Ideologically Opposed Foes: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson

Perhaps modern Americans view George Washington as either a pioneering hero, or else as a slave-holding enabler of a wicked regime.  Either way, for those who are well-versed in early American history, the common picture of Washington’s incredibly talented and utterly unique administration includes both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, among other giants of the colonial period.  In short, Washington’s cabinet often pits a liberty-loving, states’-rights thumping Jefferson against the financial whiz, Alexander Hamilton, and his grand schemes of a much larger federal government.  But my research has led me to question these caricatures as I consulted my source material.  My natural inclination is to imagine a flawless Thomas Jefferson (who was, unfortunately, a rationalist and atheist) waxing eloquently about natural rights and the Liberties divinely granted to all American citizens, and to picture Hamilton (whose religious pilgrimage and life were both fascinating and complicated) as a conniving and manipulative Statist who sees nothing wrong with an iron-fisted Big Brother as long as there is Order.  Naturally, history was more complex and nuanced than my initial impressions and prejudices.  

The man whom some accuse of being the philosophical father of big government Liberalism, Hamilton,  also said things like: “however weak our country may be, I hope we shall never sacrifice our liberties.”[1]  Granted, Jefferson spoke more loudly and more often for the cause of Liberty; he seemed a bit more squeamish about granting great powers to the chief executive of the United States; but Hamilton and James Madison spoke more brilliantly and more effectively than anyone in defense of the proposed Constitution.  While the philosophical debates between Jefferson and Hamilton laid the intellectual groundwork for political discussion on this side of the Atlantic for the next two centuries, I posit that Hamilton, who never was elected president, did more to shape the modern West than Jefferson did.

Thomas Jefferson hoped that America’s future would be that of an agrarian Eden, and Hamilton saw the immense potential of commerce, business, and trade.  “While other members of the revolutionary generation dreamed of an American Eden, Hamilton continued to ransack British and French history for ideas” on how to modernize the nation.[2]  He saw the possibilities of strengthening America’s military, building up the navy, and funding the government by expanding the public debt.  Jefferson had a very different opinion on the matter.  He once told his Secretary of Treasury the following: “I consider the fortunes of our republic as depending, in an eminent degree, on the extinguishment of the public debt …”[3]  As one historian wrote, “the failure to discharge the debt would send America careening down ‘the English career of debt, corruption, and rottenness, closing with revolution,’ ” to use the words of our third president.[4] 21st century America has seen plenty of corruption and rottenness from the political class, but we have not yet witnessed revolution.

 Several disputes made up the relationship between Hamilton and Jefferson, including the debate over the necessity and constitutionality over a national bank.  At the heart of the controversy regarding Hamilton’s bank were two conflicting visions of the proper role of this new government.  Jefferson was a Republican who not only wrote about the supreme virtues of Liberty: he firmly believed that men “were endowed … with certain unalienable rights,” as he wrote in his famous Declaration of Independence.  Hamilton was a financial genius who gave us the modern system of banking and trade.  Because of him “the federal government [is now] in the center of the nation’s financial system.”[5]  While Hamilton was Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, and at his behest, the federal government began a program that established a “public credit” and assumed the debts of individual states.  (Think Hamilton, the musical.)

Jefferson once wrote that “Hamilton’s system … ‘flowed from principles adverse to liberty[.]’”[6]  He “began with the assumption of individual sovereignty, then attempted to develop prescriptions for government that at best protected individual rights and at worst minimized the impact of government or the powers of the state on individual lives.”[7]  Jefferson and Hamilton clearly had different ends and different goals in their respective visions of proper government, so naturally the means that they employed conflicted.  When the teleology is not agreed upon, the proper way forward will certainly be up for debate.

In his suspicion of Hamilton, Jefferson even went so far as to suggest that the former’s system of government “was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department” – Hamilton was Washington’s Secretary of Treasury – “over the members of the legislature.”[8]  And so Jefferson began to sound a little paranoid.  As one biographer observed, “The public debt, paper money, excise taxes, the alleged corruption of the Congress: Jefferson believed it all could lead to the consummate betrayal. … The ‘ultimate object of all this is to prepare the way for a change from the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy, of which the English constitution is to be the model.’”[9]  Jefferson thus accused Hamilton and his followers of being closet monarchists who used the national debt to “[accrue] political power for themselves in tight bundles of coercion far removed from any popular restraints or public responsibilities. …”[10]  This was just one of the manifestations of their visions of government which were so incompatible.

