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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Christopher Hitchens Strikes Out on Thomas Jefferson

One of my favorite things about early American religious history (one of my favorite topics to study) is the juxtaposition of actual history with the rhetoric of today's culture warriors who pose as historians. When pseudo-historians like David Barton or Howard Zinn present their cases to a historically illiterate public, they do so knowing that most of the resistance they will meet will come in the form of watered-down political/religious rhetoric that usually fizzles out somewhere on the never-ending highway of cable news and talk radio. And though most choose to accept the rhetoric of their chosen "team" in this never-ending culture war, I believe that it is still important to at least attempt to expose the historical faux pas wherever they may creep up. Whether it be a strange Glenn Beck rant or a Peter Lillback blunder, I believe that the "umpires" of history should call these impostors out whenever possible.

And today, I believe we have found another batter, who despite his massive swing and impressive batting average, has whiffed on a pitch that he promised to take yard. In one of his last works of mortality, Christopher Hitchens, the Late, great intellectual and atheist extraordinaire, elected to stand in the box and take a few swings at the religious legacy of one Thomas Jefferson. In his 2009 biography on Jefferson, Hitchens claimed that he wanted to present a more nuanced view of his subject than is usually found in the works of Jefferson critics and worshipers. Despite this claim, Hitchens' work quickly diverts from his supposed path of objectivity and travels head-on into an inevitable collision with modern pop-culture, thus rendering the work to be of little historical value. Aside from its strange conclusions on Jefferson's relationships with his mother and with Meriwhether Lewis, not to mention its lack of historical perspective on slavery, Indians, etc., Hitchens' book makes some astonishing claims in the very department that Hitchens loves/hates most: religion.

Right from the start, it becomes very obvious that Hitchens is attempting to "claim" Jefferson for the atheist camp more than he is trying to let Jefferson speak for himself. Hitchens somehow feels qualified to read between the lines of Jefferson's public and private declarations on religion, which affords him the ability to claim atheism where no atheism is to be had. For example, when discussing the final days of Jefferson's life, Hitchens writes:

(Pp. 182).
As his days began to wane, Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he face the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much as to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgement if only because of the prudence he was compelled to reserve during his political life
In other words, Hitchens says, "Jefferson was probably an atheist but he couldn't admit it, due to his political duties."

And though it is true that Jefferson was far from being a Christian in any traditional way, to claim that Jefferson invoked religion purely for political reasons is reading between the lines. Virtually everything that Jefferson ever wrote on his personal religious beliefs reveal a private devotion to a providential god of nature, not a rejection of deity. So, while Hitchens was right to say that we must "reserve judgement" on Jefferson's religion, he could have done without the followup lines on political prudence being the exclusive reasons behind Jefferson's approval of religion.

***Strike 1***

Along with his weak attempt at portraying Thomas Jefferson as a closet atheist, Hitchens also fumbles the ball on his interpretation of deism. For Hitchens, deism of the 18th century was a strict belief in the absence of God from human affairs. No product of the Enlightenment could believe in any form of an intervening providential God and claim deism. This later proves problematic for Hitchens when he tries to classify Jefferson's public profession of faith (because he was privately an atheist) as deism, since Jefferson himself seemed to believe in a god who participated in human affairs:

(Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18).
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever

And finally, Hitchens takes his final hack of the bat when he incorrectly interprets Jefferson's motives for rewriting the Bible to his own liking. Hitchens claims that Jefferson's creation of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was meant to "[Throw] away all of the superfluous, ridiculous and devotional parts" of the Bible, and expunge "all mentions of angels, miracles and the resurrection" all in an effort to to separate "reason from faith." And though it is true that Jefferson removed many of the New Testament miracles, not all of the "ridiculous and devotional parts" were taken out. For example, Jefferson's "Bible" retains Jesus' emphasis on prayer, along with the blessings that come as a result. Jefferson's Bible also retains many of the teachings on the Father and the Holy Ghost, and their role(s) in assisting mankind. And perhaps most striking, Jefferson's Bible retains the belief that Jesus Christ himself will one day return to earth to judge mankind.

