Friday, April 13, 2012

When Skeptics Ignore the Founders

Today we have a followup from a post by W. R. Miller last week. 


There are those who seek to undermine America's Christian heritage. When it is pointed out to them that the majority of the Founders had a Protestant Christian belief system, the skeptics argue that the most important Founders were deists, therefore, we had no Christian founding.

One points out, "Obviously, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and Adams each had more influence on our history than all of these others (who were signers of the Declaration of Independence). Most people have never even heard of these others."

So, according to the skeptics, the most famous Founders were the ones that had the most influence in our nation's founding. This argument rests on a logical fallacy known as non sequitur. A non sequitur is "An inference or a conclusion not logically following from the premises; a response, remark, etc., that does not logically follow from what has gone before."[1]

These skeptics fail to realize all the signers of the Declaration of Independence were important. The Continental Congressmen didn't sit around, twiddling their thumbs or playing tiddlywinks, waiting for Jefferson and his team[2] to draft the Declaration. The representatives were all active participants. As a body, they all signed the Declaration and, as a body, influenced the birth of our nation. Otherwise, how would they be the Founding Fathers?

Several American history scholars examined some of the lesser-known Founders in The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life.[3] In the first chapter,[4] Daniel L. Dreisbach detailed the many reasons why some were more famous than others. One factor was that some outlived the others. "With the exception of Franklin, who died in 1790, all the famous founders went on to distinguished careers in national politics under the U.S. Constitution, whereas some important forgotten founders, such as William Livingston (1723-1790), George Mason (1725-1792), John Hancock (1737-1793), Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794), and John Witherspoon (1723-1794), died before they could take a prominent role in the new national government." Some lost visibility because, Dreisbach suggests, of "unappealing personal traits, quirks, or eccentricities," like George Mason and others. "Finally," Dreisbach points out, "there seems to be an inclination among modern scholars to dismiss, discount, or ignore the views of pious founders whose ideas and actions were shaped by deeply held religious convictions. … Founders steeped in the rationalist traditions of the Enlightenment are more familiar and accessible, and their exploits are advanced in modern scholarship. John Witherspoon’s faith based perspectives may have scared off more than one secular scholar; moreover, his clerical collar may have symbolically entangled church and state too excessively for modern sensibilities. The profiles of Samuel Adams, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, and Isaac Backus, among others, may have been similarly diminished by modern scholars on account of their profoundly religious identities and perspectives."

The skeptic asks, "Who stands out in American history more: Jefferson and Franklin or....John Morton, George Ross, James Smith, James Wilson, and George Taylor? Thomas Paine[5] and John Adams....or William Ellery, Lewis Morris, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, and William Floyd?"

As stated above, the "Forgotten Founders" were no less important to the American cause. Let's look at the ones mentioned by the skeptic.

Historian William Stevens Perry detailed John Morton's pivotal vote, without which the Declaration would not have passed:

We are told that Mr. Morton experienced the most intense anxiety of mind when it became his duty to give the casting vote of the Pennsylvania deputation. This vote would either confirm or destroy the unanimity of the action of the thirteen colonies in the matter of independence. His was the vote "upon which hung the important decision whether the great state of Pennsylvania should, or should not, be included in the league which bound the sister colonies together." Everything depended on the vote of this patriotic Churchman. The attitude of Pennsylvania had been that of opposition to a declaration of independence till further efforts for conciliation had been made--and had failed. The influence of Franklin (Churchman)[6] was of no avail in this juncture. Wilson (Churchman), a man of unusual ability, worthy of the highest position in the judiciary of the new nation for which Washington intended him, could not carry the state for freedom. But it was the Churchman and patriot, John Morton, who turned the scale, while the sense of the responsibility he had assumed is said by Waln, the biographer of the 'Signers' (vi. 128-220), "to have accelerated, if it did not cause, his dissolution."[7] "Tell them," said he on his death bed (April, 1777), addressing those of his friends who could not forgive or forget his vote for freedom—"tell them that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service that I ever rendered to my country" (Waln, vi, 222).[8] It was, indeed, "a glorious service" rendered to the sacred cause of liberty by this devoted Churchman. But for him we might not have won our freedom.[9]

Historian Charles A. Goodrich also reported on Morton's contribution, as well as the involvement of George Taylor:

