Posts tagged with: american founding

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, March 31, 2014

jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

Acton Institute Director of Research and author of Tea Party Catholic Samuel Gregg joined host John Pinhiero for a discussion of his latest book and the Catholic influence on the American founding on Faith and Reason, Pinhiero’s new show on Holy Family Radio in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan. The wide-ranging discussion lasted a full broadcast hour, and can be heard using the audio player below.

Coolidge In November of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge delivered an address on the topic of the proper relationship between government and business. His audience was the New York State Chamber Commerce. One of Coolidge’s main aims of the speech was to elevate the spiritual value of business.

As president, Coolidge oversaw unprecedented economic expansion and growth, but he also lived through the rise of America’s progressive era and Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. New ideas about government and society had already long been popularized in large segments of America by 1925. Coolidge, who saw himself as a civic educator, articulated a much more traditional and conservative view of American ideals. A common recurrence of his public addresses was to praise the truths and virtues of America’s founding principles. At the very end of this address, Coolidge closed with the line, “The truth and faith and justice of the ancient days have not departed from us.” Below is a poignant excerpt from his 1925 address:

While there has been in the past and will be in the future a considerable effort in this country of different business interests to attempt to run the Government in such a way as to set up a system of privilege, and while there have been and will be those who are constantly seeking to commit the Government to a policy of infringing upon the domain of private business, both of these efforts have been very largely discredited, and with reasonable vigilance on the part of the people to preserve their freedom do not now appear to be dangerous.

When I have been referring to business, I have used the word in its all-inclusive sense to denote alike the employer and employee, the production of agriculture, and industry, the distribution of transportation and commerce, and the service of finance and banking. It is the work of the world. In modern life, with all its intricacies, business has come to hold a very dominant position in the thoughts of all enlightened peoples. Rightly understood, this is not a criticism, but a compliment. In its great economic organization it does not represent, as some have hastily concluded, a mere desire to minister to selfishness. The New York Chamber of Commerce is not made up of men merely animated with a purpose to get the better of each other. It is something far more important than a sordid desire for gain. It could not successively succeed on that basis. It is dominated by a more worthy impulse; it rests on a higher law. True business represents the mutual organized effort of society to minister to the economic requirements of civilization. It is an effort by which men provide for the material needs of each other. While it is not an end in itself, it is the important means for the attainment of a supreme end. It rests squarely on the law of service. It has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race.

American_Revolution_Statue_6The Great Awakening (1730 – 1760) was central to America’s revolution and independence. It united the colonies and gave them a new spiritual vitality. It made churches more American and less European. These changes wedded with enlightenment thought allowed Americans to see the world with new eyes. Ties to Europe, and England especially, began to unravel. “The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background,” says historian Paul Johnson. “The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event.”

These truths are too often dismissed today and the kind of liberty that emerged from the colonies is being forgotten.  As Lord Acton said so well, freedom is “not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

At my church service Sunday, my minister delivered a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 , legalism, and spiritual pride. At the end, he took a few minutes to address events going on in America and even read a portion of Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent dissent on the ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act. Foreshadowing the coming religious persecution he quoted Scalia’s line, “It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.” My pastor made the point that because of the looming threats to conscience and long established worldviews held by Christians, America is setting itself not as indifferent but hostile to Christian teaching and truth. We are and have been experiencing a new revolution against our foundations. It’s a harrowing thought, that points to a puffed up pride by leaders who can exact change with little precedent and unconstrained by a higher accountability.

Contrasting that kind of rebellion, there are some great sources that highlight the importance of America’s brand of spiritual liberty. One of the best is Political Sermons of the American Founding Era 1730-1805 published by Liberty Fund. Below is a great excerpt from “A Sermon on the Anniversary of the Independence of America” by Samuel Miller. Delivered in 1793, Miller was an ordained Presbyterian minister and professor of church history and government at Princeton. Miller simply lays out the significance of the Christian contribution within American independence and government:

Christianity, on the one hand, teaches those, who are raised to places of authority, that they are not intrinsically greater than those whom they govern; and that all the rational and justifiable power with which they are invested, flows from the people, and is dependent on their sovereign pleasure. There is a love of dominion natural to every human creature; and in those who are destitute of religion, this temper is apt to reign uncontrouled. Hence experience has always testified, that rulers, left to themselves, are prone to imagine, that they are a superior order of beings, to obey whom, the ignoble multitude was made, and that their aggrandizement is the principal design of the social compact. But the religion of the gospel, rightly understood, and cordially embraced, utterly disclaims such unworthy sentiments, and banishes them with abhorrence from the mind. It contemplates the happiness of the community, as the primary object of all political associations—and it teaches those, who are placed at the helm of government, to remember, that they are called to preside over equals and friends, whose best interest, and not the demands of selfishness, is to be the object of their first and highest care.

On the other hand, Christianity, wherever it exerts its native influence, leads every citizen to reverence himself—to cherish a free and manly spirit—to think with boldness and energy—to form his principles upon fair enquiry, and to resign neither his conscience nor his person to the capricious will of men. It teaches, and it creates in the mind, a noble contempt for that abject submission to the encroachments of despotism, to which the ignorant and the unprincipled readily yield. It forbids us to call, or to acknowledge, any one master upon earth, knowing that we have a Master in heaven, to whom both rulers, and those whom they govern, are equally accountable. In a word, Christianity, by illuminating the minds of men, leads them to consider themselves, as they really are, all co-ordinate terrestrial princes, stripped, indeed, of the empty pageantry and title, but retaining the substance of dignity and power. Under the influence of this illumination, how natural to disdain the shackles of oppression—to take the alarm at every attempt to trample on their just rights; and to pull down, with indignation, from the seat of authority, every bold invader!

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gadsden_flag.svgAmerica, for the obvious reasons, holds strong ties to Europe. But it is a country that has primarily been associated with a distinctness and separation from the turmoil and practices of the continent. In his farewell address, George Washington famously warned Americans about remaining separate from European influence and declared, “History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Class strife, conflict, and instability already long characterized the European fabric at the time of the American Revolution. Likewise, many American colonists already thought of themselves as free and distinct before the revolt. At the time of the revolution, some 400 wealthy noble families controlled Great Britain. America had an aristocracy for sure, but it was much more merit based than Europe. It embodied a more egalitarian spirit, local communities were culturally connected and would have been suspicious of attempts at centralization. So obviously countless problems ignited and there was a fanning of flames when the Crown started making decrees and commands of the American colonists.

I have a copy of Sam Gregg’s Becoming Europe, which is next on my reading list. The recent calls for gun control and the curtailing of 2nd Amendment Rights out of Washington immediately reminded me more of the American – European divide. I’d point you to Gregg’s work for the formative economic study on our evolution towards European democratic socialism, but I want to make a few short observations on the topic, which might be beneficial to expand on after I read Becoming Europe. (more…)

Is Christianity and the Christian worldview the path to a free society? Chinese bloggers are asking that question. Many believe the fascination with American politics and democracy is at an all time high in China. Technology and internet access is surely responsible for much of the trend. From one report,

Obama’s inauguration was a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s massive microblogging site, with over 25 million posts on Jan. 21. Of these, one comment by a Weibo user by the name Wugou1975 was forwarded over 2,000 times, garnering over 500 comments. The blogger posted a photo of Obama taking the presidential oath with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts:

‘Some Chinese find it unbelievable that this secular country’s democratically elected president was sworn in with his hand on a Bible, not the Constitution, and facing a court justice, not Congress. But actually, this is the secret of America’s constitutional democracy: It’s not just the Constitution or the government’s “separation of powers.” Above that is natural law, guarded by a grand justice. And below is a community of Christians, unified by their belief.’

Undeniably, there has been and continues to be a systematic attack upon the Christian roots of the West and this nation. Marcello Pera, who teaches at the Pontifical Council in Rome, sums it up well:

“With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance, and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into license, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.”

