Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Founder’s Intent: Analyzing the Contrasting Use of Religious Rhetoric Between Common Sense and the Federalist Papers

We recently presented an updated version of this paper at the Telos Conference in New York City 2-15-13. Click here to read : Christianity, the Founder’s Intent, and Post-Secular Society: Analyzing the Contrasting Use of Religious Rhetoric Between Common Sense and the Federalist Papers

Sunday evening, May 2nd at 11:35 pm EST, President Barack Obama addressed the people of the United States on national television. The purpose of the address was to inform the nation that Osama Bin Laden had been assassinated in Pakistan. President Obama fused religious language with political language when he concluded his speech by saying:
The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.
Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America. (Obama 2011)
President Obama concluded this speech by appealing to the historical concept of American exceptionalism that consists of God’s provision for his chosen nation to be victorious, prosperous, and moral (Dreisbach 2009, 96). The early colonialists used similar language as they envisioned themselves as the Israel of old (Dreisbach 2009, Gaustad 1987, 7); after the revolution, Americans regarded George Washington as a Moses like figure that led the Americans into a new world just as Moses had led the Israelites out of the wilderness (Hay 1969, Gaustad 1987, Noll 1993); and President Lincoln appealed the God’s sovereign plan in his Second Inaugural (White 2003). The fusion of political and religious language has created a confused legacy of religion in America (Krammick and Moore 2005) that began with the founding generation and the writings of the founding fathers. American’s continue to appeal to the founding fathers to argue that the United States is a either a Christian nation or a secular nation.
I argue that any simple reading of the founding fathers writings can support either argument but to understand why religion in America is still confused; we must pay attention to how religion has been used as a rhetorical device to achieve specific goals at specific times. More specifically, the founders employed Christian language as a rhetorical strategy to motivate Americans to rebel against England but did not use Christian language to persuade the people to ratify the constitution. Therefore, reading the pre-revolutionary works of the founders may lead to the belief that the founders created a Christian nation while reading the works of the constitutional era would lead to the opposite.
To better understand how the founding fathers used religion as a rhetorical device I contrast the rhetorical strategies of the revolutionary and constitutional era. To accomplish this I analyze Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. This is not an exhaustive comparison of the literature of each time period, but each document is widely considered the most important of its time (Cousins 1958, Bruns 1978, Diamond 1959[1], Muggs 2007, Mercieca 2010). To understand the contrast in rhetoric, we must first understand the contrast in the objectives of each text. Common Sense was written to deconstruct the authority of the British government and the Federalist Papers were written to support the construction of a strong centralized American government.

Religious Rhetoric in Common Sense

Common Sense
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, is viewed as having the greatest impact on arousing the American colonies to the call of national independence (Cousins 1958) because it persuaded the people that “the monarchical fiction” of the British government “never made sense in the first place” (Mercieca 2010, 74) and “made the arguments for separation and for the establishment of a republic come alive and inspired people to meet a dramatic challenge.” (Cousins 1958, 391) As the most widely distributed pamphlet of its time (Mercieca 2010), Common Sense, connected the people’s distrust of hereditary authority[2] (Noll 1993) and their belief in the authority of the Bible to invalidate government based on the divine right of kings and hereditary succession. George Washington also credited it with causing, “‘a powerful change in the minds of many men.’”(Cousins 1958, 391)
Paine used the biblical stories of Gideon, Samuel, and Adam to connect the unbiblical concept of a king, to the argument in Common Sense, that the rule of a king is unnatural for all humanity. In this way, Paine is able to connect Christian beliefs with the enlightenment idea of the natural rights of all men. He first establishes that the American cause is the cause of all humanity:
The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which all lovers of Mankind are affected.
He then employs the Bible to argue that the rule by a king is unnatural:
As the exalting of one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture.
In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which there was no war; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.
Next, Paine states that the unnatural rule by king was introduced by heathens and copied by the Jewish people in the Old Testament and uses the stories of Gideon and Samuel to illustrate how the Almighty disapproves of such a form of government.
Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the heathens, from whom the children of Children of Israel copied the custom.
Gideon… replied I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. The Lord shall rule over you.
And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God that we die not, for WE HAVE ADDED UNTO OUR SINS THIS EVIL, TO ASK A KING.
Finally, Paine connects the unbiblical legacy of monarchy with war and destruction and the English monarchy with a legacy of war and destruction:
In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. ‘Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.
In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation… Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.
Mark Noll (1993) discusses how evangelical and republican vocabularies merged into a “full blown Christian republicanism” (Noll 1993, 630) between 1770 and 1790 and how political writers began to tailor their projects to fit these normative languages. Noll explains:
When Paine published Common Sense in 1776, he probably already had come to the conclusion, as he put it later, that most of the Old Testament, with "a few phrases excepted . . . deserves either our abhorrence or our contempt." But this opinion did not prevent him from citing the Hebrew scriptures at great length in his attack on monarchy and hereditary successions of rulers. (Noll 1993, 630)
Thomas Paine the Deist[3], like many of the founding fathers[4], did not believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible but still utilized the Biblical narratives to persuade the American people that the British government, based on the divine right of the king, was not just unnatural, in an enlightened sense, and harmful to the self governance of the American people, but that is was also unbiblical and detested by God. Mark Noll also argues that Paine’s utilization of religious rhetoric was essential for the justification of the revolution (Noll 1993, 633). He argues along with Gordon Wood that:
There was none of the legendary tyranny that had so often driven desperate peoples into revolution. The Americans were not an oppressed people; they had no crushing imperial shackles to throw off. In fact the Americans knew they were probably freer and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchical restraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century. (Wood 1966, 5)
Noll contends that even though the Americans did not face they type of tyranny they still perceived the revolution as a just war (Noll 1993, 633) and as they revolted “’not against tyranny inflicted, but only against tyranny anticipated,’” (Moses Coit Tyler quoted in Wood 1966, 6) they began to see the cause of America as the Cause of Christ (Noll 1993, 636).  Therefore, in order for revolutionary writers, such as Thomas Paine, to impel the American people to take up arms, fight for freedom, and construct their own government, they needed to appeal to that which was a believed foundation of authority – the Bible. Paine’s rhetorical employment of the biblical narrative contributed to the immense influence that Common Sense had in the changing of the minds of Americans which inspired them to meet the dramatic challenge of fighting for the American independence (Noll 1993, Wood 1966).

