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Education and the American Founding

Education And The American Founding

While virtually everyone has agreed that the American founding and the generation that achieved it were extraordinary, of towering significance and formative importance in modern history, what besides blind good luck and raw talent in able men somehow disposed to collaborate and to act at a propitious moment lay behind the achievement?

Thus, in looking for at least a few explanatory clues, I propose to approach this large subject by raising a further (no doubt preliminary) question: What spiritual and intellectual resources enabled the founding generation to achieve what it did? That question, in turn, requires a brief recollection of their achievement, the founding itself. This I would venture to summarize roughly as follows.

The founding was the rearticulation of Western civilization in its Anglo-American mode.1  It was essentially anti-modernist in resisting absolutism in the form of perceived parliamentary exercise of unlimited arbitrary or tyrannical power. It thus stands substantially in line with the great seventeenth-century struggle against the Stuart kings whose monuments are the Petition of Right and the Glorious Revolution understood as Burke understood it—as a revolution not so much made as one avoided, thus resting on an appeal to the prescriptive Ancient Constitution.

Primary characteristics of self-consciousness or identity include: constitutionalism or rule of law, consent, limited powers of government, popular sovereignty, individual dignity and liberty, metaphysical equality of all men with political consequences, a Creator-creaturely understanding of the compass of reality, the source of human law and rights in the experienced human tension toward the transcendent Ground of being as the core of human participation in reality, a historic as well as a natural jurisprudence, and a sense of being a particular community that yet embodied and served universal truth and justice under divine Providence—an exceptional, favored, perhaps chosen people (e.g., Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and Ezra Stiles).

The pertinent “education question,” then, is: How did Americans get that way? The manifold of reason and experience contributed, and the question is a larger one than can adequately be answered here, but a number of elements can be noted as especially important. To begin with, there is direct instruction by tutors (often clergymen) in schools and colleges. Then, of cardinal importance, creation of the civic consciousness from a long history of independent or quasi-independent self-government, capped by a great political and existential debate during the fifteen-year struggle against tyranny leading to independence.

James Madison in old age recalled the wisdom of his countryman in seeing the hand of tyranny in the 3 pence per pound tax on tea levied by the Townshend Duties of 1767, which eventually led to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Young Madison was at Princeton in 1770 when the Boston Massacre occurred, a founding member of the American Whig Society, and heard James Witherspoon (President John Witherspoon’s son) argue the affirmative side of a debate in Latin on the thesis “Subjects are bound and obliged by the law of nature, to resist their king, ifhe treats them cruelly or ignores the law of the state, and to defend their  liberty.”2

The general context of religious influences, political praxis, and constitutional understanding from Mayflower Compact onward forms essential background, along with self-government flourishing during salutary neglect, thus allowing the development of independence of mind, spirit, and institutional order. The general effects of Enlightenment thought are significant, with its heightening of the sense of individual autonomy and an egalitarianism corrosive of social hierarchy.

Of substantial importance is the general character of the American community itself as delineated by John Jay, who found that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side through a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other.”3  In addition, the fact of the relative homogeneity of American elites during the period of the founding makes meaningful generalization plausible: “The Founding Fathers were so similar to the broader elite of Revolutionary executive officeholders as to be indistinguishable from them.”4

In sum: The principal educational sources may be identified as the Bible and Protestant Christianity as the fundamental matrix of the society; a schooling in the Latin and Greek classics as the foundation of all education; a political and constitutional preoccupation that tended to dominate public discourse from the 1760s on as nurtured especially by Coke, Locke, Montesquieu, and later Blackstone; and an enlightened sense of individual capacity and responsibility under God as created imago dei and accountable for stewardship, for serving truth and justice, and for resisting by every means corruption and evil. The latter factors were nurtured by a range of influences generally to form American civic consciousness.

The strategy to be followed herein is one of illustrative analysis with more and less famous examples taken from the lives of representative personalities to include James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Joseph Story, James Kent, Noah Webster, and David Ramsay. Illustrations will bear mainly on the Bible and Christianity, the classics, and legal and political education. Some repetition of material cited in the foregoing chapters will be unavoidable if the analysis here is to stand solidly on the most pertinent sources.

In staking out the ground to be covered, one scholar wrote: “Both historians and the general reader have agreed that the classical heritage of Greece and Rome played a large part in the ideas and activities of Colonial America, with a climax of interest at the end of the eighteenth century. The evidence is so convincing that the case may be stated rather than defended. Careful investigation has proved that the classical tradition was, next to the Bible and the Common Law, a vital factor in provincial life and thought.”5

The Bible and Christianity

If the Moral Majority, the so-called Christian Right, and evangelicals can be major forces in contemporary American politics, why should it be to anyone’s surprise that religion was a major factor in the period of the founding? From a variety of motives, dogmatic rejection seems to be a principal part of the answer. The fact of the matter is that the best recent scholarship supports the proposition that the Christian perspective was alive, well, and flourishing in the period and that it was central to many of its major events.

Bible reading was ubiquitous in America throughout the period formally identified as “the founding,” which benefited from the Great Awakening’s revitalization of faith and coincided with the onset of the Second Great Awakening that carried well into the nineteenth century. Perry Miller remarked a generation ago, as previously noticed, that a cool rationalism such as Jefferson’s might have declared the independence of such folk but could never have persuaded them to fight for it. Edmund Burke, speaking in the Commons on the eve of the Revolution (1775), stressed that the Americans’ love of liberty on English principles was powerfully informed by their faith as Christians (mainly in dissenting traditions), which is fundamental to their perspective.

David Ramsay, in his contemporary (1789) History of the American Revolution, echoed Burke by writing:

“The religion of the colonists also nurtured a love for liberty. They were chiefly Protestants, and all Protestantism is founded on a strong claim to natural liberty, and the right of private judgment. A majority of them were of that class of men, who, in England, are called Dissenters. Their tenets, being the Protestantism of theprotestant religion, are hostile to all interference of authority, in matters of opinion, and predispose to a jealousy for civil liberty.”