Fortunately for the cause of American liberty, the change in public sentiment above alluded to, continued to spread, and on taking the great question of a declaration of independence, an approving vote by all the colonies was secured in its favor. The approbation of Pennsylvania, however, was only obtained by the casting vote of Mr. Morton, as has already been mentioned in our biographical notice of that gentleman. On the, 20th of July, the Pennsylvania convention proceeded to a new choice of Representatives. Mr. Morton, Dr. Franklin, Mr. Morris, and Mr. Wilson, who had voted in favor of the declaration of independence, were re-elected. Those who had opposed it were at this time dropped, and the following Gentlemen were appointed in their place, viz.: Mr. Taylor, Mr. Ross, Mr. Clymer, Dr. Rush, and Mr. Smith. These latter Gentlemen were consequently not present on the fourth of July, when the declaration was passed and proclaimed, but they had the honor of affixing their signatures to the engrossed copy, on the second of August following, at which time the members generally signed it.

James Smith's value to our nation was documented thusly:

In the month of July, a convention was assembled in Philadelphia, for the purpose of forming a new constitution for Pennsylvania. Of this body, Colonel Smith was elected a member, and he appeared to take his seat on the 15th day of the month. On the 20th be was elected by the convention a member of congress, in which body he took his seat, after the adjournment of the convention. Colonel Smith continued a member of congress for several years, in which capacity he was active and efficient. He always entertained strong anticipation of success during the revolutionary struggle, and by his cheerfulness powerfully contributed to dispel the despondency which he often saw around him. On withdrawing from congress, in November, 1778, he resumed his professional pursuits, which he continued until the year, 1800, when he withdrew from the bar, having been in the practice of his profession for about sixty years.

He was for many years a professor of religion, and very regular in his attendance on public worship.[10]

Driesbach reported on the importance and fate of Declaration signer, Constitution signer and Supreme Court justice James Wilson:

There is the tragic case of James Wilson, who died in ignominy in 1798 at age 56, fleeing from creditors for failed land speculation. He was buried in an obscure country graveyard in Edenton, North Carolina.[11] Today, Wilson is virtually unknown to the American public, but he was among the most trenchant and influential minds at the Constitutional Convention (making more speeches than any other delegate, save Gouverneur Morris), and he stamped an indelible mark on American legal theory through his influential law lectures and tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court.[12]

George Ross was hardly a bystander in our country's founding, as Perry noted:

George Ross was Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Convention of July 15, 1776, and prepared and proposed the "Declaration of Rights" which dissolved Proprietary Government of the Province and declared the commonwealth free and independent agreeably to the Declaration.[13]

According to Goodrich,

Mr. Ross continued to represent the state of Pennsylvania in the national legislature, until January, 1777, when, on account of indisposition, he was obliged to retire. During his congressional career, his conduct met the warmest approbation of his constituents. He was a statesman of enlarged views, and under the influence of a general patriotism, he cheerfully sacrificed his private interests for the public good. The high sense entertained by the inhabitants of the county of Lancaster, of big zeal for the good of his country, and of his constituents in particular, was expressed in the following resolution: "Resolved, that the sum of one hundred and fifty, pounds, out of the county stock, be forthwith transmitted to George Ross, one of the members of assembly for this county, and one of the delegates for this colony in the continental congress; and that he be requested to accept the same, as a testimony from this county, of their sense of his attendance on the public business, to his great private loss, and of their approbation of his conduct. Resolved, that if it be more agreeable, Mr. Ross purchase with part of the said money, a genteel piece of plate, ornamented as he thinks proper, to remain with him, as a testimony of the esteem this county has for him, by reason of his patriotic conduct, in the great struggle of American liberty." Such a testimony of respect and affection, on the part of his constituents, must have been not a little gratifying to the feelings of Mr. Ross. He felt it his duty, however, to decline accepting the present, offering as an apology for so doing, that he considered it as the duty of every man, and especially of every representative of the people, to contribute, by every means within his power, to the welfare of 'his country, without expecting pecuniary rewards.