There is a level of irony in Chinese bloggers recognizing the significance of the religious foundations of democracy, while many Western scholars have abandoned or even attacked such notions. America’s religious heritage is vibrant and was a unifying factor promoting shared values and purpose throughout its history. The American framers knew religious vibrancy was required for ordered liberty and virtue to reign and prosper throughout society. Alexis de Tocqueville praised these characteristics and noted it was the foundations of America’s freedom and strength of its people. When it comes to the basis of our rights and foundations of government, Jefferson asked,

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Below is my review of A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness. A final version of this book review will appear in the Fall 2012 Journal of Markets & Morality (15.2). You can subscribe here.

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A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. By Os Guinness (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012). 205 pages

Review: A Free People’s Suicide

That our republic suffers from disorder and decay is no secret. The moral and economic order appears increasingly chaotic and lacks a deeper meaning. The country, bitterly divided politically, cannot agree on the purpose of freedom. Frustration has turned into increased political activism and fragmentation, and perhaps the only national agreed-upon principle is that people feel increasingly separated from their own government.

The current year (2012) has seen some like-minded books published to address the magnanimity of the crisis we face. Sound thinkers such as Arthur Brooks and Rev. Robert Sirico have offered up, respectively, The Road to Freedom and Defending the Free Market. They are, without a doubt, worthwhile examinations of economics and our moral order. While there is no dearth of books to address our problems and its root causes, perhaps none is better than Os Guinness’s A Free People Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.

Guinness trumpets a stirring defense of ordered liberty, examining the deep meanings of freedom and its ability to survive and perhaps flourish again. An assessment of freedom beyond the surface is truly central to our republic. Americans, as they have in the past, must once again ask, “How can a free Republic maintain its freedom?
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Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, February 3, 2012

James Madison has rightfully been forever identified as father of the U.S. Constitution, author of the Bill of Rights and coauthor of the Federalist Papers. In his new biography of America’s fourth president, Richard Brookhiser introduces us to Madison the politician. In many ways, Madison is the father of modern American politics, with all its partisanship, wheeling and dealing, vote getting, partisan media, and popular opinion polling.

Brookhiser helps us to see the early framers as they were, brilliant men, who more often than not, waded into petty partisan squabbling. They were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and unleash a sharp pen to advance power and their party’s ideas. Madison, who was quick to understand that political contention would reign in the new Republic, organized political coalitions and allies for the purpose of power.

Madison is also the architect of hyper partisan newspapers like the National Gazette in New York City. A publication that soon begins to slam Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and even Madison’s fellow Virginian George Washington. Like Jefferson, he was a Francophile to the extreme. Hamilton would counter that Jefferson and Madison “had a womanly attachment to France.” Jefferson and Madison would often write letters to their revolutionary heroes in France, and by the time those letters crossed the Atlantic, the intended recipients were already victims of the guillotine.

Over his political life, Madison could also be quick to change course, especially when it benefited him and his presidential administration. Long an opponent of many Federalist policies, when the nation needed sound fiscal policy and a strong military because of war, he simply reversed course, and implemented ideas he had once fervently opposed. At times, he favored a strong centralized government, and especially when Federalists were in power, he favored strong state governments.

Because of poor health, Madison had a premonition that he would die as a young man, but he outlived almost all of his contemporaries (1751-1836). Madison as elder statesmen spoke out strongly against nullification, an issue that has been resurrected today because of ObamaCare and other federal power grabs. He did not believe a single state could nullify a federal law. At the same time, he also made strong arguments for strict constructionist views of constitutional interpretation. He vetoed a transportation bill that would have funded roads and canals because it was not specifically enumerated and did not fall under the commerce clause. The U.S. Supreme Court would later declare that it did fall under the clause within Madison’s lifetime. Madison believed such legislation “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation.”

Later in life he also worried that political parties were becoming too regional. “Parties . . . must always be expected in a government as free as ours. When the individuals belonging to them are intermingled in every part of the whole country, they strengthen the union of the whole, while they divide every part,” said Madison. He easily foresaw that the Missouri Compromise was spiraling toward dangerous disunion. Madison owned over 100 slaves and Brookhiser points out that unlike Jefferson, he did not offer lofty rhetoric concerning the evils of slavery. And unlike Washington, he did not free his slaves upon death. Later in life, Madison declared the whole bible to be against slavery and toyed with the idea of moving slaves to Liberia or out West, but offered no real feasible solutions on the issue.

