belief that most of the American revolutionaries were “congregational or presbyterian republicans,” or at least of Calvinistic temperament “was held by almost all the Tories whose opinions survive.”[12] According to the celebrated British historian of the American Revolution, George Trevelyan, in the early days of the revolution, loyalists alleged that “political agitation against the Royal Government had been deliberately planned by Presbyterians… it was fostered and abetted by Presbyterians in every colony.”[13] John C. Miller observed, “To the end, the Churchmen believed that the Revolution was a Presbyterian-Congregationalist plot.”[14] These references notwithstanding, historians no longer give much attention to this “Presbyterian plot” interpretation of the revolution. In light of the abundance of evidence, such is an irresponsible oversight.

A Hessian captain, fighting on behalf of the British, told a friend in Germany in 1778, “call this war, dearest friend, by whatsoever name you may, only call it not an American Revolution, it is nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.”[15] Andrew Hammond, British commander of the HMS Roebuck, arrived in America just after the Declaration of Independence had been signed by the members of the Continental Congress. At that juncture, Hammond conveyed the perspective of the Anglicans, “[I]t is the Presbyterians that have brought about this revolt, and aim at getting the government of America into their hands.”[16] Isaac Atkinson, a Maryland loyalist, expressed his opinion of the revolution, that “it was a religious dispute and a Presbyterian scheme.”[17] Thomas Smith, a supporter of the crown in Pennsylvania he held the view “that the whole was nothing but a scheme of a parcel of hot-headed Presbyterians.”[18]

King George III was advised by William Jones in 1776, “this has been a Presbyterian war from the beginning… and accordingly the first firing against the King’s troops  was from a Massachuset [sic] meeting house.”[19] Did the king agree with Jones? The evidence is overwhelming that he did.

From the beginning of the conflict, George III was convinced that the leading New England rebels were Presbyterians. This is proven by a remark he made to Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson in 1774. When discussing the nature of the American dissident leadership with his representative from Massachusetts, the king exclaimed, “are they not Presbyterians?”[20] The king had every reason to suspect so. A letter published in a London newspaper only a month earlier came from a royalist in New York:

“Believe me, the Presbyterians have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures, and they always do and ever will act against Government, from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchical spirit which has always distinguished them every where.”[21]

The king maintained this sentiment throughout the war. In 1779 Benjamin Franklin, a rather reliable source of diplomatic intelligence, stated that George III hated the American Revolutionaries because the king perceived that they were “whigs and Presbyterians.”[22]

Royal sentiments in this regard permeate the documentary record. Jones was not the only source who communicated this opinion to the king. We know that the British Secretary of State, Lord Dartmouth, who certainly had the king’s ear, was also urged by an intelligence agent in America to understand that “Presbyterianism is at the bottom” of the war.[23] The provisional governor of Rhode Island, Nicholas Cooke, was told that the revolution was a Presbyterian war, and the royal governor of Rhode Island believed it.[24]

Were these Tories who considered the revolution a religious plot entirely sober in these reflections? Clearly not. They, too, were participants, embroiled in the fanaticism of the conflict. Their tendency to suspect that a Presbyterian minister was hiding behind every tree, secretly orchestrating the revolution from beginning to end, is Macarthyesque indeed. But the other extreme to which historians have gone is just as spurious. Religious and denominational dynamics were vitally central to the revolt. Historians have failed to state this as clearly as it deserves. The allegation that the American Revolution was a Presbyterian Rebellion is an important one to understand if we are to have a truly comprehensive understanding of what happened and why.

In short, the American Revolution did have a “holy war” dynamic to it that pitted Anglicans against dissenters (who were generally referred to as Presbyterians), and in the minds of the loyalists, the war was fundamentally, at bottom, a Presbyterian rebellion. It is, without question, an accurate assessment of how King George III and his advocates perceived the American war. Whether that perception was entirely accurate may be another question, but the very fact that it was how they viewed it is an important dynamic that should not be overlooked as we chronicle America’s nativity narrative.