“They who belonged to the Church of England were for the most part independents, as far as church government and hierarchy, were concerned. They used the liturgy of that church, but were without Bishops, and were strangers to those systems, which make religion an engine of state. That policy, which unites the lowest curate with the greatest metropolitan, and connects both with the sovereign, was unknown among the colonists. Their religion was their own, and neither imposed by authority, nor made subservient to political purposes. Though there was a variety of sects, they all agreed in the communion of liberty, and all reprobated the courtly doctrines of passive obedience, and non-resistance.”6

One modern scholar has turned empirical analysis to good use in discovering that a full one-third of all citations in the enormous pamphlet literature of the period were to texts in the Bible, far more than to any other single source.7 George Trevelyan comments that “the effect of the continual domestic study of the [Bible] upon the national character, imagination, and intelligence for three centuries—was greater than that of any literary movement in the annals, or any religious movement since St. Augustine.”8

Everybody’s favorite authority, Alexis de Tocqueville (writing in 1835, the year of John Marshall’s death and the year before that of James Madison, last of the Founding Fathers), elaborately stressed the centrality of Christianity in America. For example he wrote: “For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other.” “The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States.” And he described the frontiersman of the 1830s as “a very civilized man prepared for a time to face life in the forest, plunging into the wildernesses of the New World with his Bible, ax, and newspapers.”9

In the second volume of his famous work, Tocqueville had not changed his mind and wrote in 1840, in chapter one:

“It was religion that gave birth to the English colonies in America. One must never forget that. In the United States religion is mingled with all the national customs and all those feelings which the word fatherland evokes . . . . Christianity has kept a strong hold over the minds of Americans . . . [I]ts power is . . . that of a religion believed in without discussion . . . . Christianity itself is an established and irresistible fact which no one seeks to attack or to defend. Since the Americans have accepted the main dogmas of the Christian religion without examination, they are bound to receive in like manner a great number of moral truths derived therefrom and attached thereto.”10

But we somehow manage to forget or explain it away with an ease reminiscent of the oblivion hole of Orwell’s Ingsoc.11 Facts and truth are pesky, inconvenient things for those whose agendas cannot stand the light of day.

John Adams writing to Thomas Jefferson in their old age found the heart of the revolutionary American community to lie in the universally accepted “‘general principles of Christianity” shared by all, by which he chiefly meant the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and in the “general principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young men united [who fought the Revolution], and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence. Now I will avow [Adams continued], 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 those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.”12 Jefferson elsewhere explained that the latter were set forth in the Declaration of Independence, upon which all Whigs at the time had agreed.

When some inkling of Jefferson’s deep if heterodox religious convictions leaked out with discovery of his work on the New Testament (The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus, in which he excerpted and studied the Gospels in the various ancient and modern languages),13 his resolute study of the Bible, biblical scholarship, church fathers, and other theological literature in Greek, Latin, French, and English, he was urged to make his convictions known to the public, to publish his religious sentiments. In 1824 (two years before his death), Jefferson declined in a letter to George Thatcher and wrote: “But have they not the Gospel? If they hear not that, and the charities it teacheth, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.”14

Stoutly upholding liberty of conscience and separation of church and state did not and does not equate with lack of religious faith. James Madison apparently considered the ministry as a young man and decided against it partly because of his poor speaking voice.15 But he stayed on an extra half-year at the College of New Jersey in Princeton to study moral philosophy and Hebrew with his great mentor, President John Witherspoon, a Scottish Presbyterian and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. When time came to select theology books for the library at the University of Virginia that he and Jefferson founded in their old age and served as the first two rectors, it was to Madison that Jefferson turned because of his expertise in the field.16 In his retirement years at Montpellier after his presidency, James Madison and his wife, Dolly, regularly drove the four miles on Sundays to attend services “at the quaint old brick church in the center of Orange Court House.”17

Such may not have been Jefferson’s practice in his later years, but he had regularly attended Bruton Church in Williamsburg as a student at William and Mary and afterward.18 Moreover, as president of the United States residing in the new capital of Washington he began a practice, mentioned earlier, one that endured until well after the Civil War, of holding church services regularly in the Capitol. This was done at first in the Senate chamber and, after construction was completed, in the House of Representatives’ chamber. The president frequently was present, often with the cabinet as well as members of Congress and the general public in attendance. On occasion, worship services were conducted simultaneously in both chambers with overflow crowds present. To be invited to preach there was, of course, a great honor for the various ministers, such as Jefferson’s fiery Baptist admirer the Elder John Leland (1802) of “mammoth Cheese” fame who (along with George Eve) had been a formidable force in James Madison’s Virginia House constituency when the Bill of Rights was at issue in 1789.19

In his old age Jefferson looked forward to eternal life and to reunion with those other stalwarts of the American cause already departed. He believed he was a Christian in the only sense that Jesus would have recognized, and he sought to return to the primitive purity and simplicity of the Gospel. Basic was his unswerving commitment to the existence of God, the creator and sustainer of the world and ultimate ground of being, and he lavishly praised Jesus for making God worthy of human worship. Thus, the unity of God, the moral teachings of Jesus as the most sublime in the history of the world, and the expectation of personal immortality formed his Christianity.20

Dr. Benjamin Rush, the famous patriot scientist-physician, signatory of the Declaration of Independence, medical pioneer, and professor of Philadelphia, urged that the Bible be the primary textbook of the public schools following the Revolution and replace instruction in Latin and Greek as being more republican. Rush wrote in 1786:

“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments . . . . The religion I mean to recommend in this place is the religion of JESUS CHRIST. . . . A Christian cannot fail of being a republican.”21

Rush maintained that:

“Man is as necessarily a praying as he is a sociable, domestic, or religious animal. As ‘no man liveth and sinneth not,’ so no man liveth and prayeth not . . . . Prayer is an instinct of nature in man, as much so as his love of society.” When his son James was departing for Edinburgh to follow his father’s footsteps in the study of medicine, the elder Rush instructed him to “[c]ommit yourself and all that you are interested in daily to the protection of your Maker, Preserver, and bountiful Benefactor.” He also urged James to follow his own practice of setting everything else aside and “[a]ttend public worship . . . on Sundays” and “[r]ead the Bible only on Sundays.”22

Noah Webster is famed for his blue-backed speller, The American Spelling Book (1783: more than 100 million sold by the twentieth century), and as a great lexicographer whose American Dictionary of the American Language (1828) rested on an unprecedented philological apparatus involving more than twenty languages and was the most monumental work produced in America up until that time. In fact, Webster was the most prolific American author of the age, and his published bibliography runs more than six hundred pages. Having proposed a revision of the general government in May 1785 in Sketches of Public Policy, which he gave to Washington, he and Alexander Hamilton were among the first persons to anticipate the need for something like the Federal Convention of 1787.23