So much for the Jefferson Bible doing away with "all ridiculous and devotional parts." (Hat tip: M. DeForrest).

STRIKE 3. You're OUT!!!***

In summation, though Hitchens was a brilliant speaker, debater, writer and intellectual, he was not a historian. His biography (which really shouldn't even be considered a real biography but more of a "treatment") of Jefferson does not add much to the historiography of one of America's greatest statesmen. Regardless of this fact, Hitchens' book, like so many others from fellow culture warriors on both sides, is likely to influence many who regard history as the pursuit of "presentist" agendas mingled with the past. For me the book is pretty much on an equal footing with anything written by David Barton, Peter Lillback or Howard Zinn: on demand, fast food, quick fix, feel good, pill-that-numbs-the-pain, diluted commentary, camouflaged as history.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Life, Liberty and Property: Slavery and the Founding of America

America is a nation that has become synonymous with freedom. The hope that people of all races, religions, genders and backgrounds can have an equal and protected right to "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" has become the principal creed of the American experiment. This belief has been a constant work in progress, dating back to the time of our Founding Fathers. During the American Revolution, men Like John Adams, Patrick Henry and others tirelessly campaigned and urged the American public to embrace the ideals of independence, and to break the bands of tyranny from England. America’s war hero George Washington was inspiring troops to come together in a common cause, to win their freedom from what they saw as an oppressive King of England.

And though these founders are rightfully praised for their incredible efforts, the American Revolution was far from the perfect personification of human freedom. An entire race of people, for example, would not receive the benefits of independence or of personal liberty. The African American slave population was the greatest contradiction to the ideals of American independence. Their legacy not only confuses many Americans today, but it also greatly troubled the citizens of the early American republic. Citizens endeavored to justify their "rights" to Black "property" while at the same time praising the "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal." Needless to say, this contradiction was an ugly and uncomfortable truth of American society that was simply brushed under the table in most cases. The "peculiar institution", as it became known, was arguably the most ugly and painful thorn in the side of our nation's founders, a thorn they never fully removed.

With mounting tensions between England and her rebel colonies mounting, the Continental Congress looked to the redheaded, thirty-three-year-old Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to create the "marching orders" for the new nation. In a matter of days Jefferson would write one of the most amazing documents in world history, the Declaration of Independence. In this document Jefferson spelled out the reasons and justifications that the colonists had for independence, along with a list of grievances they had against the King of England. In addition, this Virginian master of hundreds of slaves attempted to address the slave issue. In his first draft of the DoI, Jefferson not only condemned the slave trade, but placed full blame for slavery in America on the shoulders of the King of England:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither… to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold.
As wonderful as all of this may have sounded, the Continental Congress elected to delete all references to the slave trade, fearing that it may actually harm the revolutionary movement. No doubt many of the signers themselves were slaveholders. While we today may look at Jefferson and others as hypocrites, it is worth remembering that they were (like us today) a product of their times. Slavery had become a reality for many early Americans. If the Congress truly wanted to gain the backing of the masses, the best way to do that was to ignore the slavery issue altogether.

With the "revised" draft of Jefferson’s Declaration now complete, the Continental Congress distributed the document to the masses. General Washington ordered it read to the men under his command. With all the excitement that this document caused, there is little doubt that many found it to be contradictory to the realities of 18th Century American life. The bold phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" only rang true for a section of the population. Women, Blacks, Native Americans, and many others were far from "equal" to their sophisticated American gentry neighbors. Regardless of this fact, the DoI inspired and gave hope to thousands of slaves, who sought for a way to break the chains of servitude.

Once the exhilaration of victory over Britain had worn off, the American people faced the challenge of creating a new government. With thirteen separate states, each with its unique culture and ideals, this proved to be a very difficult task. Under the Articles of Confederation the new nation was loosely tied together through a virtually powerless national authority. The new government quickly realized that it had little to no influence over the states. As problems arose, the new government was powerless to help. Since the Confederation was powerless to tax the states, they created the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This ordinance was created to help the government sell off the land north of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachian Mountains for colonization. This proved to be one of the Confederation’s finest moments. As historian Carol Berlin stated, the Northwest Ordinance was "without question, the government’s finest peacetime establishment" (A Brilliant Solution, 23).