Hamilton was indeed an Anglophile as compared to Jefferson, who was himself a Francophile.  Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton would always have America side with Britain over France.[11]  Hamilton, very different from Jefferson, said this to a British envoy: “I have always preferred a connection with you to that of any other county.  We think in English and have a similarity of prejudice and predilections.”[12]  Winston Churchill would later speak in similar terms.  But while Hamilton saw nothing wrong with the British way of life or system of government, Jefferson “knew – he felt – that America’s enemies were everywhere [and] the greatest of these was Britain, and not only during the struggle for independence.”[13]  This vision of a Fifty Years’ War with Britain colored all of Jefferson’s political views.  

In order to understand the dispute between these two pivotal politicians from the early years of the republic, perhaps it would be prudent to peer into their respective upbringings.  Jefferson and Hamilton were two very different men who came from very different backgrounds.  Jefferson’s heritage was one of wealth and privilege, while Hamilton came from a poor family, so he was forced to provide for himself at a young age.  “Jefferson was a member of one of Virginia’s most prominent families. … His early makeup thus blended aristocrat and frontiersman.”[14]  The young man who would grow up to author America’s Declaration of Independence and serve as the third President of the United States was the son of Jane Randolph Jefferson, “one of the wealthy, proud Randolphs, the most numerous family in Virginia’s planter elite”[15] and a surveyor and mapmaker named Peter Jefferson.  Thomas’s father was “An imposing, prosperous, well-liked farmer … [who] had amassed large tracts of land and scores of slaves in and around what became Albemarle County, Virginia.”[16]  Although he was not the wealthiest heir of Virginia, he does seem to have had a privileged and happy childhood and a mother and father that he would always love and respect.[17]

Alexander Hamilton, by contrast, was not “reared in tidy New England villages or cosseted on baronial Virginia estates,” like other founders; he “grew up in a tropical hellhole of dissipated whites and fractious slaves, all framed by a backdrop of luxuriant natural beauty.”[18]  Much like Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries, Nevis was the tiny island in the West Indies which Hamilton called his birthplace.  It became colonized by “vagabonds, criminals, and other riffraff swept from the London streets .…”[19] Hamilton, arguably the most influential founding father never to become president, did not often speak of his childhood on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and later St. Croix when he was so influential in Washington’s Cabinet.  Even on the island he was not among the wealthy, but “Hamilton’s family,” rather “clung to the insecure middle rung of West Indian life, squeezed between plantation aristocrats above and street rabble … below.”[20]  His mother left her husband, Alexander’s father, John, when the boy was very young.  Although records are scarce, the mother and her boy seem to have made their way to the little island of St. Croix.  Although he was not yet in his teens, Hamilton was left almost completely on his own because of his mother’s death.  When Alexander was in his teens, he would make his way to America, the land of promise for this brilliant and mercurial West Indian.

Following on the heels of the Washington and Adams presidencies, Thomas Jefferson became President and was faced with an $83 million debt.  Hamilton, the recent Secretary of Treasury, was a student of modern economics.  In fact, his forward-looking vision for America included “such devilish contrivances as banks, factories, and stock exchanges,” his opponents would say.[21]  Jefferson did not approve of Hamilton’s modern  policies, so he attempted to disassemble his national bank and slow its effects.  According to Jefferson’s political philosophy, the increase of the national debt was reckless and dangerous.  Even ten years after Jefferson left the presidency he lamented: “At home things are not well.  The flood of paper money … had produced an exaggeration of nominal prices and at the same time a facility of obtaining money, which not only encouraged speculations on fictitious capital, but seduced those of real capital, even in private life, to contract debts too freely.”[22]  Additionally, Hamilton’s Treasury Department flooded the market with paper money, “crushed all fictitious and doubtful capital, and reduced the prices of property and produce suddenly to 1/3 of what they had been.”[23]  Jefferson thought that if these effects remained, “a very general revolution of property must take place.”[24]  Our third president foresaw that the dangers of collecting the debt that will burden his children’s children.  He warned of policies “which [threaten] to saddle us with perpetual debt.”[25]  Jefferson had an immovable opposition to the economic system later championed by John Maynard Keynes.

On more than one occasion, Hamilton submitted recommendations to Congress that the Federal Government should assume the debts that the individual states had amassed.  When, as Secretary of the Treasury, he submitted his Report on Public Credit in 1790, Hamilton proposed the assumption of debt.  This led to a stalemate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists; this latter group would eventually die off and was replaced by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.  The gridlock was resolved by the Compromise of 1790, in which it was agreed that the Federal Government would assume the $83 million debt.

In the end, Hamilton seems to have championed the victorious positions, but this was a monumental debate between two colossal figures of early American history.  Their struggle became the substance of the debate between big government nationalists and those who advocate for the preeminence of states’ rights throughout the course of United States history.  The arguments between Jefferson and Hamilton had implications that stretched far beyond the life of Washington’s first administration.  Though Jefferson and Hamilton opposed each other mightily, they were both patriots fighting for the good of the country, as they defined that good.[26]

[1] Quoted in Read, James H. Power vs. Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson, Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia. 2000. 55.