Webster agreed with [Benjamin] Rush on the centrality of the Holy Bible for education, regarding it as the source of all true wisdom.24 He revised the King James Version (1611) and published an American edition of the Bible (1833). In its preface Webster wrote: “The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is good, and the best corrector of all that is evil, in human society; the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men, and the only book that can serve as an infallible guide to future felicity.” Webster believed that duty to God was superior to any earthly obligation and toward the end of his life adopted the jeremiad style traditional with preachers throughout the Revolutionary period in judging America flawed, sinful, and depraved. “We are an erring nation . . . we deserve all our public evils.” “We have forsaken God, and he has forsaken us,” he wrote in 1838.25

George Washington regularly attended church and was a vestryman in the Episcopal Church. He gave great stress to religion in his Farewell Address (1796), calling “religion and morality” indispensable to political prosperity and patriotism and writing: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. “David Ramsay had anticipated the judgment in 1789. He summed up the lessons of the Revolutionary experience with these words: “Remember that there can be no political happiness without liberty; that there can be no liberty without morality; and that there can be no morality without religion.”26

To stress that these religious convictions were no monopoly of New Englanders (a hangover from their original Puritanism), a summary of the political aspects of religious convictions of the time may be cited. Alice Baldwin writes: “Southern Presbyterian ministers based their political concepts upon the Bible. The idea of a fundamental constitution based on law, of inalienable rights which were God-given and therefore natural, of government as a binding compact made between rulers and peoples, of the right of the people to hold their rulers to account and to defend their rights against all oppression, these seem to have been doctrines taught by them all . . . [I]n the South as in New England, the clergy helped in making familiar to the common people the basic principles on which the revolution was fought, our constitutional conventions held, our Bills of Rights written and our state and national constitutions founded.”

Confronted with this and the mountain of related evidence, one modern scholar exclaims of the Americans of 1776: “Who can deny that for them the very core of existence was their relation to God?”28 A great many people of various motivations deny it, of course, one of whom (a fellow historian) serenely writes that while “Jefferson and Madison along with George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and nearly all of the Founding Fathers claimed to be Christians hardly any of them was.”29  Presumably all politicians are pathological liars or don’t know their own minds, even including founding Fathers.

A final word on this subject can be given to the great jurist and legal philosopher Joseph Story (1779-1845), a member of the United States Supreme Court of John Marshall and Roger B. Taney, and longtime Dane Professor of Law at Harvard whose great work entitled Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States was first published in three volumes in Boston in 1833. Story therein states the following:

“Now there will probably be found few persons in this or any other Christian country, who would deliberately contend that it was unreasonable, or unjust to foster and encourage the Christian religion generally, as a matter of sound policy, as well as of revealed truth. . . . Indeed, in a republic, there would seem to be a peculiar propriety in viewing the Christian religion as the great basis, on which it must rest for its support and permanence, if it be what it has ever been deemed by its truest friends to be, the religion of liberty. Montesquieu has remarked, that the Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power. . . . Probably at the adoption of the constitution, and of the [First] amendment to it,. . . the general, if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship.”

“An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation if not universal indignation. It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether any free government can be permanent, where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape. The future experience of Christendom, and chiefly of the American states, must settle this problem, as yet anew in the history of the world.”30

The Classics

Because for nearly two hundred years in America the Greek and Latin classics formed the foundation of education, the thought of antiquity was second nature to Americans of the founding era. That was the golden era of the classics, as Meyer Reinhold has said, and especially Cicero was central—a happy circumstance, since Cicero digested and transmitted the substance of Greek political philosophy from the perspective of a great lawyer.31 Reinhold writes:

“The Founding Fathers, with a common core of knowledge from the obligatory traditional classical curriculum and from omnivorous adult reading, venerated the ancient commonwealths, statesmen, and the classical virtues as models of republicanism. In Revolutionary America love of liberty and political expertise were associated with classical learning. . . . There is perhaps no better epitome of the Revolutionary generation’s commitment to classical learning than John Adams’ exhortation to his son John Quincy in 1781: ‘In Company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus and Livy you will learn Wisdom and Virtue. . . . You will ever remember that all the End of Study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.'”32

As hinted, the entering college student came to one of the nine pre-Revolutionary colleges with a standardized preparation in which the Greek and Latin languages were the passwords for admission and progress toward the bachelor’s degree. Preparation was arduous and typically began at age eight, whether in private tutorials or in grammar schools. Pupils commonly studied classics from eight until eleven every morning and from one until dark in the afternoon. There was widespread prohibition against using English translations. The experience was not always a happy one. Discipline was strict and sometimes severe, as with the perhaps unusually stern Master Sawney at the Boston Latin School who found student Bangs unprepared. Rufus Dawes recounts the episode from 1811 :

“Well!” continues Sawney, switching the air with his cane, “well, muttonhead, what does an active verb express?”

After a little delay—”I’ll tell you what it expresses,” he resumes, bringing the stick down upon the boy’s haunches with decided emphasis, “it expresses an action and necessarily supposes an agent (flourishing the cane, which descends again as before) and an object acted upon, as [in] castigo te, I chastise thee; do you understand?”

“Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” replies the boy, doing his best to get out of the way of the rattan. But Sawney is not disposed to let him off so.

“Now tell me when an active verb is transitive.”

“I don’t know, sir,” drawls Bangs doggedly.

“Don’t you?” follows Sawney. “Then I’ll inform you. An active verb is called transitive when the action passeth over (whack, whack) to the object. You (whack) are the object. I am (whack) the agent. Now take care how you go home and say that I never taught you anything. Do you hear? (whack)”33

While whipping was common, there were many schoolmasters of exceptional skill and ability. For example, Donald Robertson’s boarding school at Dunkirk, Virginia, in the 1760s had such students as James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John Tyler (father of the president),and George Rogers Clark. He provided them with a rigorous classical education, teaching Greek, Latin, and French in a Scottish brogue. Madison at age eleven entered and over a four-year period read selections from Virgil, Horace, Justinian’s Institutes, Cornelius Nepos, Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Lucretius, Eutropius, Phaedrus, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato before returning home in 1767 for another two years of study with Reverend Thomas Martin. Carl Richard writes that “Madison’s early training was so thorough that although he arrived at the College of New Jersey in 1769 only two weeks before final examinations in Greek, Latin, the New Testament, English, and mathematics, he passed them all.”34

When John Jay applied to King’s College (Columbia) in 1760 he was required to give a rational account of Greek and Latin grammar, demonstrate ability to read three orations of Cicero and three books from the Aeneid, and convert the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John into Latin, and to be proficient in mathematics as far as the Rule of Reduction. Requirements a half century later at Brown were similar, and under the examination by the president and tutors the candidate had to read, explain, and parse Cicero, the Greek Testament, and Virgil, write true Latin prose, know the rules of prosody and “vulgar arithmetic,” and submit evidence of a blameless life and conversation. Similarly when Jefferson was planning the entrance requirements forthe University of Virginia after 1818, he agreed with Dr. Thomas Cooper’s statement:

“It should be scrupulously insisted on that no youth can be admitted to the university unless he can read with facility Virgil, Horace, Xenophon, and Homer: unless he is able to convert a page of English at sight into Latin: unless he can demonstrate any proposition at sight in the first six books of Euclid, and show an acquaintance with cubic and quadratic equations.”