The Northwest Ordinance had another side to it though. Article IV of the document stated that, "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory" (Slavery and the Founders, 40). This move on the part of the Northwest Ordinance was an obvious challenge to many of the accepted norms of the time. Clearly the slavery issue had been a popular topic of the time, and many people felt that the institution had to be eradicated before the revolutionary ideals could be fully realized. Others, however, felt that slavery was an institution worthy of full government protection. As historian Joseph Ellis points out, "slavery was woven into the fabric of American society in ways that defied appeals to logic or morality" (Founding Brothers, 91).

Despite its controversy verbiage, Article IV did not become a source of debate for those for and against slavery. As historian Paul Finkelman argues, southern slaveholders were more than willing to accept the article because to them it meant slavery would continue in the south, and it would prevent settlers of the new territory from competing with their monopoly on Black labor (Slavery and the Founders, 42). Slaveholders also took comfort in the apparent ambiguity of Article IV. For example, Article IV (and the ordinance in general) said nothing about the fate of slaves already living in the territory. It also said nothing about the children of slaves who would be born in the territory. Much of the ambiguity of this article came as a result of its hasty adoption. It was quickly created and accepted with little to no revision. As Paul Finkelman calls it, "The Ordinance illustrates the danger of hastily drafted legislation" (Slavery and the Founders, 48). Had Article IV been better scrutinized before being accepted, then perhaps the pro-slavery arguments would have had not footing to stand on.

As the infant nation continued to define itself, many prominent members of society began seeing a shadow of uncertainty cast over their republican experiment. Men like Madison, Hamilton and Washington began to believe that only a strong nationalized government could secure America’s future. As a result, a Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia, in the very building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Men from 12 of the 13 states came together to discuss different solutions to a growing problem. Opinions varied greatly on whether a new government should be created, and how that new government should look.

After great debates and great compromises the Constitution of the United States was created and ratified. Debates over representation in the national legislature, the nature of the Executive branch, and the protection of individual rights were among the issues debated. But of all the debates that came to the forefront of the convention, the problem of slavery took center stage. As James Madison stated, "the States were divided into different interests not by their difference in size, but principally from their having or not of slaves" (Founding Brothers, 91). Southern states desperately wanted to protect the institution, or at least extend its lifespan. Those who sought to destroy slavery through Constitutional laws were met with disappointment. As Carol Berkin states, "Any attempt to raise the moral issue of slavery was just as quickly rejected" (A Brilliant Solution, 113). Eventually, northern states gave up on the slavery issue and acquiesced to the demands of their southern brethren by accepting the compromise to allow slaves to be counted as 3/5 a person in the representation of a state. This 3/5 Compromise gave slaveholders the comfort of knowing that they would be able to safeguard their "property" from northern abolitionists, and ensured that they would play a major (perhaps the major) role in American politics for the next 70-80 years.

The newly ratified Constitution also served to protect slavery in other ways. The southern delegates were able to gain the guarantee that the slave trade would be Constitutionally protected for at least twenty years. Although many abolitionists were no doubt devastated, many also realized that securing the ratification of the Constitution was a more pressing need. Southern delegates would have been reluctant to sign any Constitution that did not give specific safeguards to slavery. As Joseph Ellis points out, "The distinguishing feature of the document (Constitution) when it came to slavery was its evasiveness. It was neither a contract with abolition nor a covenant with death, but rather a prudent exercise in ambiguity" (Founding Brothers, 93). The southern slaveholders had won a major victory in securing their slave-holding rights. Any effort to restrict or eliminate the institution would have to overcome the massive hurdle of the Constitution. In short, the south had won one of the key battles to secure the legacy of the American Revolution. The rest of the war would have to wait to be settled till the 1860s.