His strict interpretive views of the Constitution made him an early opponent of the need for a Bill of Rights. Madison feared that listing rights in the Constitution might ultimately void the rights that were not specifically mentioned. Ultimately, he would be a champion of the Bill of Rights and had already heavily influenced them in his previous work in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Madison challenged George Mason who wanted a clause about tolerating religion. Brookhiser wonderfully explains Madison’s contribution to religious liberty:

Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).

For much of Madison’s political career he plotted behind the scenes with his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson to destroy their political rivals. Madison often carried out the dirtier work of politics so Jefferson could appear above the fray as a man of the people. He was instrumental in creating a young republic that was ruled by Virginians in Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. Republicans accused Federalists of trying to create a ruling faction, but the Virginian statesmen were even more adept in creating a political dynasty. But Brookhiser also helps to bring to life a snippet of the beautiful correspondence between two lifelong friends and Virginians in Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson also entrusted Madison as the guardian of his legacy in America and as an overseer of the continued flourishing of the University of Virginia.

While this book is a good introduction to Madison, it is perhaps woefully short at 250 pages for a complete study of the fourth president and founding statesmen. Brookhiser’s strength lies in deconstructing Madison and unveiling his flaws and partisanship, and his political genius as well.

Some on the political right or some classical liberals say we need to go back to the Founding period or we need to follow America’s Founders as if they were all of one accord. They forget even the Founders trampled on the constitution with measures like the Alien and Sedition Acts or the Louisiana Purchase when it suited them. Brookhiser concludes that while politics has changed, it has not to the degree that “would make it unrecognizable” to Madison.

“His intelligence and his knowledge of history showed him how this tension between different political spheres could be built into the Constitution as a bulwark of liberty, though he came to believe that appealing to popular opinion through the arts of argument and politics was a bulwark at least as strong.” says Brookhiser. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” said Madison. That we do have a government that has lasted for 225 years is a testament to this great man. And he would be the first to say it could be improved and fight for that improvement.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, October 5, 2011

My commentary this week addresses the demonstrations in New York and in other cities against free enterprise and business. One of the main points I make in this piece is that “lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.” Here is the list of demands by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. It is in essence a laundry list of devastating economic schemes and handouts. Additionally, the demands are counter to America’s founding principles. The commentary is printed below:

Class Warriors for Big Government

By Ray Nothstine

Acting as unofficial scorekeeper, Sojourners Founder and CEO Jim Wallis recently declared, “There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.” However, many of the class warfare protesters who are taking to the streets to “occupy” Wall Street and American cities are the disgruntled children of well-to-do parents. A quick sampling of video clips from the protests shows students from elite universities like Harvard, George Washington, and Columbia. Such protestors are driven less by genuine economic hardship than by misguided animus toward the market system that has enabled the wealth from which they have benefited.

One such protestor, Robert Stephens, launched into a tantrum about a bank seizing his well-educated parents’ $500,000 home. The claim turned out to be bogus, but he managed to convince sympathetic media outlets that he was the victim of abuse and scorn at the hand of free enterprise. Stephens, a student at the prestigious George Washington School of Law in Washington, is just one of many out-of-touch protestors pointing simplistically to the market as the culprit in the current economic downturn while ignoring other sources of financial dysfunction, such as the crony capitalism of government subsidies to business or government fiscal irresponsibility.

Struggling to make ends meet, most Americans lack the time to tune into protestors who are just as distant from their problems as Washington bureaucratic elites. Ronald Reagan offered these poignant words as he called on his own political party in the 1970s to shed its big-business country club image and to embrace the factory worker, the farmer, and the cop on the beat:

Extreme taxation, excessive controls, oppressive government competition with business, frustrated minorities and forgotten Americans are not the products of free enterprise. They are the residue of centralized bureaucracy, of government by the self-anointed elite.