Jefferson concurred that to require less than this would make the proposed university “a mere grammar school.”35 Cooper had translated Justinian’s Institutes and published it in Philadelphia in 1812, and he was Jefferson’s choice for the position of professor of law but was rejected by the university’s board. It was recalled of Jefferson as a student at William and Mary in the 1760s that “he studied 15 hours per day and carried his Greek grammar with him wherever he went.” Fondness for the classics never left him, and when he died in 1826 three items lay on his reading table at Monticello: a French political pamphlet, a volume of Seneca, and Aristotle’s Politics.36

Such classical background figured in those prominent in founding the country. Thus, twenty-seven college men out of fifty-six in Congress signed the Declaration of Independence (including eight from Harvard), while twenty-three out of the thirty-nine who signed the Constitution in 1787 were college men, nine from Princeton, eight of them including James Madison educated by John Witherspoon—surely the most influential professor in American history. The framers did not merely echo or superficially quote the classical sources but applied them by adapting their insights into the tasks at hand, especially those of Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius.37 Witherspoon’s name should not pass without also a mention of his key role in introducing Scottish Common Sense philosophy (especially of Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson) into America, a dominant intellectual force that endured into the late nineteenth century and seems to be reviving today in such works as James Q. Wilson’s Moral Sense.38

The influences from the classics bore fundamentally on American prudential and political theory as embodied in the whole civic life of the country, but especially in the Constitution and constitution-making of the states. Central elements include: the theory of human nature, the conception of the mixed and balanced government, federalism, the Ciceronion and generally Stoic conception of political virtue, and the notion of the rule of law as embodying reason in contrast to the rule of men. The latter, as Aristotle and Madison teach, involve passions in inevitably distorting and self-serving ways. The rule of law of Aristotle’s Politics, as reinforced by the government of laws of James Harrington’s Oceana (1656), found its way into the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (in which John Adams played a large part), thence into American constitutional law in Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803).

The Virgilian farmer and classical pastoral ideal make a major and enduring appearance with the Jeffersonian republicans’ yeoman farmer as the American paradigm. There is, of course, republicanism itself as well as the great Federalist and Anti-federalist debates over its true meaning. Political virtue classically understood as enlightened service to the common good was common coin of the founding; and the Roman virtues of frugality, simplicity, temperance, fortitude, selflessness, honor, and love of liberty were purposely inculcated as traits of character by George Washington and others of his age. They were not generally thought to contradict Christian virtues.39 Washington himself as “the father of the Country” received the benefits of a classical metaphor originally applied by Cato to Cicero. Then there is that wonderful ornament of American literature and of classical learning exhibited in the post-1812 correspondence between those two old Argonauts of the founding, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who still were debating the meaning of the Greek texts of Hesiod and of Theognis of Megara on aristoi, or natural aristocracy, as well as on moral sense, conscience, intuition, reason—in short, on learning ancient and modern at large throughout their twilight years in letters back and forth between Monticello and Quincy—until the end at last came for them both on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of independence.41

The special case of Benjamin Rush may again be mentioned. Typically for the time, he was educated between his eighth and fourteenth years at boarding school by the Reverend Samuel Finley, a New Side (Whitefield) Scottish Presbyterian minister, who later became president of the College of New Jersey. Young Rush studied Latin and Greek, arts and sciences, English, public address, and the Bible, and memorized the Shorter Catechism of the Church of Scotland, which was repeated every Sunday evening, when the boys also were examined over the content of the sermon heard earlier in the day. He entered Princeton at age fifteen in 1759 as a junior, being so well prepared that he graduated in the following year with the bachelor of arts degree. He received his M.D. from Edinburgh in 1768.42

After the Revolution, however, he argued against the overemphasis in the grammar schools on Greek and Latin as immoral, pagan, monkish, and for many other reasons “all wrong”—especially in a Christian republic. Decades later in 1810 and old age, he and John Adams renewed the controversy in a bantering, mock-serious way. Thus Adams writes: “I do most cordially hate you for writing against Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I never will forgive you until you repent, retract, and reform. No never! It is impossible.”

To this Rush replies:

“Hate on, and call upon all the pedagogues in Massachusetts to assist you with their hatred of me, and I will after all continue to say that it is folly and madness to spend four or five years in teaching boys the Latin and Greek languages. I admit a knowledge of the Hebrew to be useful to divines, also as much of the Greek as will enable them to read the Greek testament, but the Latin is useless and even hurtful to young men in the manner in which it is now taught. . . . Were every Greek and Latin book (the New Testament excepted) consumed in a bonfire, the world would be the better for it . . . ‘Delenda, delenda est lingua Romana” should be the voice of reason and liberty and humanity in every part of the world.'”

And Adams rejoins:

“Hobbes calumniated the classics because they filled young men’s heads with ideas of liberty and excited them to rebellion against Leviathan [chap. 21]. Suppose we should agree to study the oriental languages, especially the Arabic, instead of Greek and Latin. This would . . . gratify Hobbes much better. . . . Where can you find in any Greek or Roman writer… sentiment[s] so sublime and edifying for George and Napoleon. . . . I would put you into your own tranquilizer until I cured you of your fanaticism against Greek and Latin. . . . My friend, you will labor in vain. As the love of science and taste for the fine arts increases in the world, the admiration of Greek and Roman science and literature will increase. Both are increasing very fast. Your labors will be as useless as those of Tom Paine against the Bible, which are already fallen dead and almost forgotten.”44  

A further illustration of the centrality of classics to the American mind can be seen in James Kent (1763-1847), chancellor of the State of New York and author of the celebrated work of jurisprudence entitled Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, which appeared in four volumes (1824-1830). Based on his lectures as professor of law at Columbia, the Commentaries went through a number of editions. In his review of it, George Bancroft stated: “Now we know what American law is.”45

Young James began his education at age five and the study of Latin at age nine, then with the Reverend Ebenezer Baldwin, the distinguished preacher at Danbury. By age thirteen Kent had read Eutropius, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Virgil. He entered the New Haven College (Yale) of Ezra Stiles at fourteen, received the bachelor of arts degree in 1781 and the master’s in 1784. The classics provided the backbone of instruction with Virgil, Cicero, and Horace in Latin and the New Testament, Homer, and Xenophon in Greek.

