The Declaration of Independence: Founded on Judeo-Christian Principles? Book Review (Part II): Thomas Jefferson: Roots of Religious Freedom by John Harding Peach

The Declaration of Independence has become a sacred document for the Religious Right because they believe that it supports their claim that the United States is a Christian nation. John Harding Peach is no exception. In Thomas Jefferson: Roots of Religious Freedom, Peach claims that the Declaration is an expression of Judeo-Christian principles. The only evidence Peach provides for this assertion is an excerpt from an online essay written by Bo Perrin. Who is Bo Perrin? He is a minister and conservative blogger. Who needs an expert when you can find a random blogger to support your desired conclusion! The fact that Peach relies on a person with no expertise on the subject is enough to make his claim dubious, but just for fun let’s see what Bo has to say.

Bo makes his argument in a commentary for the American Heritage Project, a blog site run by Bo and created for the purpose of “Defending the Biblical Foundation of the Declaration,” to celebrate the Declaration on the Fourth of July 2011. It is a brief hagiographic piece touting the Judeo-Christian foundations of the revered document. There are many historical inaccuracies in his narrative, which is clearly ideologically driven. While there are many factual errors in the posting, I’ll focus solely on the claims related to the religious implications of the Declaration.

The first piece of evidence that Bo finds in the Declaration to support his claim comes from the statement: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Declaration of Independence

Claim: Bo insists that the “Creator” mentioned in the Declaration “is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and that “[t]he only possible way to make the term Creator mean anything other than the God of the Bible is to rip the Declaration from its historical moorings.”

Bo makes a gesture to the Jewish God (“the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”) in an effort to appear ecumenical, but it is obvious that by “the God of the Bible” he really means the Christian God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) since he relies on what he calls “the Christian law tradition” to make his case. Before turning to this Christian law tradition let’s look at the evidence in the document itself.

There is nothing in the Declaration to indicate that the “Creator” is a Christian God. There are no references to Jesus, Christianity, or the Bible in the document, and the term “Creator” by itself is neutral (unlike “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” “Yahweh,” or “Allah”). This ambiguity is intentional. The guiding principle of the Declaration is the equality of all mankind (“all men are created equal”) and any reference to the Christian God would have undermined the universal foundations of the document.

However, the Declaration committee (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin) [1] also needed to appeal to the traditional sentiments of a largely Christian populace, which is probably why Franklin suggested the change from Jefferson’s first draft (“from equal creation they derive rights inherent and unalienable”) to “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The Continental Congress added two more references to a deity (“Supreme Judge of the world;” and “Divine Providence”). As Derek H. Davis points out, it was important that the document be framed in a theistic way, otherwise “most Americans would never have endorsed a colonial separation from the mother country unless they believed that it had God’s sanction.” Therefore, the document was “neither specifically deistic (scientific worldview) nor Christian (biblical worldview) as either position would have excluded those adherents of the other; as theistic document, it appealed to both.” [2] The reference to “Creator” is not specifically Christian (or Jewish). But Bo does not rely on the document itself to support his claim that the reference is Christian; instead he relies on what he calls “the Christian law tradition.”

Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence 1776

According to Bo “the Christian law tradition” is “exemplified by Judge Blackstone, John Locke, Cooke, Hooker, Calvin and others.” What this interesting hodge-podge of thinkers have in common is not clear other than the fact that they were Christians, but this fact does not make the term “Creator” Christian. Bo accuses his opponents of not “connecting the dots” when he himself fails to connect the dots between these scholars and the Declaration. In addition, the meaning of “the Christian law tradition” is also left vague. Are any of these thinkers relevant to the ideas found in the Declaration?

As the writer of the Declaration, Jefferson’s worldview is the most relevant to understanding the Declaration. Is there any evidence that these scholars influenced Jefferson? We know that Jefferson despised Calvin (see previous post on Peach’s Thomas Jefferson). Jefferson was aware of Blackstone’s recently published Commentaries (4 volumes between 1765 and 1769) but his opinion of Blackstone was not much better than that of Calvin. In a letter to Horatio G. Spafford, Jefferson expressed his contempt for Blackstone, as well as Hume, because they “have done more towards the suppression of the liberties of man, than all the millions of men in arms of Bonaparte and the millions of human lives with the sacrifice of which he will stand loaded before the judgment seat of his Maker.” [3] It is not clear who Cooke is. Maybe he means Sir Edward Coke, who wrote the Institutes of the Laws of England (4 volumes published between 1628 and 1644)? Jefferson was fond of Coke but the relationship between Coke’s ideas and the Declaration is not clear. Richard Hooker was a scholar in the old natural law tradition and Jefferson probably was aware of him from Locke, who is the only thinker in Bo’s list that had a profound impact on Jefferson. Given that the natural law theory developed by Locke is different from that of the traditional Hooker it is doubtful that Jefferson was fond of Hooker. On the other hand, the similarity between the Declaration and Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689) was so striking that Richard Henry Lee had charged Jefferson with plagiarizing “from Locke’s treatise on Government.” [4] Rather than relying on Jefferson to understand the Declaration, Bo made up a list of scholars who he wished had influenced Jefferson. How did Jefferson understand the meaning of the Declaration?

