Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

By James H. Hutson | Go to book overview

SIX
RELIGION AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

Neither the revolutionary state governments nor the Articles of Confederation gave Americans stability and prosperity. Consequently, a group of energetic, young leaders, responding to a demand (that they themselves had helped stimulate) for a new national government, convened in Philadelphia in May 1787 and in four months produced the federal Constitution, the summa of American statecraft. Some Americans have believed that the Constitution was divinely inspired, a fact that the Framers, to the surprise and dismay of numbers of their contemporaries, refused to acknowledge.

"Many pious people," Benjamin Rush complained to John Adams in 1789, "wish the name of the Supreme Being had been introduced somewhere in the new Constitution."1 A few years later Timothy Dwight returned to the subject: "we found the Constitution without any acknowledgement of God; without any recognition of his mercies to us . . . or even of his existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction or his blessing upon their labours."2 That the Constitution glanced in God's direction--certifying in Article 7 that it was adopted "in the Year of our Lord" 1787 and recognizing, in Article 1, Section 7, the sanctity of the Sabbath by excluding it from the ten days in which a president was obliged to return a bill to Congress--did not appease pious Americans who considered these furtive references proof enough that the Framers had unaccountably turned their backs on the Almighty.

On the surface, at least, it seems that the critics were correct, for there appears to have been a greater poverty of spirit in the Constitutional Convention than in any major official gathering since the first meeting of the Continental Congress in September 1774. Why was this so? Why had men, who, as members of Congress, implored God to intervene on America's behalf or who, as members of state legislatures, pressed for general religious taxes, a short time later forgotten God in Philadelphia? The "father of the Constitution," James Madison, is part of the puzzle, for Madison was a mem-

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