Religion in the Federalist Papers

Click here to read the 
Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers, “perhaps the most brilliant and incisive examination into the nature and function of popular government that has appeared in any language at any time,” (Cousins 328) were written to persuade the people to ratify the constitution. The objective of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay was to make the case for a strong federal government and develop a national identity (Miller 1988). John Jay, the only evangelical of the group (Noll 1993), constructed the American people as a single cohesive group in the Federalist 2 when he wrote:
With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—
He then constructed a cohesive history:
a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language,
and a common religion:
professing the same religion,
Jay continues to construct a cohesive American identity in which all have the same beliefs in government:
attached to the same principles of government,
with similar cultural traditions:
very similar in their manners and customs,
and who all fought to achieve American freedom:
and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. (Jay Federalist 2 emphasis mine)
Jay, in the previous passage creates a national identity as he breaks down he local associations to:
…undermine the parochialism that led citizens to see themselves primarily as members of towns and states rather than as part of ‘we the united American people.’ This united people, not citizens gathered in towns, counties, and states, would hereafter wield sovereign power in America, or to put it more accurately, the national government would wield sovereign power in their name. (Miller 1988, 105, 106)
By constructing a national identity of a unified people with one history, religion, politic, and culture, the Federalists were attempting to connect individual Americans directly to the federal government. In the Federalist 10, James Madison seemingly ignored Jay’s construction of a national identity as he argued that the Constitution created a style of government that was able to manage the factions that existed in America:
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
And in one of the few references to religion in all of the Federalist Papers, Madison argued that religious passion is a latent cause of faction:
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions,
and that religious passion not only lead to faction but also to people oppressing each other:
have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. (Madison Federalist 10)
The main purpose of the Federalist 10 is to argue the preeminence of a republic over a democracy:
Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
because a republican form of government is able to secure the public good against faction:
To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
So, when he wrote about religion in the Federalist 10, it was argue that religion is not adequate to manage the factions that religious zeal creates:
By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful (emphasis mine).
The Federalist Papers are nearly devoid of religious reference but when Madison stated: “we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control,” (Madison Federalist 10) he “totally undercuts its value as a governmental means to promote civic virtue.” (Kramnick and Moore 2005, 31) Instead of using religious rhetoric to legitimate the constitution, “the Federalists' great accomplishment in political theory was to establish a direct relationship between the national government and the people, which would discourage democracy.” (Miller 1988, 100) Deemphasizing religion was a way to deemphasize local authorities outside of the national government.
The objective of the Federalists differed from the objectives of Thomas Paine, which lead to different uses of religious rhetoric. Regardless, of the each of the four author’s personal beliefs, the use or non-use of Christian rhetoric is determined by the time period they are writing in and the purpose of the text. Thomas Paine was writing to destabilize society by deconstructing the legitimacy of English rule, while Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were writing to stabilize society by supporting the legitimacy of the Constitution. Common Sense appealed to the American’s belief in the authority of the Bible to persuade them to rebel against the unbiblical structure of the English government, while the Federalist Papers attempted to protect the religious liberty of the various Christian sects that vied for power and authority in the new American Government (Arkin 1995, Kamnick and Moore 2005). Thomas Paine wrote to incite the passion of religion, while Madison, Jay, and Hamilton wrote to avoid or minimize the passion of religion. Paine wrote to disassociate Americans from their English identity, while The Federalists wrote to construct a new national identity.