This, however, was only the beginning. Kent continued his reading of the classics throughout his life of eighty-four years. As he later wrote in his Diary:

“At the June circuit, in 1786,1 saw Edward Livingston (afterwards the codifier for Louisiana), and he had a pocket Horace and read some passages to me, and pointed out their beauties, assuming that I well understood Horace. I said nothing, but was stung with shame and mortification. I purchased immediately Horace and Virgil, a dictionary and grammar, and a Greek lexicon and grammar, and the Testament, and formed my resolution, promptly and decidedly, to recover the lost languages. I studied in my little cottage mornings, and devoted an hour to Greek and another to Latin daily. I soon increased it to two for each tongue in the twenty-four hours.”

“My acquaintance with the languages increased rapidly. After I had read Horace and Virgil, I ventured upon Livy for the first time in my life; and, after I had construed the Greek Testament, I took up the Iliad, and I can hardly describe at this day [1839] the enthusiasm with which I perseveringly read and studied, in the originals, Livy and the Iliad. It gave me inspira- tion. I purchased a French dictionary and grammar, and began French, and gave an hour to that language daily. I appropriated the business part of the day to law, and read Coke on Littleton and made copious notes. I devoted evenings to English literature in company with my wife.”

Kent was appointed to the New York Supreme Court at age thirty-five by Governor John Jay and became chief justice six years later (1804), but his reading continued. As he wrote to his brother, Moss Kent, in 1799:

It is only by becoming thoroughly master of Greek and Roman learning—

Of all the ancient sages thought,

     The ancient bards sublimely taught,

—and also a profound acquaintance with English classics and with the sages of the law, that a man can attain to distinction and dignity and impart to the mind all its energies and all its grandeur.

A Washington-Hamilton Federalist who disliked John Adams’s supposed tendency to elevate monarchy and detested Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for their perceived Jacobinism, Kent wrote this estimate of the first president:

“The patriotism, firmness, wisdom, prudence, enterprise, and matchless simplicity, integrity, and industry of General Washington . . . are beyond precedent. The United States is indebted for its independence to him, more than to all Congress united.”49

 In sum, with respect to the founders and the classics, “so skillfully were the classical, Whig and American traditions interwoven that the founders considered them one and the same: ‘the tradition of Liberty.'” For his part John Adams wrote: “Whig principles were the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke.”50

 Legal Education

In the famous final letter by Jefferson to Madison (February 17, 1826) that concludes with “Take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections,” the primary concern is with legal education and selection of a law professor for the University of Virginia. Eager to allow diversity of religious beliefs, Jefferson and Madison saw no anomaly in fostering orthodoxy of political belief, if that could be managed. Their university was to be an engine designed for the very purpose. Thus Jefferson wrote:

“In the selection of our Law Professor, we must be rigorously attentive to his political principles. You will recollect that before the Revolution, Coke Littleton was the universal elementary book of law students, and a sounder Whig never wrote, nor of profounder learning in the orthodox doctrines of the British constitution, or in what were called English liberties. You remember also that our lawyers were then all Whigs. But when his black-letter text, and uncouth but cunning learning got out of fashion, and the honeyed Mansfieldism of Blackstone became the students’ hornbook, from that moment, that profession (the nursery of our Congress) began to slide into Toryism, and nearly all of the young brood of lawyers now are of that hue.”

“They suppose themselves, indeed, to be Whigs, because they no longer know what Whigism or republicanism means. It is in our seminary that this vestal flame is to be kept alive; it is thence it is to spread anew over our own and the sister States. If we are true and vigilant in our trust, within a dozen or twenty years a majority of our own legislature will be from one school, and many disciples will have carried its doctrines home with them to their several States, and will have leavened thus the whole mass.”

Jefferson then movingly alludes to the philosophy of government he and Madison have devoted their lives to and which he hopes to see nurtured by the university:

“The friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me through that long period . . . . It has . . . been a great solace to me, to believe that you are engaged in vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued for preserving to them, in all their purity, the blessings of self-government, which we had assisted too in acquiring for them. If ever the earth has beheld a system of administration conducted with a single and steadfast eye to the general interest and happiness of those committed to it, one which protected by truth, can never know reproach, it is that to which our lives have been devoted. To myself you have been a pillar of support through life.”51

The great constitutional debate that preceded the Revolution continued in transformed terms as the marriage of liberty and law that was consummated by the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights in later decades. The founding was conducted in significant part by lawyers. As the aged Jefferson implied, if Lord Coke had saved English liberties and constitutionalism for the world once in the seventeenth century, it is hardly too much to say that he did it twice with the success of the American cause after independence in the eighteenth century. Coke’s four volumes of Institutes and eleven volumes of Reports were the cornerstone and much of the edifice of legal education in eighteeenth-century America. The publication of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (in four volumes, 1765-1769) and eager reception in America were not altogether unmixed blessings, as at least Jefferson thought.

There were few books of law available to the colonial student.52 Only thirty-three law books were printed in America prior to 1776, and eight of those were different editions of the same work. A number of these, however, bore on jury trial, individual liberties, and constitutional questions back to Magna Carta. But there was no American reprint of Coke prior to 1776 or of any standard English law writer except Blackstone; nor were any English law reports reprinted. Editions of colonial laws were scarce or unobtainable. What existed were to be found mostly in the libraries of richer lawyers. Many of these were Tories, and they took their books with them when they fled the country at the outbreak of war. There were no college law lectures before 1780 and no law schools before 1784.