Excessive taxation, regulation, and centralization of power always save their most vicious bite for the middle class. They are the hardest hit, not the super wealthy, some of whom call for higher taxes and are fawned over by a bloated government with an insatiable appetite for revenue. If there is any class conflict, it will come from the taxpaying class as it tries to tame the avarice of the political class. Most Americans are not very sympathetic to radical protestors because they still believe in an American Dream of limitless potential and opportunity.

While some protestors call for more government—or even the use of force—to restore their version of social justice and utopian economic schemes, lost in the debate is the fundamental purpose of American government and the importance of virtue and a benevolent society.

This nation’s founders adopted a system of government emphasizing a separation of powers and federalism to protect private property and the harmony of the Republic. Protestors calling for a dismantling of these ideas, whether it is through the confiscation of another’s property or through massive, centralized power seem alien to most Americans. During his inauguration another American President, Bill Clinton, aptly declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

The virtues and values that have shaped our Republic offer the best for America. One of the wealthiest men of America’s founding era was John Hancock. Yet the man who once quipped, “They [the Crown] have no right to put their hands in my pocket,” was no miser. Often a political foe of the founder known for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, American President John Adams nonetheless wrote, “If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock.” Hancock supported churches, city improvements, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the education of orphans. However, a much greater compliment was bestowed upon him. He was widely known for treating those of modest means with the same respect as those with wealth and power.

History too shows the consequences of regimes that wished to redistribute the wealth of others and make denunciations about greed, especially wrapped within a materialistic, secular worldview. That was class warfare, too, and it ended in blood and wretched poverty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped “There is properly no history; only biography.” It’s a line that lends to exaggeration for effect but speaks to the centrality of narrative and story. One of the great books I had the pleasure of reading about in regards to our story of independence is Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. It was fascinating to read about how a group of men came together to defend their property, way of life, and community against the British Crown. Fischer does a good job at pointing out how many of the leaders of the skirmish on the roads to Lexington and Concord were Christian ministers. Ministers were often the most educated in a community and the colonists looked to them first for leadership, especially in a situation so grave where the taking up of arms was considered.

One of the experiences that shaped me deeply in my appreciation for this country was living overseas in Egypt. When you see deep subjugation of people and heartbreaking poverty it humbles you and helps you appreciate the opportunities and blessings freedom can provide. Right now, there is understandably a lot of uncertainty about the future of this country. This includes our massive debt, economic health, prosperity, and certainly the moral order. One of the things I think I try to articulate through some of my writing and talks here at Acton is the importance of getting back to first principles. It is something all of us here at Acton are intentional about focusing on in the work we do. A great example is our discussion about the budget and the proper role of government. It is evident that as government intrusion grows it becomes even more clear that politics and politicians are unable to solve our national ills.

In speaking about America and the story of America, another book that has had a tremendous impact on me and really is an essential story for thinking about what it means to be an American is When Hell Was in Session by Admiral Jeremiah Denton. For some, his story may appear to be one that has faded with time or was more important in a Cold War context. But as Christians know, while believers wouldn’t willingly choose suffering, there is something powerful that happens to us in Christ when we suffer. Denton suffered brutal beatings and mental anguish during his almost eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1965-1973. He had plenty of time to grow in his faith under his communist captors. Under those extreme circumstances, he also came to a deeper understanding about the foundations, ideals, and way of life he was defending as an American and why they were so valuable.

In the colonies during the Revolution a common cry was “There is no king, but King Jesus.” It was certainly a slap at the Crown, but it also showed the revolution was grounded in first principles and freedom flows from God and not from a monarchy, or human power. Scripture declares, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” It of course refers to spiritual liberty and not political liberty. It’s ultimately a majestic reminder that through trials, breakdown of society, and all of our national despair on display so well in Washington and across this land, that our hope and grounding is found in Christ.

Many of the men, many of them not unlike us, afraid for their future and the direction of their colony, nervously huddled together on the Lexington and Concord road with muskets in hand to deliver the “shot heard ’round the world.” They understood that spiritual truth and that God was their hope and anchor. Edward Mote summed up the situation we all face well when he penned the hymn “My Hope is Built.” His simple words: “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”