[2] Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton, New York: Penguin. 2005. 295.

[3] Quoted in Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1996., 194.

[4] Ellis, 194.

[5] Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, New York: Random House. 2012. 242.

[6] Quoted in Meacham, 265.

[7] Ellis, 299-300.

[8] Meacham, 265.

[9] Quoted in Meacham, 263.

[10] See Ellis, 271.

[11] See Meacham, 248.

[12] Quoted in Chernow, 294.

[13] Meacham, xxvii.

[14] Bernstein, R. B. Thomas Jefferson, New York: Oxford University Press. 2003. 1.

[15] Bernstein, 2.

[16] Meacham, 3.

[17] See Meacham, 6.

[18] Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton, New York: Penguin. 2005. 8.

[19] Chernow, 8.

[20] Chernow, 8.

[21] Hamilton, 3.

[22] Jefferson in a letter to Albert Gallatin. Jefferson’s Writings, 1448.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] See Meacham, 796.

Social Justice Warriors and the Religion of “Woke”

In his remarkable book American Awakening, Professor Joshua Mitchell connects identity politics and modern-day crusaders for so-called Social Justice with an underlying religious motive.  Perhaps one might say that Mitchell explores the inverse relationship between a robust religious culture with “Woke” social justice warriorism.  Whereas Christian doctrine teaches that man in his original estate was the crown of a “very good” created order, only to be cast out by sin against the God who created him.  The philosophy of identity politics and social justice asserts that the world is indeed religious.  

According to this novel worldview, the world has indeed gone wrong, but the perceived injustice is not sin against a holy God, but rather transgression and innocence are based upon racial and not moral injustice.  In other words, the woke SJW who subscribes to a secular worldview maintain Christian categories (transgression and innocence), but this stain is without God and without any hope of forgiveness.  Speaking for myself, I would be hard-pressed to find a better example of an idea which has “a form of godliness” while “denying its power” (II Timothy 3:15) than identity politics.  Mitchell asserts that in this new world of identity politics, “God is nowhere to be found … Neither is forgiveness.”[1]

Along those same lines, i.e. the replacement of biblical redemption with secular ends, British historian Paul Johnson argues persuasively that “the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse [among the advanced races] would leave a huge vacuum.”[2]  Johnson concludes that the bloody, war-ravaged 20th century is largely the history of how that vacuum was filled: namely, a secular ideology of one kind or another and its victims.  Among them, Hitler’s 30 million slaughtered, Stalin’s 60 million annihilated, and Mao’s 45 million sacrificed in the name of “progress”.

Prof. Mitchell makes a related point when he asserts that “Americans have lost or are losing their religion; however, the fever of identity politics that now sweeps the nation” is simply a political and ideological worldview that is attempting to fill the void left by traditional religion.[3]  Again, he argues that the identity politics of innocence has transformed politics, essentially turning politics into a religious venue of sacrificial offering. 

This is a new and godless religion or worldview, rather than simply a continuation of Leftist ideology.  In the religion or ethic of Woke, the new dogma indeed has all the markings of the birth of a new religion.

In Mitchell’s conception of this novel, profoundly godless and distorted Awakening, there is an invisible economy measuring transgression and innocence.  At the bottom of this racial and sexual hierarchy sits the white, heterosexual male.  This class of Western person must be purged like an Old Testament scapegoat in order for African-Americans, women, and persons who identify as LGBTQ or other various identity groups to ascent the newly minted hill of social justice.  This quest for so-called ‘equity’ – and notice the term! Not liberty or justice or even equality – equity becomes an exercise in scapegoating a la Rene Girard.  

In both Girard’s conception and the Old Testament, the concept of the scapegoat is that the stain or sin of the community is transferred onto the head of a goat and sent out of the camp.  This prefigures the Divine Scapegoat, Jesus Christ, who renders the impure pure by taking upon himself the sins of the world.  But in the distorted philosophy of identity politics and intersectionality, the scapegoat is the white, heterosexual man rather than the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.  Indeed, the person and work of Christ has no place in this godless ideology, which is itself pathological.

We Americans living in the advanced modern world are not left without weapons in this intellectual and spiritual battle, however.  The Apostle Paul exhorted the saints in Ephesus to be mature, “so that [they] may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).  The worldview of identity politics and the intersectionality scorecard, if you will, is ingenious in its conception, but it is such an infinite regression that there can be no ultimate victor!  Take, just as an example, a black, transgender lesbian, who may be on the top of the heap one day, but she will only remain so for ten minutes before someone else comes along with a “higher intersectional score”.  The craftiness of this deceitful and fanciful scheme is brilliant if the aim is to replace traditional Christianity, but guilt and transgression of sin remains, even for the most intersectional intersex lesbian minority.  And yet the fact of guilt regarding God’s moral law and a God-given conscience possessed by every man, woman, and child created in His image still plagues anyone outside of Jesus.  Everyone who is not born again must go to sleep at night in peace or in anxious fears of guilt, transgression, and stain.