The situation faced by James Kent when he was appointed to the New York Supreme Court as its youngest member in 1798 may be taken as typical for the time of circuit-riding justice in America:

“I never dreamed of volumes of reports and written opinions. Such things were not then thought of . . . . When I came to the Bench there were no reports or State precedents. The opinions from the Bench were delivered ore tenus [by word of mouth]. We had no law of our own, and nobody knew what it was. I first introduced a thorough examination of cases and written opinions . . . . This was the commencement of a new plan, and then was laid the first stone in the subsequently erected temple of our jurisprudence.”53

Law was learned either through private study (Patrick Henry followed this route, being admitted to the bar after six weeks in solitude with Coke on Littleton in 1760), while clerking or serving as a copyist for some court and reading whatever books one could borrow (principally Coke on Littleton, the first volume of Coke’s Institutes), or apprenticeship in a law office, for which the student paid a fee that ranged from $100 to $500. Bushrod Washington was so apprenticed to James Wilson in 1782, and uncle George Washington signed the note for his nephew in the amount of 100 guineas as fee.

When John Adams began the study of law in the offices of Jeremiah Gridley in Boston he was told: “A lawyer in this country must study common law and civil law and natural law and admiralty law and must do the duty of a counsellor, a lawyer, an attorney, a solicitor and even of a scrivener; so that the difficulties of the profession are much greater here than in England.”54 John Adams read Coke, Bracton, Britton, Fleta, Glanville, Fortescue, Justinian’s Institutes, St. Germain’s Doctor and Student, and a number of other titles after two years, but, he wrote:

“Wood’s Institutes of Common Law I never read but once, and my Lord Coke’s Commentary on Littleton I never read but once. These two authors I must get and read over and over again. And I will get them and break through, as Mr. Gridley expresses it, all obstructions. Besides, I am but a novice in natural law. There are multitudes of excellent authors on natural law that I have never read; and indeed I never read any part of the best authors Puffendorf and Grotius.”55

Young Adams promised himself to do better during the next two years. When James Kent undertook the study of law with Attorney General Egbert Benson in 1781 in Poughkeepsie he was, by his own account, the most modest, steady, industrious student that such a place ever saw:

“I read, the following winter, Grotius and Puffendorf, in huge folios, and made copious extracts . . . . I was free from all dissipations; I had never danced, played cards, or sported with a gun, or drunk anything but water. In 1782 I read Smollett’s History of England, and procured at a farmers house where I boarded, Rapin’s History [of England], and read it through; and I found during the course of the last summer, among my papers, my MS. abridgment of Rapin’s dissertation on the laws and customs of the Anglo-Saxons. I abridged Hales “History of the Common Laws,” and the old Books of Practice, and read parts of Blackstone again and again. The same year I procured Hume’s History, and his profound reflections and admirable eloquence struck most deeply on my youthful mind. I extracted the most admired parts, and made several volumes of MSS”.56

 Blackstone was no sooner published than he was reprinted (and sold at $2 per volume) in Philadelphia in 1771-1772. Edmund Burke remarked on the preoccupation of Americans with law and constitutional questions in his great Conciliation speech in the House of Commons on March 22, 1775:

“In no country, perhaps, in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful, and in most provinces it takes the lead. The greater number of the deputies sent to the Congress were lawyers. But all who read, and most do read, endeavor to obtain some smattering in that science. I have been told by an eminent bookseller, that in no branch of his business, after tracts of popular devotion, were so many books as those of the law exported to the plantations. The colonists have now fallen into the way of printing them for their own use. I hear that they have sold nearly as many of Blackstone’s Commentaries in America as in England.”

“General Gage . . . states that all the people in his government are lawyers, or smatterers in law—and that in Boston they have been enabled, by successful chicane, wholly to evade many parts of one of your capital penal constitutions . . . . This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”57

Charles Warren concludes that the very meagerness of Americans’ legal education in the period of the founding was in fact its strength. He finds truth in the reply of a great lawyer who, when asked how the lawyers who framed the United States Constitution had such a mastery of legal principles, replied—”Why they had so few books.” Daniel Webster remarked that many other students read much more than he did, but that “so much as I read, I made my own.” And Chancellor James Kent offers a similar explanation out of the fact that, studying during the Revolution, he had only one book—”Blackstone’s Commentaries, but that one book he mastered.” Warren concludes that this “sums up very concisely the cause of the greatness of many an early American jurist.”58


The centrality of education—broadly conceived as in antiquity as character formation—to the success of free government was a conviction of the founders, and some of the key sources have been mentioned. It is not much knowing but deep knowing harmonized by devotion to truth and justice that makes all the difference. We denizens of the information overload era are very far from understanding this critical point. Burke understood it and even conceded John Adams’s hyperbolic claim of a decade earlier:

“A native of America [stated Adams] who cannot read and write is as rare an appearance as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, that is, as rare as a comet or an earthquake. It has been observed that we are all of us lawyers, divines, politicians, and philosophers . . . . [A]ll candid foreigners who have passed through this country, and conversed freely with all sorts of people here, will allow, that they have never seen so much knowledge and civility among the common people in any part of the world . . . . Be it remembered . . . that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood. And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understanding, and a desire to know.”59

Alexis de Tocqueville later spoke of “habits of the heart.” And it is heart knowledge as well as head knowledge that Adams speaks of, what he and Jefferson termed “the principles of reason and pure Americanism.”60

 The spirit of the founding displays significant kinship with the ancient and medieval principle that it is part of the purpose of political order to conduce to habitual virtue, to lay foundations for a life lived according to justice and truth, i.e., the inculcation of rudimentary righteousness through the imposed legal and institutional order of society. Only on such a foundation of habit can highest public and personal good be pursued and preserved—individual and social happiness as the prize of liberty. The political order is conceived as harmonizing with the “laws of nature and nature’s God” in America as it comes from the hands of the founders, if we rightly remember it today.

Once again Tocqueville’s keen eye saw something of this, and he expressed it in his encomium of the American jury system as “bound to have a great influence on national character’:

“This is because juries instill some of the habits of the judicial mind into every citizen, and just those habits are the very best way of preparing people to be free. It spreads respect for the courts’ decisions and for the idea of right . . . . Juries teach men equity in practice . . . teach each individual not to shirk responsibility for his own acts, and without that manly characteristic no political virtue is possible . . . invest each citizen with a sort of magisterial office . . . . Juries are wonderfully effective in shaping a nation’s judgment and increasing its natural lights . . . . [The jury] should be regarded as a free school which is always open . . . . I think the main reason for the practical intelligence and the political good sense of the Americans is their long experience with juries in civil cases . . . . The jury is both the most effective way of establishing the people’s rule and the most efficient way of teaching them how to rule.”61

Such views seem to complement those of the founders precisely. Jefferson thought a Bill of Rights important, among other reasons, because it stated in the authoritative text of the fundamental law principles that would then become guides especially to judicial practice in support of liberty and justice in society. Such a text would, in effect, be a veritable script for acting and living well as free men in society at large. Herein lies the harmonizing of the educational and political vision of the founders—convinced as they are that America is not a fortuitous historical accident, but that it exemplifies through its authoritative documents and founding acts principles of timeless prudential truth.