The attendance of Mr. Ross in Congress, did not prevent him from meeting with the provincial legislature. Of this latter body, he was an active, energetic, and influential member. In the summer of 1776, it was found by the general assembly, that the circumstances of the state required the adoption of some decisive measures, especially in respect to putting the city of Philadelphia, and the province, in a state of defense. A committee was accordingly appointed, of which Mr. Ross was one, to report what measures were expedient. In a few days that committee did report, recommending to the people to associate for the protection of their lives, and liberty, and property, and urging upon the several counties of the province the importance of collecting stores of ammunition and arms. A resolution was also offered, providing for the payment of all such associations as should be called out to repel any attacks made by the British troops. To carry these plans into effect, a general committee of public safety was appointed, and clothed with the necessary authority. To this committee Mr. Ross was attached, and was one of its most active and efficient members. He also belonged to another important committee, viz. that of grievances.

On the dissolution of the proprietary government in Pennsylvania, a general convention was assembled, in which Mr. Ross represented the county of Lancaster. Here, again, he was called to the discharge of most important duties, being appointed to assist in preparing a declaration of rights on behalf of the state, for forming rules of order for the convention, and for defining and settling what should be considered high treason and misprision of treason against the state, and the punishment which should be inflicted for those offenses.[14]

For William Ellery, Lewis Morris, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, and William Floyd, interested researchers can visit the online resource, "America's Christian Heritage: Signers of the Declaration," which provides primary documentary coverage of all the Signers and their biographies.[15]

For those involved in crafting the First Amendment to the Constitution, Dreisbach shines the spotlight on Samuel Livermore and Fisher Ames.

At critical junctures in the First Congress’s deliberations on the amendment, language was proposed by Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire and Fisher Ames of Massachusetts that arguably shaped the final text of the First Amendment. Legislative histories often gloss over these crucial contributions and insights of the now all but forgotten Livermore and Ames, suggesting instead that the First Amendment flowed fully formed from the pen of the famous James Madison. Lost in these incomplete histories are the possible concerns and intentions behind Livermore’s and Ames’s revisions that almost certainly influenced congressional colleagues, thus leaving their mark on the First Amendment.[16]

Besides the Signers, other "unfamous" Americans played vital roles. They, too, were Founders.[17]

The contribution of James Otis of Massachusetts was recognized by President John Adams:

Adams: "I wish I could transcribe the whole of this pamphlet, because it is a document of importance in the early history of the Revolution, which ought never to be forgotten. It shows, in a strong light, the heaves and throes of the burning mountain, three years, at least, before the explosion of the volcano in Massachusetts or Virginia. ... If the orators on the 4th of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they ought to study this pamphlet, and Dr. Mayhew's sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance, and all the documents of those days."[18]

John Appleton, 4th United States Assistant Secretary of State: "In 1761, James Otis asserted the inalienable rights of man as fully and decisively as they were afterwards asserted by Thomas Jefferson. It was in his celebrated argument against writs of assistance, which President Adams characterized as breathing the breath of life into the nation. 'Otis,' says he, 'was a flame of fire. Every man, of an immense, crowded audience, appeared to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against Writs of Assistance. Then, and there, was the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then, and there, the child, Independence, was born. In fifteen years he grew up to manhood, and declared himself free.'"[19]

John Adams named three men, other than Jefferson, that have faded into relative obscurity, but were no less important to achieving our Independence. From Hampton Carson's The Supreme Court of the United States: Its History:

With these statements of the Church's controlling and determining influence in bringing about the Declaration of Independence, we may the better understand the assertion of the Puritan, John Adams, "that had it not been for such men as Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Chase, and Thomas Johnson, there would never have been any Revolution." [20]

Mercy Otis Warren calls attention to Josiah Quincy II, as well as John Dickinson and James Otis:

The characters of Dickenson [sic, John Dickinson] and Otis are well known, but the early death of Mr. Quincy prevented his name from being conspicuous in the history of American worthies. He was a gentleman of abilities and principles which qualified him to be eminently useful, in the great contest to obtain and support the freedom of his country. He had exerted his eloquence and splendid talents for his purpose, until the premature hand of death deprived society of a man, whose genius so well qualified him for the investigation of the claims, and the defence of the rights of mankind. He died on his return from a voyage to Europe, a short time before war was actually commenced between Great Britain and the colonies.[21]

With these examples, we see the importance of these gentlemen who were willing to risk their lives, the fortunes, their sacred honor so that they, and we, could enjoy liberty.

Were some deists? Yes, a handful. But all ascribed to the general principles of Christianity, as stated by John Adams.[22]

"The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles."[23]

John Adams credits Christianity, not Deism.

Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, grew up to become the sixth President. He gave credit where it was due, and it wasn't Deism:

"From the day of the Declaration, the people of the North American union, and of its constituent states, were associated bodies of civilized men and Christians, in a state of nature, but not of anarchy. They were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the Gospel, which they nearly all acknowledged as the rules of their conduct. They were bound by the principles which they themselves had proclaimed in the declaration."[24]

John Quincy Adams credits Christianity, not Deism.

In an Independence Day Oration, attorney H. P. Laird[25] of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, made this acknowledgement:

The other feature is the prominence unhesitatingly given to the recognition of Divine Providence in the affairs of the nation, on the part of the fathers of our country, and the specific acknowledgment of the Christian religion given by the State Provincial Conference held in 1776, looking to the election of members of a convention, who should be representatives of the people chosen by themselves, to lay the foundation of a government based on the authority of the people only.

Language like the following, though it may sound strange in some ears, has the true ring in it:

One of the resolutions adopted by the conference declares, that "no person elected to serve as a member of the convention shall take his seat, or give his vote, until he shall have made and signed the following declaration: I, --, do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed for evermore; and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration."[26] The members of the convention were elected on the 8th of July and met in this city on the 15th of July. Each and every one of them, before taking his seat, did publicly take and subscribe the profession of faith. In this number were such illustrious names as Benjamin Franklin, George Clymer, David Rittenhouse, Gabriel Hiester, and others; the names of the last two plainly indicating their German origin. Verily, in view of facts like these, it cannot be denied, that our Commonwealth at least, if not the whole nation, was indeed founded on the principles of the Christian religion. It is to be hoped, also, that it may ever prove itself true to such a noble foundation.[27]

Laird credits Christianity, not Deism.

In his 1835 study of America, French statesman Alexis de Toqueville observed,

"It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society. In the United States, religion is therefore mingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives a peculiar force. To this reason another of no less power may be added: in America, religion has, as it were, laid down its own limits. Religious institutions have remained wholly distinct from political institutions, so that former laws have been easily changed whilst former belief has remained unshaken. Christianity has therefore retained a strong hold on the public mind in America; and I would more particularly remark, that its sway is not only that of a philosophical doctrine which has been adopted upon inquiry, but of a religion which is believed without discussion. In the United States, Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is all established and irresistible fact, which no one undertakes either to attack or to defend. The Americans, having admitted the principal doctrines of the Christian religion without inquiry, are obliged to accept in like manner a great number of moral truths originating in it and connected with it. Hence the activity of individual analysis is restrained within narrow limits, and many of the most important of human opinions are removed from its influence."[28]

De Toqueville credits Christianity, not Deism.

Many more examples can be found in our nation's historical records, if people are willing to examine them.[29]

It should be a no-brainer to accept that a nation occupied mostly by Christians, and/or by those who support Christian values, would be a Christian nation.[30]

When confronted with evidence favoring Christian heritage, what do historical revisionists do?

They ignore it.

* * *

Suggested reading:

Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, editors. Foreword by Mark A. Noll. The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life. University of Notre Dame Press; 1st Edition edition, October 29, 2009, 352 pp. Website:

Gary Amos; Richard Gardiner; William A. Dembski. Never Before in History : America's Inspired Birth. Richardson, Tex.: Foundation for Thought and Ethics, January 1, 2011, ix, 213 pp. Website:

[1] non sequitur, n. Third edition, December 2003; online version March 2012. ; accessed 09 April 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1907.

[2] The Committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.

[3] Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, editors. Foreword by Mark A. Noll. The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life. University of Notre Dame Press; 1st Edition edition, October 29, 2009, 352 pp. Website: . Daniel Dreisbach is Professor of Justice, Law and Society in the School of Public Affairs at American University. Mark David Hall is the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Political Science at George Fox University. Jeffry H. Morrison is associate professor of government at Regent University. Contributors: Daniel L. Dreisbach, Edith B. Gelles, Gary Scott Smith, William R. Casto, Gregg L. Frazer, Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., Jonathan Den Hartog, David J. Voelker, Kevin R. Hardwick, Robert H. Abzug, Mark David Hall, Rosemarie Zagarri.