Jefferson explained that the Declaration’s “authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” [5] With the exception of Locke, this is a very different list from Bo’s. Aristotle and Cicero were pagans from the ancient Greek and Roman world and are clearly not part of the “Christian law tradition.” Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) was a revolutionary figure, who had been implicated in the Rye House Plot to overthrow Charles II, and was executed for treason. His liberal Discourses Concerning Government (1698) had been influential in the American colonies, and his ideas were similar to Locke’s. Although Locke and Sidney were Christians and influenced Jefferson it does not follow that the term “Creator” in the Declaration is therefore Christian. Their works were revolutionary, not paeans to traditional Christianity. Given the fact that the term itself is neutral and that both Jefferson and Franklin who suggested the term were Deists, it is highly unlikely that they meant it to be an exclusively Christian term. If they wanted the document to be Christian they could have easily made it so, but instead they chose a broadly inclusive term.

Claim: “The phrase ‘laws of nature and nature’s God’ historically stretches back hundreds of years from Jefferson’s pen to the writings of Locke, Blackstone, Coke, Aquinas and the Apostle Paul. The phrase ‘laws of nature’ refers to the natural law (Law of the heart) which God placed into mankind. The ‘laws of….nature’s God’ refers to the Scripture….These two phrases cannot be traced back to the Romans or the Greeks! The Declaration committee made sure that the Bible would legally be a part of the American system.”

The “laws of nature” was a common phrase associated with natural law theory from the ancient Greeks to modern times, but this is not true of the entire phrase (“laws of nature and nature’s God”). For now we will focus on the “laws of nature.” The phrase is associated with natural law theory but its meaning and implications have changed over time. By implying that its meaning is static Bo can associate it with the pious Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) and the Apostle Paul. But there is no evidence that Aquinas had any influence on the framers in general or Jefferson in particular. Even though Aquinas was not a source of inspiration for Jefferson I would like to point out that he drew his ideas for natural law theory from “the natural right tradition of Plato and Aristotle, the Stoic tradition (described, e.g., in certain works of Cicero), Roman law, and Augustine.” [6] Of these only one was Christian: Augustine.

As indicated above, John Locke was the primary influence on Jefferson, and it is widely accepted that Locke’s natural law is distinct from that of Aquinas. To distinguish the two versions of natural law theory, Locke’s version is often called Natural Rights theory. In contrast to Aquinas, Locke’s version is based upon the natural equality of individuals. Christopher Wolfe characterizes the transition from traditional natural law to Locke’s as going “from the natural law’s orientation toward the positive fulfillment of the capacities of human nature—toward the summum bonum of virtue—we have moved to an orientation toward a summum malum, the loss of self-preservation, with questions regarding man’s ultimate fulfillment being relegated to a very private sphere.” This difference holds despite the fact that Locke gave the “appearance of continuity by invocations of God and by his citations of the ‘judicious Hooker,’ an Anglican divine generally considered to be in the old natural law tradition.” [7] Even though Locke was a Christian this does not make the phrase “laws of nature” Christian. The pagan Greeks and Romans used it even before Christianity existed. And natural laws (in all versions) are universal and accessible to all humans.

The use of the phrase “laws of…nature’s God” is more difficult to trace, but it certainly does not refer to scripture as Bo claims. The phrase was never used by Aquinas, but even his understanding of natural law would have equated the “laws of …nature’s God” with scripture. The highest law according to Aquinas was the eternal law, which was partly “revealed in Scripture (divine law); part of it could be discovered by reason (natural law).” [8] Natural laws are discovered through reason not scripture. It was only natural law that was invoked by the framers.

In none of Jefferson’s, Franklin’s, or Adams’ writings is there any evidence that they “made sure that the Bible would legally be a part of the American system.” The natural law of the rationalist framers was grounded in reason and experience, not scripture. They would never have created a document that would have bound Americans with biblical truths. This was not the kind of “freedom” they were seeking to establish.