Slavery was not only an institution protected by law in the early American republic, but it also became an institution that defined the early American republic. The complex and immoral debates that arose in defense of the institution helped to determine the actions of many Founding Fathers. The creation of the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Constitution were all influenced by the existence of slavery. Through the actions of our early founders, slavery became not only an institution but also a culture, fully protected by law. It is no wonder that slavery, and all the debates that went with it, would continue to shape American history and eventually contribute to our bloodiest war ever: The Civil War.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dear GOP: Thomas Paine Wouldn't Like You

Over at his excellent blog, historian J.L. Bell takes Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to task for a recent (and fake) quote he used during his Nevada Caucus speech. Here is the video:

This is a stirring quote and Romney supporters gobbled it up like there was no tomorrow. Only one problem: it's bogus. As J.L. Bell points out via Buzzfeed:

The quote is widely attributed to Paine online, but searching through his works [also easily done online] revealed that the quote doesn't appear in any of them. Fred Shapiro, editor of the authoritative Yale Book of Quotations published by Yale University Press, told BuzzFeed that "the notion that Thomas Paine said this is extremely ridiculous."
Apparently Mitt Romney got the message...kinda...sorta. A couple days after making the historical faux pas, Romney abandoned referencing Thomas Paine but not the quote:

Sorry, Governor. Thanks for trying. You still failed.

But in fairness to Governor Romney (and I personally have no problem with the man or his candidacy), this is not the first time that a GOP figure has misused Thomas Paine. I am reminded of a few years ago when radio nut-job Glenn Beck kept invoking the legacy of Thomas Paine to support his conservative talking points. Heck, Beck even went so far as to write a book entitled "Common Sense" (just like Paine's), which he claimed was written in part to honor one of his favorite revolutionary characters. Beck also invoked Thomas Paine on his television and radio programs on numerous occasions. For example:

Yes, it is fair to say that Glenn Beck once had a deep love affair with one Thomas Paine, and GOP activists surely gobbled up this bogus actor's intense portrayal of a modern day, Tea Party-loving Thomas Paine, who not only just happened to agree with everything they believe, but also presents himself as a creepy Dracula figure.

But, sadly, Glenn Beck has given up on Thomas Paine in recent years. Why is that, you ask? Because Beck eventually learned the painful truth that Thomas Paine had almost nothing in common with modern day conservatism. I guess this is what happens when you try to preach history at the same time that you are learning it. Things can get a bit messy, a lesson Glenn Beck has learned first-hand as he came to the realization that the REAL Thomas Paine stood for almost everything Beck hates. For example:

1.) Beck believes that America is a "Christian Nation" and that religion in America is under attack. Thomas Paine believed that religion was a fraud and a plague in society. As Paine stated, "The Bible is such a book of lies and contradictions there is no knowing which part to believe or whether any” and " “We must be compelled to hold this doctrine to be false, and the old and new law called the Old and New Testament, to be impositions, fables and forgeries.”

2.) Beck believes that progressive taxation is unconstitutional and destructive of American society. Thomas Paine believed strongly in progressive taxation. Paine wanted estate taxes, land taxes, revenue taxes, taxes on the rich, etc.

3.) Beck believes that America was never meant to be a welfare nation. Thomas Paine believed that it was one of the duties of the new republic to provide welfare for the needy.

Thomas Paine also favored feminism, large government, government programs, animal rights, restrictions on religion, and a number of other things that Glenn Beck believes are "evil." In short, Thomas Paine and Glenn Beck are about as far apart from one another as you can get. Perhaps this is why Glenn Beck has moved on to hijacking and pretending to be a different founder these days?

So what is the deal with modern day conservatives invoking the legacy of arguably our most liberal founding father? Are they just stupid?

I believe it is because Thomas Paine is such a quotable founder and his rhetoric appeals to virtually everyone these days (as it did back in his day). Paine was a FANTASTIC writer. His words cut as deep to the 21st century reader as they did to the 18th century citizen. For this reason, Paine is a desirable man to have in your corner. But the fact remains that Thomas Paine was not supportive of the type of government/politics that Mitt Romney, Glenn Beck and most of today's GOP proclaim as gospel. And I am not criticizing those political views. There is much in modern day conservatism that I find valuable. With that said, this bizarre GOP love affair with all things Thomas Paine needs to stop. Thomas Paine was NOT a conservative, and I believe he would detest today's Republican candidates, windbag talk radio hosts and Tea Party protesters.

Sorry folks, Paine was an evil "progressive."