[4] Chapter One: "Famous Founders and Forgotten Founders; What's the Difference, and Does the Difference Matter?" pp. 1-25. An abbreviated version was published earlier as "Founders Famous and Forgotten," in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2007, pp. 3-12. Posted online at

[5] See the online "Paine Relief" repository at for documentation of his religious and political seditions.

[7] Robert Waln, Jr., editor. Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia: R.W. Pomeroy, 1820-1827. 9 vol.: ill.; 24 cm. Volume 6. 1824.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Perry, William Stevens, 1832-1898. The Faith of The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Tarrytown, N.Y., William Abbatt, 1926. 54 pp. "John Morton," pp. 38-39.

[10] Charles A. Goodrich. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 291-296.

[11] See David W. Maxey, “The Translation of James Wilson,” Supreme Court Historical Society 1990 Yearbook (1990), pp. 29-43.

[12] Daniel L. Dreisbach, "Founders Famous and Forgotten," The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2007, pp. 3-12. Posted online at

[13] Perry, William Stevens, 1832-1898. The Faith of The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Tarrytown, N.Y., William Abbatt, 1926. 54 pp. "John Morton," pp. 38-39.

[14] Charles A. Goodrich. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. pp. 309-312.

[16] Dreisbach, ibid.

[17] R. B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009; Dreisbach, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, 2009.

[18] From The Works of John Adams, second president of the United States: with a life of the author, notes and illustrations. Volume 10. Boston, 1850-1856, p. 300.

[20] Quoted on p. 162 of The Supreme Court of the United States: Its History: and Its Centennial Celebration, February 4th, 1890; prepared under the direction of the Judiciary Centennial Committee, by Hampton L. Carson. Philadelphia. 1891. Lee and Chase were Signers; Thomas was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, governor of Maryland, and early Supreme Court Justice.

[21] History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Interspersed with biographical, political and moral observations. Boston: Printed by Manning and Loring, For E. Larkin, No. 47, Cornhill, 1805. 3 volumes. 21 cm. Volume 1 of 3, Volume 2 of 3, Volume 3 of 3. Text-searchable here.

[22] For details, see the works catalogued at America's Christian Heritage: U.S. Presidents, at and America's Christian Heritage: Signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, at

[23] John Adams. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a life of the author, notes and illustrations. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856. 528 pp. Volume 10 of 10. Letter to Jefferson, 28 June, 1813. Also in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Washington D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904, Vol. XIII, pp. 292-294.

[25] Harrison Perry Laird (1814-1897), President of the Westmoreland Bar Association, 1886-1897.

[26] The Register of Pennsylvania, Volume 4, 1829, p. 163,

[27] "F." Christianity The Basis Of Our Republic. Messenger (1876-1887), v. 45, n. 32, Philadelphia: August 9, 1876, p. 4.

[28] De Tocqueville, [De la démocratie en Amérique -- English] Democracy in America. Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1862. 2 vols.; 23 cm. Translated by Henry Reeve. Edited, with notes, the translation revised and in great part rewritten, and the additions made to the recent Paris editions now first translated, by Francis Bowen, Alford Professor of Moral Philosophy in Harvard University.Volume 2 of 2. pp. 5-6.

[29] For example, the primary documentation found at, which was extensively used for this essay.

[30] I presented this argument earlier, "Forsaking America's Heritage," at, posted April 4, 2012, but for some reason, it went through the skeptic's head like water through a sieve. He didn't acknowledge it; he ignored it. The article also exposes historian John Fea's ignorance of the rebuttals to John Wesley, and Wesley's acceptance of God's aid to the American revolutionaries. Other examples of willful ignorance include Hector Avalos, ignoring the legal precedents cited in the 1892 Supreme Court case, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States,, January 30, 2012. The article has since been archived; and Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham's libel of Ezra Stiles Ely in The Washington Post, July 3, 2005, posted online at, in which Meacham ignored Ely's acceptance of church-state separation in The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers: A Discourse delivered on the Fourth of July, 1827, in the Seventh Presbyterian Church. Philadelphia, 1828 and Church and State. Jamestown Journal, November 16, 1831, p. 1. Originated in The Philadelphian, September 7, 1831.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I will need to come back for a closer look. Thanks for addressing this. I usually argue that America was not born in a vaccum, but rather a distinctly Christian framework. Of course there were various philosophies that were at work as well, but the people and politicians did not live in a void. It was Christian thought that offered the foundation and Christian morality that sustained it, by God's grace.