That is ultimately why the rise of identity politics and intersectionality seems pervasive now but is doomed to failure.  Its foundation is faulty, and so it will collapse under the weight of its own absurdity.  All of it rests on sand invented in some American or European academy, rather than the bedrock of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  So for all of the intersectional points, accounting ledgers, adherents and cultural dominance that seems to be flooding into Western halls of power, the entire scheme is worldly and built upon transitory sand.  As Jesus concluded the Sermon of the Mount, the winds will blow and the waters will rise – as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow morning – and when they do, the house built on a faulty foundation will collapse.  All the while, the mountain of the Lord’s house, his church, is built on a foundation of granite.  No matter what worldly tempests are blowing or threatening her, she will survive.

As Hilaire Belloc once quipped, “The Church is a perpetually defeated thing that always outlives her conquerors.”  And I, for one, do not see why this current ascendent conqueror which threatens to finally undo her will be any different.

[1] Joshua Mitchell. American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. New York: Encounter Books, 2020. xix.

[2] Paul Johnson. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. 48.

[3] Mitchell, xx.

Religious Liberty and Inalienable Rights: American public policy and human dignity

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This document from the U.N. General Assembly of 1948 was intended to be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,”[1] but the principles contained in it have not been universally acknowledged by all human governments either before or since it was written.  And while there is more than a hint of classical liberal idealism here, I remain committed to a belief in universal human dignity which should be reflected in certain inalienable rights, the rights of conscience, religion, and belief chief among these.

During the Middle Ages, priests and popes “wielded a robust influence on their king, emperor, and the laws of the realm …”[2]  With the dawning of the seventeenth century, however, the cultural tide turned, and the world of politics began to view religion with hostility.  By the twentieth century, the world was so thoroughly secularized that “in 1966 Time magazine printed starkly on its cover, ‘Is God Dead?’ recalling German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s audacious assertions at the end of the previous century.”[3]  The world appeared to be leaving the realm of divine revelation in the hopes of a white-robed clergy of scientists.  Like the editors of Time, many thought the “secularization thesis” – which predicted the diminishing and eventual defeat of religion – was the inexorable direction of Western culture.  But the eventual reality may well be more nuanced than that.

The great sociologist Peter Berger was an early proponent of the secularization thesis, claiming that by “the 21stcentury, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a world-wide secular culture.”[4]  Between 1900 and 2000, however, contrary to predictions, there was significant growth in adherents to Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.[5] This growth led Berger to declare in 1998 that “the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.”[6]  In point of fact, global religion made a comeback between 1960 and the end of the century, and according to Toft, Philpott, and Shah, this development was aided by forces that were supposed to bury religion: globalization, democratization, and modernization.[7]

Philosopher Roger Trigg might say that the revival of religion in the world is only natural.  He once asserted that “religious impulses are built out of very basic elements of human cognition.  They are part of what it is to be human …”[8]  In his magisterial history, Modern Times, historian Paul Johnson uses the same phrase: 

“The collapse of the religious impulse among the educated classes in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century … left a vacuum that was filled by politicians wielding power under the banner of totalitarian ideologies – whether ‘blood and soil’ fascism or atheistic Communism. Thus the attempt to live without God made idols of politics and produced the century’s ‘gangster statesmen’ – Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot – whose ‘unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind’ unleashed unimaginable horrors.”[9]  

Or as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.’”[10] This same idea was central to the narrative of Johnson’s history.  The horrors of World Wars I and II and the terrors of impending nuclear war started with the abandonment of God.  

The twentieth century told the story not only of the forsaking of God, but the active persecution of Christians.  An internationally recognized expert on religion and politics, Professor Allen D. Hertzke writes that in countries like North Korea, China, and Pakistan, believers are persecuted even today.  Having been persecuted since the rise of Communism, “Perhaps only 1 percent of North Korea’s population are now Christians. … Sent to labor camps, ‘Christians are given the heaviest work, the least amount of food, and the worst conditions of the prison.’  Witnesses report Christians being executed with hot irons; children and grandchildren of Christians face life imprisonment for the beliefs and practices of their progenitors.  A death sentence awaits those refugees forcibly returned by China who are suspected of being Christians.”[11]

China itself is not much friendlier to these religious believers: “Because of the size of the underground Christian church, the Chinese authorities keep busy arresting believers and destroying church sites.  According to Freedom House, China owns the dubious distinction of having more Christian prisoners than any country in the world.”[12]  And these aren’t the only offending nations.  Using four comprehensive studies, Grim and Finke found that 