In addition, there is an abundance of evidence from Jefferson’s writings which indicate that he did not see the Declaration connected with the Bible in any way. The first evidence comes just after Jefferson wrote the Declaration. As soon as Jefferson finished his work at the Continental Congress in 1776, he returned home to the now independent Virginia to serve in legislature, where he fought indefatigably to establish religious liberty. In an effort to achieve this goal he proposed to have all laws of England coercing religious opinion or practice abolished. On November 19, 1776 the House adopted a series of resolutions based on Jefferson’s proposals, including one that called for all acts or statutes of Great Britain that “renders criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion,” attendance at church, or the exercise of religion to be declared invalid, and another resolution that called for the abolition of the act against vice and blasphemy. [9] If Jefferson wanted the Bible to be part of the American system why would he attempt to separate religion from the laws of Virginia?

Even more inconsistent with the claim that “[t]he Declaration committee made sure that the Bible would legally be a part of the American system” was Jefferson’s dogged opposition to the claim that Christianity was part of the common law. In the appendix to his Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia, Jefferson wrote an essay entitled: “Whether Christianity is Part of the Common Law?” The exact date that Jefferson wrote this piece is unknown. It was published in 1829, but this was years after it was written. Paul Leicester Ford believes that it was written sometime around 1764 based on a letter he wrote to Thomas Cooper, in which Jefferson claims that he wrote the piece when he was “a student of the law, now a half century ago.” [10] The exact date is not clear but it was certainly written before Jefferson wrote the Declaration.

In the appendix of the Reports, Jefferson argues that Christianity was never part of the common law. [11] Jefferson finds the origins of the “fraud” in a mistranslation in the term “ancien scripture,” and concludes that it was the result of “the alliance between church and state in England,” which resulted in making

“their judges accomplices in the frauds of the clergy; and even bolder than they are; for instead of being contented with the surreptitious introduction of these four chapters of Exodus, they have taken the whole leap, and declared at once that the whole Bible and Testament, in a lump, make a part of the common law of the land; the first judicial declaration of which was by this Sir Matthew Hale. And thus they incorporate into the English code, laws made for the Jews alone, and the precepts of the gospel, intended by their benevolent author as obligatory only in foro conscientia [by conscience not law]; and they arm the whole with the coercions of municipal law.” [12]

The thought of making biblical law part of the civil law horrified Jefferson. He adamantly opposed such a union because it coerced religion and imposed limits on free inquiry.

Jefferson continued to oppose claims that Christianity was part of the common law throughout his life. In a letter to Major John Cartwright (1824) Jefferson once again made the case that Christianity was not part of the common law. The letter was most likely a response to some recently decided blasphemy cases that used the common law of England to punish the offenders. [13] Jefferson was appalled at this “ingulphing Bible, Testament and all into the common law, without citing any authority.” “What a conspiracy this, between Church and State!” [14]

In 1826 Jefferson wrote a letter to Roger Weightman declining attendance at the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Declaration of Independence. In the letter he explained what he saw as the significance of the document:

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to theirs later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for other. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” [15]

To Jefferson the Declaration enshrined the “right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion” rather than the chains of religious dogma. Nothing that Jefferson, Franklin, or Adams ever did or said can be made compatible with Bo’s claim that the Bible became “part of the American system” through the Declaration.

Claim: Bo claims that the Declaration is a legal document.

To Bo the Declaration is not just an inspirational document, it is legally binding. As a legal document Bo believes that it would give Americans “the legal right, the legal duty to…oppose a tyrant or tyrannical government.” (italics mine) What evidence does Bo have for this claim? He cites several Supreme Court cases (Slaughter-House Cases, 1884 and Gray v. Sanders, 1963) and Justice Clarence Thomas as evidence.

The Slaughter-House Case that Bo is referring to is Butchers’ Union Co. v. Crescent City Co. (1884) in which Justice Field referred to the Declaration as an example where “inherent rights have never been more happily expressed.” The problem for Bo is that the Constitution, not the Declaration, that was the legal basis for deciding the case. In the Gray v. Sanders (1963) case Justice Douglas, writing for the majority, stated: “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing – one person, one vote.” Douglas made reference to the Declaration to illustrate the long tradition of “political equality” in the United States. As in the other case, it was cited not because it is a legally binding document, but because it illustrated a point the justice was trying to make. The constitutionality of the voting law in Georgia, which was being challenged, turned on the Constitution not the Declaration.

In citing Justice Clarence Thomas Bo provided a link that no longer pulls up the relevant document. But the host website (www.ashbrook.org) did have a speech given by Thomas at the “15th Annual John M. Ashbrook Memorial Dinner” (February 5, 1999). In the speech, Thomas cites the Declaration, but its legal standing, as understood by Thomas, was not mentioned. Thomas was simply making a point about the power of government and securing liberties as it related to the case Morrison v. Olsen.