“The Presbyterian Rebellion?” Journal of the American Revolution (Sept. 5, 2013)
by: Richard Gardiner, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History Education, Columbus State University

[1] Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and David Hackett Fischer have all recently published best sellers on this foundational era of American history.
[2] Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and SceptreTransatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689-1775, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), xi.
[3] Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 16.
[4] Phillips, Cousins’ Wars, xxi.
[5] Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Ambrose Serle to Lord Dartmouth, November 8, 1776 in B. F. Stevens’ Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America 1773-1783, with Descriptions, Editorial Notes, Collations, References and Translations, vol. 24 (reprint Wilmington, DE: Mellifont Press, 1970) 2045.
[6] Edward Tatum, “Introduction,” The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, Secretary to Lord Howe; 1776-1778, Edward Tatum, ed. (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1940), ix.
[7] The best scholarly treatment of this sentiment as a whole is Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1958).
[8] The word “Presbyterian” was used in this context to include almost all Christians who dissented from Roman and Anglican ecclesiastical systems; see Richard Gardiner, The Presbyterian Rebellion (Ph.D. diss., Marquette University, 2005).
[9] [Charles Inglis?], The Letters of Papinian: In Which the Conduct, Present State and Prospects, of the American Congress, Are Examined (New-York: Printed by Hugh Gaine, at the Bible and Crown in Hanover-Square, 1779), no. 5, 78; in Early American Imprints, 16311.
[10] John Fletcher, The Works of John Fletcher, 4 vols. (Salem, Ohio: Schmul Publishers, 1974), Vol. 4, 439. On the floor of Parliament, Sir Edmund Burke also gave an extensive account of how the Americans’ Protestantism motivated the war. Edmund Burke, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 6 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854-56), 1:464-71. John Adams concurred, saying that the religious element of the conflict was “a fact a certain as any in the history of North America.” Adams to Jedediah Morse, December 2, 1815. Works of John Adams, X:185.
[11]Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 92, 177. Other scholars who have mentioned that King George III blamed the Presbyterians for the war include Henry Ippel, “British Sermons and the American Revolution,” Journal of Religious History(1982), Vol. 12, 193; James Graham Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 305; The Journal of Presbyterian History 54, no. 1 (1976); David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), Vol. 1, 15; H.M.J. Klein, ed., Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: A History (New York and Chicago: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1924), Vol. 1, 86; Paul Johnson, “God and the Americans,” Gilder Lehrman Institute Lectures in American History, Oct. 1999; John A. Mackay, “Witherspoon of Paisley and Princeton,” Theology Today, January 1962, Vol. 18, No. 4.
[12] William H. Nelson, The American Tory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 51.
[13] Sir George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1915; New Edition), Vol. III:311-312.
[14] John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1943), 186.
[15] Capt. Johann Heinrichs to the Counsellor of the Court, January 18, 1778: “Extracts from the Letter Book of Captain Johann Heinrichs of the Hessian Jager Corps, 1778-1780,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 22 (1898), 137.
[16] A.S. Hammond, August 5, 1776, Hammond Papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
[17]Peter Force, American Archives, Fourth Series, Vol. III:1584.
[18] “Minutes of the Committee of Safety of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1774-1776,” from the original in the library of General William Watts Hart Davis, Doylestown, Pennsylvania; entry for August 21, 1775, in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 15 (1891), 266.
[19] William Jones, “An Address to the British Government on a Subject of Present Concern, 1776,” The Theological, Philosophical and Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. William Jones, 12 vols. (London, 1801), Vol. 12, 356.
[20] King George III, July 1, 1774, quoted by Thomas Hutchinson, Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, P.O. Hutchinson, ed. (Boston: Houghton & Mifflin, 1884; AMS Reprint, 1973), Vol. 1, 168.
[21] Peter Force, ed., “Extract of a Letter to a Gentleman in London, from New York, May 31, 1774” American Archives, Fourth Series, Vol. 1, 301.
[22] Papers of Benjamin Franklin 28:461-462
[23] Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Ambrose Serle to the Earl of Dartmouth, April 25, 1777in B.F. Stevens’ Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America 1773-1783 (Wilmington: Mellifont Press, 1970), 2057.
[24] James Manning, quoted by Ezra Stiles, The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, Franklin Dexter, ed. Vol. 2, 23; see also Joseph Wanton, quoted by Ambrose Serle, Monday, February 2, 1778, American Journal of Ambrose Serle, 277.