Of the 143 countries with populations of two million or more, between July 1, 2000, and June 30, 2007, 86 percent (123 countries) have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of a lack of religious freedom, that is, religious persecution.  Several of these cases, such as China, Sudan, and Afghanistan, are well known, but the persecution goes far beyond these few countries.[13]  

In the same vein, Hertzke concludes: “It has been estimated that some 200 million Christians live in countries where they face serious persecution, while another 400 million face non-trivial restrictions of their religious freedom.  Probably thousands are killed annually, victims of despotic regimes or communal violence, an astonishing figure vastly underplayed by the Western press.”[14]

According to some scholars, when governments restrict religious freedoms in the hopes of maintaining order and preventing violence, “the fact is that fewer religious freedoms often results in more violent persecution and conflict.”[15]  Both the widespread religious persecution of religious minorities and the “priority [which] the world’s dictators place on denying [religious liberty]”[16] led to grand statements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to secure religious freedom.  According to Linda C. Keith, “close to three-quarters of the world’s nation-states have legally recognized a comprehensive set of human rights and have pledged to take appropriate action to protect or provide these rights.”[17]  The effectiveness of the pledge is not always clear, but when the United States promotes religious freedom both within its borders and in its foreign policy, this “can be viewed as nudging nations to live up to international covenants they agreed to.”[18]  Regardless of its real impact, the near universal sentiment affirming the Universal Declaration is itself remarkable.

The importance of these comprehensive statements is hard to overstate.  Echoing Trigg’s notion about the naturalness of religion, Os Guinness writes that “nothing is more essential to humans than meaning and belonging, nothing is easier and more natural than answering the ultimate questions through religion, nothing is more vital than freedom of thought and conscience in dealing with meaning and belonging …”[19]  Jack Friedman and Timothy S. Shah write that, “if religion were natural in this strong sense, we should expect – as a matter of empirical fact – that religion cannot be suppressed, or eradicated, or dismissed as obsolescent without highly disruptive and deleterious consequences for individuals and for society as a whole.”[20]  Thus while mere affirmation of the truths may not prevent a nation’s evil, the full weight of the international community is behind these declarations.  Indeed, the Universal Declaration “[stands] in the shining tradition of the Magna Carta … the English Bill of Rights … the Virginia Declaration of Rights … the Declaration of Independence … the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen … and the U.S. Bill of Rights … [as] the greatest and most influential declarations of human rights and freedoms in history.”[21]            As of right now, neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nor the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights carries the weight of a law enacted by Congress, and perhaps this is as it should be.  While the United Nations is right on occasion, it also has proven to be a force from harmful “Progressive” liberalism in many third-world nations.   Sometimes the organization exposes real injustice and genocide; at other times, it pushes sexual deviancy and religious secularism.  Still, when it is right about advocating for freedom and human dignity, I am willing to speak out in its favor – although it is often a babbling, self-righteous bastion of Leftist ideologues and a seminary of cynicism.

[1] Os Guinness. The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 214.

[2] Monica D. Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy S. Shah. God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 10.

[3] Ibid, 1

[4] Quoted on Ibid, 1.

[5] Ibid, 2.  

[6] Quoted on ibid, 7.

[7] Ibid, 14.

[8] Roger Trigg. Religious Diversity: Philosophical and Political Dimensions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 171.

[9] Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. 48.

[10] Quoted on Allen D. Hertzke, Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 24.

[11] Hertzke, 63. 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Brian J. Grim, and Roger Finke. The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 18

[14] Hertzke, 59.

[15] Grim & Finke, 10.

[16] Hertzke, 67.

[17] Linda C. Keith. “The United Nations International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights: Does it Make a Difference in Human Rights Behavior?” Journal of Peace Research 36, no. 1 (January 1999): 97.

[18] Hertzke, 66.

[19] Os Guinness. The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 32.

[20] Timothy S. Shah and Jack Friedman (editors). Homo Religiosus? Exploring the Roots of Religious Freedom in Human Experience. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[21] Guinness, 209.

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, and “Equality”

This article is an exercise in definition, and when discussing definitions and terms, it is always helpful to begin by what we do not mean. The phrase that I want to examine is Equality, particularly when we state “that all men are created equal.”  In his brilliant introductory textbook Liberty, Order, and Justice, Dr. James McClellan cited a certain “critical Englishmen who read the Declaration” and asked:

“In what way are [all men] created equal? … Is it in size, strength, understanding, figure, moral or civil accomplishments, or situation of life?”  The Americans, he asserted, “have introduced their self-evident truth, either through ignorance, or by design, with a self-evident falsehood, since I will defy any American rebel, or any of their patriotic retainers here in England, to point out to me any two men throughout the whole world of whom it may with truth be said, that they are equal.”[1]