Contrary to Bo’s claim the Declaration is not a legally binding document. This fact is easy to establish if we go to the minutes of the Continental Congress that ordered its creation. The resolution that legally severed the ties with Brittan was passed on July 2. The Lee resolution, as it was called, was a simple statement of separation without the lofty language of the Declaration:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” [16]

As the prominent historian Julian P. Boyd explains:

“on July 2, the political ties with England were severed by the adoption of the Lee Resolution of Independence. This was the legal act of separation: what Jefferson and his committee had been engaged in the meantime in preparing was the formal announcement to the world proclaiming, as required by ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,’ the reasons for the action that had been taken. It was this distinction that led John Adams to think that the real celebration of the anniversary would take place on July 2 rather than July 4.” [17]

The Declaration as written by Jefferson was meant to rally the public in support of independence and to persuade the world that the case for separation was legitimate. The Declaration has long been a source of inspiration but it has no legal standing.

Claim: “The Declaration mentions Creator and Supreme Judge throughout.”

Contrary to Bo’s claim the Declaration does not “mention Creator and Supreme Judge throughout.” The document only refers to a deity four times (“Nature’s God;” “Creator;” “Supreme Judge of the World;” and “Divine Providence”). The first two are at the beginning (first and second paragraphs respectively) and the last two are at the end (final paragraph). These phrases are in a text of 1,322 words or three pages long (single-spaced, Times New Roman, 12pt font, 1” margins). The original document while only one page measures 29 3/4 inches by 24 1/2 inches. So rather than appearing throughout the document, references to a deity appear twice at the beginning and twice at the end. If we look at the draft submitted by the committee to the Continental Congress, which included only the first two references, this claim is even more unfounded (3,718 words long). And Jefferson’s original draft included only one reference to a deity (“Nature’s God”). None of these substitutes are specifically Christian. So, even if they were used throughout the document it still does not follow that the Declaration was founded as a Christian (or Judeo-Christian) document.

Conclusion

None of Bo’s claims intended to prove that the Declaration was a “Judeo-Christian” document are valid. Rather than a Christian document the Declaration is a universal document, inclusive of all mankind (“all men are created equal”). It was the universal values of the Enlightenment that Jefferson and the framers wanted to establish, not Christianity.

 

1. Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston were also on the committee but they seemed to have played a passive role. Jefferson wrote the Document and both Franklin and Adams suggested changes to the document before it was submitted to the Continental Congress for approval.
2. Derek H. Davis, “Religious Dimensions of the Declaration of Independence: Fact and Fiction,” Journal of Church & State (1994) 36: 479.
3. Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford (March 17, 1814) in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, v. 14, edited by Andrew A. Libscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), 119-120.
4. Jefferson to James Madison (August 30, 1823) in Jefferson’s Letters: Selections from the private and political correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, telling the story of American independence and the founding of the American government, arranged by Wilson Whitman (Eau Claire, Wisconsin: E. M. Hale and Company, 1940), 366.
5. Jefferson to Henry Lee (May 8, 1825) in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited and with an Introduction by Arienne Koch and William Peden (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), 657.
6. Christopher Wolfe, “Thomistic Natural Law and the American Natural Law Tradition,” in St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by John Goyette, et. al. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of American Press, 2004), 199.
7. Quoted in Wolfe, “Thomistic Natural Law,” 203.
8. Davis, “Religious Dimensions,” 474.
9. Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia (Richmond: Samuel shepherd & Co., 1828), 63.
10. Ford, v. I, 361, fn. 1
11. In the “Preface” to the Reports, Jefferson claimed that he wrote the “Disquisition” because by “adopt[ing] in mass of the whole code of another nation, and its incorporation into the legitimate system by usurpation of the Judges alone, without a particle of legislative will having ever been called on, or exercised towards its introduction or confirmation.” Reports of Cases determined in the General Court of Virginia From 1730 to 1740; and From 1768, to 1772 (Charlottesville: F. Carb, and Co., 1829), vi.
12. Ibid., 142.
13. People v. Ruggles (1811) in New York, and Updegraph v. Commonwealth (1824) in Pennsylvania.
14. Thomas Jefferson to Major John Cartwright (June 5, 1824) in Jefferson & Madison, 379-80.
15. Thomas Jefferson to Roger Weightman (June 24, 1826) in Jefferson & Madison, 390.
16. Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C.,, 1906), 5: 507.
17. Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, 16.

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