July 4th is upon us again. The traditional time for cookouts, fireworks, trips to the beach or lake, and just some general fun in the sun. Few folks know that the 4th is more than a celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It also marks the date that two of our greatest leaders, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died just a few hours, and miles, apart from each other in 1826.
Besides being great political figures, both leaders had some thing else in common. They were Unitarians, as were Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, and Thomas Paine just to mention a few. If you included Deists, you could add Washington, Madison, and Monroe to that list. However, most of the Founding Fathers were Episcopalians or Presbyterians, or at least raised in one of those two Protestant religions.
As an interesting aside, according to “The Very Rich Book” by Jacqueline Thompson, both Episcopalian and Presbyterian are considered to be the faith of the “ruling elite” in American. Well, maybe. But did you know that 22 of 43 presidents were of either Episcopalians or Presbyterians? 57% of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence were Episcopalians, while 23.2% were Congregationalists and 21.4% were Presbyterians. 29% of the Signers of Confederation were Episcopalians, while 19% were Congregationalists and 9% were Presbyterians. Of those attending the 1787 Constitutional Convention as delegates, 56.4% were Episcopalians, 29.1% were Presbyterians, and 14.5% were Congregationalists. In short, 54.7% of the Founding Fathers were Episcopalians, while 18.6% were Presbyterians, and 16.8% were Congregationalists.
One of the distinctions between “Mother England” and our newly created country, which was incorporated in the Bill of Rights, was the refusal to establish an official state religion (though not everyone agreed). In England at the time, as in most countries, there was an official religion, though other religions were “tolerated” to varying degrees, depending on the whims of the King or Queen.
In England, to be a member of government, one had to be male, free and white of course, a landowner, and a member of the Anglican Church (which in this country took the form of the Episcopalian Church). The Founding Fathers seemed to think that one’s religion, or lack of religion, was no one's business. The Founding Fathers were, in varying degree, Christian to be sure, but their objective was to make this new found nation a safe haven for all people, regardless of faith.
How would they feel about the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? Well, they would certainly oppose any attempt to establish an official religion, be it a specific faith or a more generic “Christian” nation, they would have had no trouble with those two little words (which were added by President Eisenhower during the Cold War of the late 1950’s to show a distinction between America and the “godless” Communists.) since they fully believed that this country came into being through the providence of the Divine. They would also have no trouble with those who simply skipped over the words altogether. It was a matter of individual choice.
The same goes for prayer in school. They wouldn’t mind a minute or two of silence to pray (or not), either alone or in a group. They would have opposed any attempt to force that prayer on everyone. It would have been their opinion that it’s your choice when, where or if to pray and to what God. They also wouldn’t have a problem with a Nativity Scene or Christmas tree on the Court House lawn, so long as people of other religions were allowed the same courtesy. Not to allow a display of faith, I think, would have roused their anger. Speaking of displays, I can’t imagine any of them opposing a display of the Ten Commandments. After all, it’s the basis of our legal system, and the foundation of Western Civilization.
What about abortion? This is quite possibly one the most divisive issues in our society today. There’s no doubt they witnessed the high infant and mother mortality rate. Child birth was a risky business, as it is still in many parts of the world today. I can imagine they would oppose any attempt by the government (or individuals) to impose, by law or intimidation, their opinions/values on someone else on this or any other matter, regardless of whether or not they agreed with it. I suspect too they would favor saving the mother’s life above all if it was in danger, which in their day, was sometimes the case. In the end, I think they’d be in same quandary as many of us are today.
Without a doubt, they would be appalled by government today, especially at the influence of money. I think they’d reconsider paying that “tea tax” if they could see us now. Did you know that the Founding Fathers opposed the creation of political parties? They believed parties would soon become dominated by special interests groups, which would, in time, come to control government at the expense of the people. Of course, parties did happen, and fairly soon after the nation was founded, but it never stopped their distain for them. I think they’d be really ticked at the power corporate interests have over the government. I can easily imagine most of those revolutionaries being card carrying union members today! I think those like Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin, and others would agree with me in that, regardless of party, once you’re elected and take that oath of office, you’re no longer a “Democrat” or “Republican” or any other party. You’re a “Representative of the People”…all of them.
What about immigration and language? They would have had great sympathy for those seeking freedom in all its forms. However, they would demand that the sovereignty of this nation be respected, and people follow the rule of law for entering this county. As for language, they understood that to form a nation, we had to create certain “commonalities”, one of which was language. There would have been no question in their minds that English was the language of this country. On another point, prior to the Declaration, these men considered themselves British; subjects of the Crown. What they did was treason, and they knew it. To have been caught would surely mean to be hanged. By signing the Declaration, they were saying to England, and to the world, that they were henceforth Americans. There would be no tolerance for the “hyphened American”. They had come too far and sacrificed to much.
As Jefferson acknowledged late in his life, he had been a part of a unique moment in history; surrounded by individuals uniquely qualified for their particular role. He went on to say that what they achieved was for their time, based on their experiences and he hoped that we, as a nation, would take what that did and adapt it to the needs of our time. What they wrote wasn’t, as Jefferson put it, “infallible and unerring Holy Script”. Although we have a tendency to place these men on a pedestal and create myths about them (like Washington and the Cherry Tree, or that he never lied), they were far from flawless. They spoke of freedom, and yet mercilessly took land from Native Americans and promoted what amounted to as genocide. They spoke of equality, and there was slavery. Let’s not forget as well that women had little role in politics, let alone the right to vote. But, perhaps they felt these were issues for another time, and that creating a nation was work enough. They hoped future generations would take their experiment and improve upon it, and so we have tried, sometime with success and sometimes not. So, as you enjoy your Fourth of July, take a moment to reflect on what those brave men (and women) tried to accomplished for us all those years ago.