In this paper, I analyzed the most influential writing of the revolutionary era – Common Sense and the most influential documents of the constitutional era – the Federalist Papers. The relationship between the founding fathers, religion, the American people, the revolution, and the constitution is complex and further research needs to be conducted to truly understand how religion influenced the founding fathers in each period and how their use of religious rhetoric influenced the American people during each time period. It is hard to know the exact intentions of each author’s words, whether or not they intended to found a Christian nation. My objective with this paper has not been to establish what the founder believed or intended but to show the ways in which the founders employed religious rhetoric differently in each time period. Approaching the words of the founding fathers from this direction allows us to better understand the purpose of their words and how lifting their words outside of the specific context and purpose allows us to justify opposing positions about the founding of the nation.
On the one hand, our civil religion links us to the biblical tradition; on the other hand, the moral and political philosophies of the enlightenment instill in us a deeply utilitarian orientation. (Wuthnow 1988, 395)
By situating the writings within their socio-historical context, we can liberate the words from our current interpretation which allows us to understanding why they chose to you use or not use religious rhetoric when speaking to different crowds, at different times, and with different goals. Most importantly, this inquiry into the words of the founding fathers shows how there is no single group of founders that embodied cohesive ideologies about religion and government; therefore we should not base our arguments about the relationship between church and state on what the founders intended.
Each founder held individual beliefs about religion but they used religion rhetorically as they addressed the diverse groups of people who lived in different states, belonged to different churches, and held different cultural beliefs. If we desire to base our current beliefs about the role of religion in government, it is not sufficient to appeal to the intentions of the founding fathers; rather we must look at what each founder said, when he said it, and whom he was speaking to. After such analysis, we can then attempt to make deductions about how the writings of the founding fathers appeal to our contemporary situation.
“The fact that there was to be no state church did not mean that the founding fathers did not have a profound respect for spiritual belief. They were aware of the persecution and discrimination that existed in the colonies whenever the state sponsored its own church and arrogated to itself the right to legislate against dissenters.” (Cousins 13)

Works Cited
Arkin, Marc M. 1995. "’The Intractable Principle:’ David Hume, James Madison, Religion, and the Tenth Federalist.” The American Journal of Legal History. 39: 148-176
Bruns, Roger. 1978. “A More Perfect Union: The Creation of the United States Constition.” The National Archives and Records Service (GSA).
Cousins, Norman. 1958. “In God We Trust”: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers. Kingsport: Kingsport Press, Inc.
Diamond, Martin. 1959. “Democracy and the Federalist: A Reconsideration of the Framers' Intent.” The American Political Science Review. 53:52-68.
Dreisbach, Daniel L. 2009. “Micah 6:8 in the Literature of the American Founding Era: A Note on Religion and Rhetoric.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs. 12: 91-106
Edwin S. Gaustad. 1987. Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.
Hamilton, Alexander, Madison, James, and Jay, John. 1787. The Federalist Papers. Accesses online at
Hay, Robert P. 1969. “George Washington: American Moses.” American Quarterly. 21: 780-791.
Kramnick, Isaac and Moore, Laurence R. 2005. The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Lindsay, Thomas. 1991. “James Madison on Religion and Politics.” The American Political Science Review. 85: 1321-1337.
Mercieca, Jennifer R. 2010. Founding Fictions. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.
Miller, Joshua. 1988. “The Ghostly Body Politic: The Federalist Papers and Popular Sovereignty.” Political Theory. 16: 99-119.
Noll, Mark. A. 1993. “The American Revolution and Protestant Evangelicalism.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 23: 615-638.
Paine, Thomas. 1776. Common Sense.
Rodgers, Daniel T. 1987. Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics Since Independence. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.
Wood, Gordon S. 1966. “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 23: 3-32.
Wuthnow, Robert. 1988. “Divided We Fall: America’s Two Civil Religions.” The Christian Century. April 20: 395-399

[1] In using these two documents for the analysis of the two time periods, I follow Martin Diamond’s example: “For the reflections on the Fathers which follow, I employ chiefly The Federalist as the clue to the political theory upon which rested the founding of the American Republic. That this would be inadequate for a systematic study of the Founding Fathers goes without saying. But it is the one book, ‘to which,’ as Jefferson wrote in 1825, ‘appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed and of those who accepted the Constitution of the United States, on questions as to its genuine meaning.’ As such it is an indispensable starting point for a systematic study.” (Diamond 1959, 53)
[2] “Most Americans likewise shared both a mistrust of hereditary intellectual authority and a belief that true knowledge arose from the use of one’s own senses – whether the external senses for knowledge about nature and society, or the moral sense for ethical and aesthetic judgments. Most Americans were thus united in the conviction that people had to think for themselves in order to know science, morality, economics, politics, and even theology.” (Noll 1993, 616)
[3] Krammick and Moore define deism as “A non-doctrinaire religion, deism rejected a supernatural faith built around an anthropomorphic God who intervened in human affairs, either in answer to prayer or for other inscrutable reasons. Instead it posited a naturalistic religion with a God understood as a supreme intelligence who after creating the world destined it to operate forever after according to natural, rational, and scientific laws” (Krammick and Moore 2005, 34)
[4] And though most of them resisted the literal Biblical view of creation, they maintained respect for the Bible as the source of Judeo-Christian religious belief. They were opposed to legislation that sought literal acceptance of Biblical interpretation of the universe and man’s place in it. Similarly, they were opposed to laws – which actually existed in several of the American states – making church attendance compulsory. Man’s approach to God, they believed, was as personal as his soul. (Cousins 1958, 9) 

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