Over at American Creation, there are a couple of related posts from the always thought-provoking Jonathan Rowe on topics with great appeal for me. One is a link to an older post, on Rowe’s other site The One Best Way, about John Adams’s liberal ideas on religion; the other is on the illiberality of the Puritan tradition that Adams sprang from.
It’s a tradition I admire in certain ways, intellectually, so it’s always good to get a reminder, which Rowe gives in the piece, of the Taliban-like nature of its criminal code. In writing about the fallacy of associating ideas in the Mayflower Compact, say, with ideas in the Declaration of Independence — something Rowe rightly says “Christian Americanists” (and I’d add liberal, consensus-oriented history teachers) are wont to do — he has fun with the stark fact that Adams’s thoughts on religion would have gotten Adams executed in Puritan New England. Good stuff, just the kind of conflict people should be entertained and enlightened by thinking about.
Rowe’s discussion throws new light for me on the importance of Samuel Adams, not John, in bringing about American independence in 1776, and why that importance has been so little explored in a realistic way. That’s what I do explore in Declaration, and an important part of that story turns on the strange partnership between Samuel and John, with John then the junior player, beginning to emerge.
The religious differences between them are only implicit in the book. But now I think it would have been a good move to bring those differences out more fully, as part of my Boston back-story chapter. Samuel’s deep roots in Puritan thinking are key to my story — he famously wanted to make New England a “Christian Sparta.” But I glossed over John’s rationalist, skeptical, possibly unitarian religious leanings, although they are part and parcel of something I did try to bring to life, his more pragmatic approach to politics, his becoming a man of New England’s liberal future, a Yankee, not a Puritan.
It’s occurred to me so many times, and now in a newly focused way, that establishment history has favored the liberal, rationalist, unitarian, Deist, tolerant (yet more or less observant) founders like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, and has never known what to do with the illiberal ones, like Samuel Adams. Paine is another example. When it comes to supposed outliers like them, religion and politics meet strangely in historiography. And founding history gets distorted.
In politics, Paine, for example, wasn’t really anywhere along the liberal spectrum inhabited by the men listed above, where we find both Jefferson and Hamilton. However much they fought with each other, nobody on the famous-founders list wanted to transform the very basis and meaning of human society, but Paine did; he was a political, economic, and social radical.
When we turn to his religion, we may at first think Paine actually did have much in common with the men on the famous list. For he was of course a famous lover of reason and a skeptic about traditional faith.
Yet Paine’s rationalism was far more aggressive than theirs; it too was radical. John Adams doubted the literal truth of the Bible — and even privately scoffed at it — but he knew better than to rub people’s noses in his doubt (and he deemed Paine a dangerous extremist in both government and religion). Paine’s rationalism was questing, not reflective; it was like his politics in seeking transformation at once practical and visionary. It was evangelical, in its way, and evangelicalism is what the better-known founders — and establishment history — always eschewed.
So the consensus historians handle the Paine problem with a complicated little dance. They put him on the list of famous founders, awarding honorary mention for the supposed importance of “Common Sense” to gaining American independence (John Adams scoffed at that idea too), while editing out of that importance the last part of Paine’s pamphlet, which calls for the radically new kind of government that the founders’ famous “moderation” could not abide. All while ignoring Paine’s real project and chief concern in 1776: organizing an overthrow of Pennsylvania’s government, and replacing it with a socially and economically radical one, an illberal government, we might say. Indeed they ignore the entire ironic importance of that coup in PA to the very process of gaining independence (that’s why I wrote Declaration, to tell that story).
There’s a similar historiographical problem with Samuel Adams. His rigorous, “old Charter” Congregational implacability, at once hostile to and fostering certain elements of liberal thought, was also key to the revolution in PA and pushing independence through the Congress. Samuel collaborated, famously, in the Congress with Episcopalians — tantamount to what he would have called Antichrist Papists — and secretly, in the street, with rationalists, universalists, New Light evangelicals, and lapsed Quakers to get what he wanted. He would have found all of their religious beliefs at best silly and at worst Satanic; he found the political beliefs of his socially radical Philadelphia collaborators absurd and dangerous. But he was his own kind of pragamatist, and he was out for liberty for old New England.
And Samuel’s climactic work against Pennsylvania in 1776, so critical to his career and to our founding, literally doesn’t even figure for most Samuel Adams biographers, from Wells to Miller to Stoll. The excuse — I’ve made it myself — has always been that Adams so successfully covered his tracks. But, hey, I found his tracks, not totally in plain sight, but not by turning up any new primary sources either. The Samuel Adams story in Declaration is scattered around the work of the earlier writers I follow. For most historians, it just doesn’t fit, so it gets left out, and we don’t know how we became independent.
And those Philadelphia radicals themselves, without whose adventure in overturning PA, independence would not have been declared in July of 1776 — they’ve been even more fully written out. And again I think it’s because both their religious and their political thinking depart so violently from the famous moderation and ultimate liberality of the famous founders. The rationalists in that scruffy radical group didn’t merely tend toward Deism — Thomas Young was an outright atheist, indicted for blasphemy. The Christians in that group weren’t Christian like Washington or John Adams: James Cannon and Christopher Marshall were working, through the Revolution, for the actual Biblical millennium, which they saw beginning in America. That the atheist Young and the millennialist Cannon were friends and comrades in bringing about what amounted to a working-class revolution in PA is a pattern not easy to deal with, if you always need to find a more or less liberalizing tendency in religion and government, and nothing else of significance, in the founding period.
[UPDATE:] The liberal consensus view, however much complication it may allow, tends inexorably toward simplifying and neatening. The founding period is certainly more teachable that way, for one thing. The only downside is that we don’t know who we are or where we come from.