The term equality is pivotal to how Americans view their rights and liberties even to 2022.  Still, it begs the question: since every man is clearly unequal in size, strength, intelligence, and situation in life, then how exactly are they equal?  Those on the political right traditionally argue that Jefferson – whom Tocqueville called “the greatest democrat who has yet issued from within the American democracy”[4] – had intended to assert the equal dignity of British citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.  Conservatives tend to claim that the American Revolution was not akin to a radical revolution (e.g. the Russian or French Revolutions) in that the “revolutionaries” were not radicals attempting to upend the existing order and remake society based upon abstract ideals.[5]  Liberals and Progressives may argue that liberty and equality are lofty and noble goals, but this promissory note in the Declaration of Independence is one that each generation of Americans has to fight for to maintain.[6]

Rather than radical revolutionaries and political abstractionists, in the main the signers of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as subjects of the British crown who had been denied equal representation in their own governing affairs.  They believed themselves to be Englishmen on the far side of an ocean who had been stripped of equal rights under British common law, and so were simply reasserting their inherited constitutional rights.  According to Kendall and Carey, Abraham Lincoln rediscovered this language of equality “fourscore and seven years” after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.[7]

Thomas Jefferson was a bit of an outlier among the Congress in that he was both a legislator and a philosopher, as well as a celebrated intellectual.  He was more intellectual than George Washington, for example, and was given to flights of philosophical speculation and was more prone to appeal to abstract Natural Rights, as opposed to the traditional Natural Law or simply the inherited rights of English subjects.  And for this reason, Jefferson intended a broader reading of the phrase “all men are created equal” than several other members of the Continental Congress would allow for.

In support of this assertion, one would need only to compare the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence with the document signed on July 4, 1776.  In the earlier drafts, Jefferson attempted to include a blanket denunciation of slavery, for example (although Jefferson owned slaves all his life).  Several members of the Continental Congress objected to such strong language for fear of losing the support of South Carolina and Georgia.  And again, while there were several British Loyalists present at the Congress, the general tenor of the deliberations were in favor of reasserting British rights or even pushing for total separation from the mother country.  The military hostilities had already broken out in 1775, after all!

Still, what did Jefferson mean by the phrase regarding universal equality in the early paragraphs of the Declaration?  He most surely would have had a scintillating reply to Bentham’s sniggering derision, when the latter claimed that “’All men … are created equal.’  This surely is a new discovery; now, for the first time, we learn, that a child, at the moment of his birth, has the same quantity of natural power as the parent, the same quantity of political power as the magistrate.”[8]  Astute and learned Jefferson may have retorted that all men are indeed created equal, and while they may not yet exercise equal political participation, they may as men “assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,”[9] allowing for the natural course of life and growth to have their sway. 

— JC

[1] McClellan, James. Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, 3rd ed. … 130.

[2] Declaration of Independence, (U.S. 1776), 2nd paragraph.

[3] Maier, Pauline. “The Strange History of all Men are Created Equal,” Washington and Lee Law Review 56, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 875.  

[4] Yarbrough, Jean M. “Jefferson and Tocqueville,” Perspectives on Political Science 48, no. 4 (2019): 252-275.

[5] Daniel Chirot. You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

[6] See King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.”

[7] Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, 14.

[8] Quoted on Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, 107.

[9] Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

Relativity and Relativism in the 20th century

The magisterial history of the 20th century Modern Times opens in an unexpected way. Instead of launching into a description of New Year’s festivities or presidential addresses, British historian Paul Johnson elucidates the development of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the idea that time and space are relative, not absolute. “Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism” (4).[1] Einstein’s discovery, presented with elegant lines of argumentation, began “a comprehensive revision of Newtonian physics” (2), and thus started the process of the world turning itself upside down.

The author delivers his elegy on faith in the aftermath of the First World War:

“Among the advanced races, the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum had been filled. Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the ‘Will to power’, which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behavior than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology.” (48)

This is Johnson’s primary thesis. When a people abandons the Judeo-Christian God, then and only then is the time ripe for a Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, or Mao to seize the reins of power.  When a people’s religious convictions stray from their moorings, what is to restrain a strong or overly-ambitious utopian from overthrowing the status quo? What stands between a silver-tongued Hitler and his goal? When relativity prevails, anything goes.