There is no warfare here between ancients and moderns, but an attempt to adapt and redefine abiding truth intrinsic to both in service of a newly articulated just regime. Hence the weight of Jefferson’s words in his last year about the lack of novelty in the Declaration of Independence. “[I]t was intended,” he wrote, “to be an expression of the American mind…. All of its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc., & c.”62

 The Declaration and Constitution were conceived to be the groundwork of justice and happiness for the American community undertaking its historical pilgrimage. A basic faith in American institutions and the need for its inculcation through civic education is a consensus of the leading personalities of the period. Thus James Kent, inveighing against his imagined disparagement of republicanism and adulation of monarchy by John Adams, writes:

“I wish to make a firm stand against such pernicious tenets. They are as directly in the face of our institutions and manners as they are repugnant to our feelings and happiness. Besides, it is against moral fitness, no less than political duty, to be constantly instilling distrust and diffidence as to the Constitution of our country. An unshaken confidence, a reverential attachment to our established system, ought rather to be the lesson of the schools.”63 

His partisan spirit aside, the thrust of these convictions touches the central consideration and perennial necessity of civic education. In Kent’s introductory lecture as professor at Columbia he stated the crux of the matter for aspiring law students, but not only for them:

“The importance of a knowledge of our Constitutional principles as a part of the education of an American lawyer arises from the uncommon efficacy of our courts of justice in being authorized to bring the validity of a law to the test of the Constitution . . . . I consider them, the course of justice, as the proper and intended guardians of our limited Constitution against the factions and encroachments of the legislative body . . . . A lawyer in a free country . . . should be a person of irreproachable virtue and goodness. He should be well read in the whole circle of the arts and sciences. He should be fit for the administration of public affairs and to govern the Commonwealth by his councils, establish it by his laws and correct it by his example.”

“The people of this country are under singular obligations from the nature of their government to place the study of the law at least on a level with the pursuits of classical learning. The art of maintaining social order and promoting social prosperity is not with us a mystery for only those who may be distinguished by the adventurous advantages of birth and fortune . . . . A wide field is open to all—all may be summoned into public employment . . . . Extensive legal and political knowledge is requisite to render men competent to administer the government. A general initiation into the elementary learning of our law has a tendency to guard against mischief and at the same time to promote a keen sense of right and warm love of Freedom.”64 

A similar confidence in the principles and institutions of America is reflected in James Madison’s attitude even at the end of his life, when the slavery question was becoming a nearly overwhelming concern. “The finest of Madison’s characteristics . . . was his inexhaustible faith—faith that a well-founded commonwealth would be made immortal by the spirit of justice its principles instilled in the people.”65  This is to suggest that the principles of our authoritative documents preeminently comprise—and were intended to comprise—a kind of syllabus for education in free government in America and, because of their universality and vision (with appropriate adaptations) for free government wherever it might have any chance of flourishing.



l. The summary given here is indebted to the author’s previously published work, esp. Ellis Sandoz, A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding, 2nd ed. (1990; rev. ed., Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 151-56 and passim; also Ellis Sandoz, ed., The Roots of Liberty: Magna Carta, Ancient Constitution, and the Anglo-American Tradition of Rule of Law (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 1-21; and Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (1991; repr., Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998); and Ellis Sandoz, The Politics of Truth and Other Untimely Essays: The Crisis of Civic Consciousness (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999).

2. Irving Brant, James Madison: The Virginia Revolutionist (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941), 80-85, 94.

3. Federalist No. 2 as in The Federalist, ed. Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, CT:Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 9.

4. Richard D. Brown, “Founding Fathers of 1776 and 1787: A Collective View,”William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 33 (1976): 465-80, at 466. The educational ideas of the founders and founding period are explored in many places, and especially the following may be mentioned: Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society: Needs and Opportunities for Study (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960); Robert Middlekauff, “A Persistent Tradition: The Classical Curriculum in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 18 (1961): 54-67; Eugene F. Miller, “On the American Founders’ Defense of Liberal Education in a Republic,” Review of Politics 46 (1984): 65-90; and Lorraine Smith Pangle and Thomas L. Pangle, The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).  

5. Richard M. Gummere, Seven Wise Men of Colonial America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), v. Italics added.

6. David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution [Philadelphia, 1789],ed. Lester H. Cohen, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1990), 1:26-27.

7. Donald S. Lutz, “Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review 78 (1984):189-97.

8. Quoted by H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy,” Church History 22 (1954): 130.

9. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, 2 vols, in 1 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1969), 293, 295, 303.

10. Ibid., 432.

11. Cf. George Orwell, 1984 (1949; repr., New York: New American Library, Signet Classics, 1961), “Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak”: “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible” (246).

12. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813, in The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. Lester J. Cappon, 2 vols, in 1 (1959; repr., New York: Simon & Schuster/Clarion Books, 1971), 1:339-340. Some emendation of punctuation and capitalization from the original text.

13. Collected and annotated along with all other relevant sources pertaining to Jefferson’s religious views in Dixon W. Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: “The Philosophy of Jesus” and “The Life and Morals of Jesus” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

14.  Quoted from Sandoz, GOL, 149.

15.  Brant, James Madison: The Virginia Revolutionist, 118 and chap. 6 passim.

16. Ibid., 120; Gaillard Hunt, ed., The Writings of James Madison, 9 vols. (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1900-10), 9:203-207.

17. Maud Wilder Goodwin, Dolly Madison (New York: Charles Scribner, 1896), 275-76.

18. Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, vol. 1, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948), 52; cf. pp. 274-85.

19. Cf. Anson P. Stokes, Church and State in the United States, 3 vols. (New York: Harper, 1950), 1:499-507; see Helen Gripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974), 24-26.

20.  For sources and discussion see Sandoz, GOL, 148 and passim.

21. Benjamin Rush, A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to Which Are Added, Thoughts upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic (Philadelphia, 1786), repr. in American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760-1805, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983), 1:675-92, at 681.

22. George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush; His “Travels Through Life,” together with his Commonplace Book for 1789—1813 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), 339, 280-81. In the internal quote Rush paraphrases Ecclesiastes 7:20.

