Magazine article The American Conservative

Constitutional Calvinist

Magazine article The American Conservative

Constitutional Calvinist

Article excerpt

Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic, Mark David Hall, Oxford, 224 pages

This is the best life of Connecticut's foremost Founding Father ever written. More than that, it demonstrates once and for all that Calvinism played a very significant role in shaping the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution. Henceforth, historians will have to take account of Mark David Hall's book in all studies of "the creation of the American republic."

Hall sets out to correct a serious flaw in the historiography. While prominent accounts of the American Revolution's intellectual underpinnings devote considerable attention to the influence of Lockean, classical republican, Scottish Enlightenment traditions, the influence of Reformed Protestantism--that is, Calvinism--tends to be overlooked. Although the focus is on Sherman's political thinking, Hall tell us, his book shows that the Reformed tradition was central to the thought of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Oliver Ellsworth, Jonathan Trumbull, William Paterson, John Witherspoon, and several other prominent Calvinist politicians as well.

As Hall puts it, "I am not arguing that Calvinism was the only influence on Sherman and his colleagues, simply that it was a very important influence that needs to be taken more seriously if we are to appreciate the political theory and actions of many of America's founders." Hall here continues the project on which he, Daniel L. Dreisbach, and Jeffry H. Morrison have long been jointly and severally embarked: that of fleshing out the story of religion's influence on the politics of the Revolution and Early Republic.

Hall decries the tendency to write as if George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams (a group disproportionately composed of deists and marginally committed Christians) were the entirety of the Revolutionary generation, and then to deduce the meaning of America's original commitment to religious freedom from the ideas of those men. One illustration of this tendency is that, by Hall's calculation, Supreme Court justices writing opinions about the First Amendment's religion clauses have referred to Thomas Jefferson 112 times and to Sherman only three, even though Sherman helped write the First Amendment and Jefferson was away on diplomatic business in France at the time.

It is a bit naive for Hall to think that correcting the record will influence justices' opinions. After all, Associate Justice William Rehnquist showed how little relationship there is between Jefferson's private views on church and state and the meaning of the First Amendment in his Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) dissent, yet the majority in that case and other justices since have gone right on pointing to Jefferson's metaphor of "a wall of separation between church and state" as the essence of the original understanding. For those of us who want actually to understand our heritage, however, knowledge of Reformed politicians' role in the Revolution and early Republic is essential.

Roger Sherman played a unique role in making America. Only he signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, as well as helping to draft the Bill of Rights. Not only did he sign the Declaration, but he was also on the five-man committee charged with writing it. The typical account of the Declaration has Thomas Jefferson producing a Lockean document notably devoid of traditional Christian language. Hall demonstrates that while the Declaration's reference to "nature's God," its claim that government's function is to protect citizens' rights, and its assertion of a right to overthrow usurpatious rulers are consistent with Lockean thinking, they also are perfectly in keeping with John Calvin's teaching on those subjects, which antedated Locke's Second Treatise--and likely influenced Locke. That Sherman and his fellow Calvinists in the Second Continental Congress should have signed the Declaration is not the mystery that Louis Hartz and other proponents of the idea that American has always been Lockean have wanted to make it. …

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