What Einstein proved through science, Marx asserted in the social and economic realm and Freud in the personal and moral sphere. The sciences and arts collectively injected poison into the system. These men taught mankind to doubt the senses, space and time, right and wrong, law and justice. Intellectuals and artists became aware of a “fundamental revolution” in the culture (8). “The impression people derived from Einstein, of a universe in which all measurements of value were relative, served to confirm this vision – which both dismayed and exhilarated – of moral anarchy.” (11) Again, Johnson bemoans the loss of the old world system, writing:

“Plainly it [i.e. the old order] could not be fully restored, perhaps not restored at all. A new order would eventually take its place. … There were … disquieting currents of thought which suggested the image of a world adrift, having left its moorings in traditional law and morality.” (47)

Einstein, a non-practicing Jew, “acknowledged a God” (4). The greatest physicist of the twentieth century was also a firm believer in a system of absolute morality. As a result of what may have been his greatest discovery, though, Einstein made a significant contribution to the popularization of relativism and atheism.

The repercussions of Einstein’s monumental change were manifold and would be felt for at least the next eighty years. The idea that “all is flux”, that science, morality, religion – everything must be questioned or rejected in favor of the strong is the presupposition that plagued the twentieth century, the bloodiest that humankind has ever known. Several leading intellectuals contributed to this psychological unrest, as well. Sigmund Freud wrote that the primary force of mankind was sexual. Karl Marx maintained that the central force was economic.  Both agreed that Nietzsche’s tenet was right, that “God is dead” (48).

Paul Johnson bewails the years that follow from this rapid turn away from traditional ethics and natural law. The repercussions demonstrate the dual impact of great scientific innovators. A secondary thesis of the text is: “The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to teach such gangster-statesmen to emerge.” Indeed, “[t]hey were not slow to make their appearance” (48). Although the “gangster-statesmen” are not the main focus of the book, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot bring Johnson’s primary thesis into view.  Karl Popper once wrote of “the law of unintended consequence,” and the twentieth century after 1919 reflected a colossal shift toward relativity. The unintended consequence of rejecting both the deity and personal responsibility was “moral anarchy” (11). It was onto this world scene that tyrants like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao sprang.

As one example of this new prototype of gangster-statesman, Lenin’s religion was his peculiar brand of Marxism.  He was the “anchorite” of totalitarian politics, living “the revolution twenty-four hours a day” (51-52).  Indeed, “No man personifies better the replacement of the religious impulse by the will to power” (51).  For all his passion and revolutionary fervor, “Lenin was very far from being an orthodox Marxist” (54).  He and the Italian Mussolini shared unorthodox ideas for their parties:

Both saw the party as a highly centralized … and ferociously disciplined agency for furthering socialist objectives.  Both wanted a leadership of professional revolutionaries.    Both thought revolutionary consciousness could be brought to the masses from without by a revolutionary, self-appointed élite.  Finally, both believed that, in the coming struggle between the classes, organized violence would be the final arbiter. (58)

It was during this time that the dictator grew the state such that “… in Russia, the predominance of the state in every area of economic life was becoming the central fact of society” (14).  Again, “Lenin had systematically constructed, in all its essentials, the most carefully engineered apparatus of state tyranny the world had yet seen” (84).  Johnson maintains that he is both the chief catalyst for the horrors of the twentieth century and the forerunner for most of the dictators who would follow him.  Nevertheless, Mussolini achieved visible success earlier than Lenin.  Both men were driven by the Nietzschean Will to Power. 

There remains a bond between these two that separates them from their intellectual forebear.  “If the whole of Marx appears in his book, wrote Trotsky, ‘the whole of Lenin … appears in revolutionary action’” (55).  Churchill saw Lenin and his Bolshevism for what they were: “Of all the tyrannies of history,” he once remarked, “the Bolshevik tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, the most degrading” (74). 

The actions of Lenin, Mussolini, and Lenin’s successor, Stalin, were directly responsible for the deaths of well over twenty-three million men.  Yet the history of the twentieth century would not be complete if the discussion ended with these three autocrats.  For the horrors of Tojo and his “fire-eater” strategy in Japan, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Hitler’s anti-Semitism in Germany, and Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Chinese Famine and then mass suicide which left a death-count of between forty- and seventy-million and cannot be ignored.  As ruthless and grisly as these men were, they should not overshadow the ideas at the heart of the great conflicts and world wars.  The greatest clash of worldviews was between atheistic Communism and Christian freedom.  As a holdover from the reforms (perhaps the deforming changes) of Lenin,

“In the old world, personal autocracies, . . . had been limited, or at least qualified, by other forces in society: a church, an aristocracy, an urban bourgeoisie, ancient charters and courts and assemblies.  And there was, too, the notion of an external, restraining force, in the idea of a Deity, or Natural Law, or some absolute morality.” (84)

The U.S.S.R. was at its core a rebellion against the Christian order and system. There was one man who understood the gravity of the situation – one statesman who “even began to grasp the enormous significance of the establishment of this new type of totalitarian dictatorship …” and that man “was Winston Churchill” (73).  He saw the rise of Lenin, Hitler, and the other demagogues through the lens of history and saw the enormity of it all. The world was blinded to what was happening.  Perhaps because of “altruistic passion for disarmament”, or in hopes of a stable economy, many men “will delude themselves about realities” (175).  Churchill, however, ever the astute student of history, recognized the monster for what he was.  Even after Germany had swallowed Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1939 – and plebiscites showed overwhelming support for the Anschluss – Neville Chamberlain had the audacity to speak of “peace for our time”.  Chamberlain saw Hitler as a buffer to the Soviet Union and thus “did not want [him] overthrown” (354).  He believed that the rival totalitarianisms would keep each other in check.