23. Harry R. Warfei, ed., Letters of Noah Webster (New York: Library Pubs., 1953),256, 260, 528n; Emily E. F. Skeel, ed., A Bibliography of the Writings of Noah Webster (New York: New York Public Library, 1958). On the role of Hamilton, see the personal recollections of Chancellor James Kent in William Kent, Memoirs and Letters of James Kent (Boston: Little, Brown, 1898), “Appendix: Chancellor Kent’s Memories of Alexander Hamilton,” 279-331. Hereinafter cited as Memoirs of Chancellor Kent.

24. Richard M. Rollins, ed., The Autobiographies of Noah Webster: From the Letters and Essays, Memoir, and Diary (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989 ), 34.

25. The Webster Bible (1833; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), v; Rollins, ed., Autobiographies of Noah Webster, 56.

26. Ramsay, History of the American Revolution, 2:667, last page. See also Michael Novak and Jane Novak, Washington‘s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

27. Alice Baldwin, “Sowers of Sedition,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 5(1948): 76.

28. Carl Bridenbaugh, The Spirit of 76: The Growth of American Patriotism before Independence, 1607-1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 118.

29. John M. Murrin, “Religion and Politics in America from the First Settlements to the Civil War,” in Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the 1980s, ed. Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 19-43, at 29, 35; see also David L. Holmes, The Religion of the Founding Fathers (Charlottesville, VA: Ash Lawn-Highland, and Ann Arbor: Clements Library, University of Michigan, 2003), 131: “The Founding Fathers of the United States were remarkable, even noble men. . . . In the spirit of their times, they appeared less devout than they were—which seems a reversal from modern politics.”

30. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: With a Preliminary Review of the Constitutional History of the Colonies and States, Before the Adoption of the Constitution, ed. Edward W. Bennett, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (Boston: Little Brown, 1858), 2:662-63 (bk. 3, chap. 44, pars. 1873, 1874, 1875). For analysis, see James McClellan, Joseph Story and the American Constitution (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), chap. 3, “Christianity and the Common Law.”

31. “Cicero’s ideas on [the mixed constitution] run like a stream underground through colonial writings” (Richard M. Gummere, The Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition: Essays in Comparative Culture [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963], 176). Cicero also was the mediator between ancient Greek and early Christian civilization, as Augustine suggests, and also between classical antiquity and the Renaissance. “Cicero, who was originally read above all because of his style and then was prized because of the content of his work, especially De natura deorum…plays an important role in transmitting material from antiquity” (Henning Graf Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, trans. John Bowden [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985], 420n53). The statement applies also to America, where Cicero served similar functions.

32. Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 174.

33. Quoted from Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome ,and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994),15-16.

34. Ibid., 18.

35. Gummere, The Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition, 56-57; Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 34-35. On Jefferson’s own education as a youth see Malone, Jefferson and His Time, vol. 1, Jefferson the Virginian, 40-48 and chap. 4, “At the College, 1760-1762.”

36. Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 22, 276n21; Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, 56.

37. Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, 66, 173.

38. Sandoz, GOL, 179-89. Cf. John Witherspoon, An Annotated Edition of Lectures on Moral Philosophy, ed. Jack Scott (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982), 50: “In terms of Scottish Common Sense philosophy, Witherspoon’s thought is neither original nor profound. Rather, his real significance is in making Princeton acitadel of Scottish realism—a citadel that, in turn, dominated philosophical thought in American higher education for many decades….Appropriately, the last great champion of Scottish realism in America was Princeton President James McCosh (1868-88), another imported Scot who arrived in America exactly one hundred years after Witherspoon.” Scott also notes that, out of 469 Princeton graduates during President Witherspoon’s tenure of twenty-five years (1768-94), “six were members of the Continental Congress, twenty-one were United States Senators, thirty-nine were Representatives, three were Justices of the Supreme Court, and one became President” (Lectures on Moral Philosophy, 15-16). James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense was published in New York in 1993. Cf. the discussion of “moral sense” in chap. 1, §5,herein. Cf. Scott P. Segrest, “Common Sense Philosophy and Politics in America: John Witherspoon, James McCosh, and William James” (Ph.D. diss., Louisiana StateUniversity, December 2005), 269.

39. Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 147, 184-85.

40. Ibid., 69.

41. This correspondence is collected as the second volume of Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 283-614.

42. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, 30-32, cf. 345 f.

43. Ibid., 345-46

44. John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds., The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of Joh nAdams and Benjamin Rush, 1805—1813 (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1980),168-71, quoted from correspondence dated in September and October 1810.

45. Quoted from Bancroft’s 1827 review in Charles Warren, A History of the American Bar (Boston: Little, Brown, 1911), 543.

46. Kent, Memoirs of Chancellor Kent, 1-14.

47. Ibid., 24-25.

48. Ibid., 143-44.

49. Ibid., 249.

50. Richard, The Founders and the Classics, 83.

51. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Feb. 17, 1826, in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York: Modern Library, 1935), 726-28.

52.  I follow here Warren, A History of the American Bar, esp. chap. 8.

53.  Kent, Memoirs of Chancellor Kent, 116-17.

52.  I follow here Warren, A History of the American Bar, esp. chap. 8.

53.  Kent, Memoirs of Chancellor Kent, 116-17.

54. Warren, History of the American Bar, 83.

55.  Quoted from ibid., 172.

56.  Kent, Memoirs of Chancellor Kent, 19.

57. Edmund Burke, Selected Writings and Speeches, ed. Peter J. Stanlis (Chicago: Regnery Gateway Editions, 1963), 161.

58. Warren, History of the American Bar, 187.

59. Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States . . . , 10 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1850-56), 3:456.

60. Quoted from Sandoz, GOL, 35-36.

61. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Mayer, 274-76.

62. Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, in Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Koch and Peden, 719.

63. Kent, Memoirs of Chancellor Kent, 89.

64. James Kent as quoted in Warren, A History of the American Bar, 352-53n.

65. Irving Brant, James Madison: Commander-in-Chief, 1812-1836 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961), 504. This is given as the account by Harriet Martineau, who visited the Madisons at Montpellier in 1834. Cf. Holmes, The Religion of the Founding Fathers, chap. 9; also Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), chap. 10.


This excerpt is from Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (University of Missouri Press, 2006)

Ellis Sandoz

Ellis Sandoz was the Hermann Moyse Jr. Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Louisiana State University, former Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies, and founder of the Eric Voegelin Society. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books.

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