In March 1939, however, Hitler denounced his pact with Poland, and Germany’s territory expanded again. The “gangster pacts” began with one between Germany and Italy (359).  Hitler continued to play on the fear and hatred of his people, and America became like beaten, fearful dogs. “At the very moment the American intelligentsia turned to totalitarian Europe for spiritual sustenance and guidance in orderly planning, it was in fact embarking on two decades of unprecedented ferocity and desolation – moral relativism in monstrous incarnation” (261).  Churchill’s words, though, inspired the West to stand firm against this tyrant.  By the end of the war the Jews had lost over 6,000,000 to the madman, perhaps the most infamous of the gangster-statesmen.  Over 60,000,000 died in World War II, making it the bloodiest conflict in history.  These defeated regimes, the Nazis and Soviets, preached, practiced, and embodied moral relativism.

[1] All citations are from Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. 1983. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

In the Shadowlands: Remembering a Giant

“C.S. Lewis … was not a politician — indeed, he was practically apolitical. He was not a man of military prowess or valor. He was not the progenitor of a new social movement or philosophical school. He was not a populist orator or community organizer. In fact, his quiet life as a traditional English don hardly measures us to our peculiar notions of what is takes to be a leader.” Dr. George Grant skillfully paints a picture of our subject in the foreword to Terry Glaspey’s splendid biography of C.S. Lewis, Not a Tame Lion. He points out an interesting fact, though. C.S. Lewis led a quiet, if not obscure, life, but he was nevertheless extraordinarily influential in the western world. His Mere Christianity is probably the greatest work of popular apologetics from the 20th century. His Chronicles of Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies in 47 countries and have never been out of print since 1956.

Lewis’s influence, then, should not be questioned. His faith — although not common — can be seen throughout all of his writings, both fiction and non-fiction. In fact, most of his works are explicitly Christian, but what concerns us today is his view of God and the influence that his faith had on the way he saw the world. In this post, I want to look at how Lewis’s love led him to point others to the greatness of a real God and how his faith led him to celebrate the ordinary.

The man, an academic who taught at Oxford University, is remarkable for taking complex  theological debates and unraveling the details for the average man or woman who sits in the pew. He crystallized the teaching of ordinary believers through the ages in his book Mere Christianity. His faith colors his reputation to this very day.

Lewis noticed that the people of his day often want an impersonal God, one who is non-threatening and makes no claim upon their lives, thoughts, or affections. In his book Miracles, Lewis writes,

Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. He lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as a man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s god does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at Him glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed.

So, the apologist took the Pantheist to task. What is that to us? But if you think about his argument — if you really look at the heart of it — it applies to the 21st century American. We want a god who is “abstract.” We want a god who “does nothing” and “demands nothing,” but this is not the God that C.S. Lewis pointed his fellow man to.

Lewis presents his readers with a very different God. The problem that he saw during World War II is that men were dealing with real, weighty issues of life: they saw real evil and pain in their lives; they were dealing with a brutal war that all of the West was fighting; and their views of God did not answer the real questions that naturally arose out of the suffering. Lewis’s great gift to the modern man is not that he made Christianity palatable to his whims and fancies, but that he presented a real God to his fellow man and showed him his need for a Savior. That is because, in Lewis’s own words, God “is all a burning joy and strength.”

He was the people’s apologist of the 20th century. He perceptively saw that God left all men with both a longing for eternity and an awareness of His existence and character. All men everywhere have a conscience which God placed into our very nature. Lewis wrote of what he calls “good dreams” that even the pagan nations who had never read the Bible had. What he was referring to by good dreams are those hope-filled stories in the pagan religions about a god who dies and comes back to life and, by his death, somehow gives new life to men.

C.S. Lewis had a love for the Scriptures and the faith, and he had a perceptive mind that could get to the heart of the faith and clarity of thought. When he explains the faith it makes me want to love God more. It makes me look up at the majestic night sky in wonder and gaze at the beauty of a pastoral scene revere the God who creates and sustains it all.

Again, in Miracles he writes, “Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely.” He once wrote that “You cannot love a fellow creature fully until you love God.” When I read The Great Divorce or Mere Christianity, when I read his letters or Abolition of Man, especially when I see his picture of the great lion, Aslan, I want to know God like C.S. Lewis knew God.