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Misleading quotations about our Founders


Misleading quotations about our Founders


Recently a letter writer in my local paper has forced me to amend a New Year's resolution to be a kinder, gentler columnist; but for good cause I abandon that vow. This gentleman, by virtue of his last two letters, has demonstrated that he can spoon feed us revisionist history with fragmented quotations and rhetorical quips pasted from the latest Richard Dawkins book, or his favorite atheist website. His quotes didn't address the actual issue I raised (whether America must be neutral in acknowledgment of God), but I will deal with his red herrings anyway.


He quotes Benjamin Franklin saying, "Lighthouses are more useful than churches." However, at the Constitutional Convention Franklin suggested praying for guidance in the midst of rancorous impasse saying...


"...how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understanding?"


Franklin may not have liked churches, but he apparently thought of God as the ultimate lighthouse.


The John Adam's quote he used is from a letter to Thomas Jefferson on April 19th, 1817, where he discusses the petty quarrels of two clergymen he knew. The full quote reads...


"Twenty times in the course of my reading have I been on the point of breaking out, 'This world would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.' But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Byrant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned, I mean hell."


The sentence in bold (or single quotes) was the quotation as he gave it.


This writer also cites Article 11 in the Treaty of Tripoli, declaring that America was not founded as a Christian nation. If he had done more homework, he would know there is some controversy regarding the authenticity of Article 11 in the treaty. In order to grant everything in his favor though, I will argue assuming the quote is genuine. For that reason, we will devote much editorial capital to this position.


The words of Article 11 were apparently acknowledged with the approval of President John Adam's administration and the Congressat that time.


"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."


 My letter didn't make the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, but if I had, I would ask about this statement, appearing only 16 years after the treaty was signed. John Adams said in a letter to Jefferson in June of 1813...


"The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were … the general principles of Christianity … 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..."


In the words of a popular game show of yesteryear, we might reply in exasperation, "will the real John Adams please stand up?"


Any objective view of history should seek to reconcile seemingly contradictory passages, not fixate on a few selected quotes that fit an ideological agenda, while ignoring the preponderance of evidence. So let's look at the issue more carefully.


It would not have been necessary to claim America was not founded as a Christian nation, unless someone suspected that it was, and such perception made the treaty's implementation problematic without such repudiation.


The even-handed surveyor of history, might also wonder about the preface in the Treaty of Paris(with Christian England), which reads, "In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity


I could well accept that such language was the formal diplomatic speak of the age, if the same presumptions of diplomacy were applied to the language and the intent behind Article 11 in The Treaty of Tripoli. It seems clear to me, that the context of Article 11 coupled with a historical knowledge of the conflicts between Barbary nations and European powers, refers to a long-standing inclination toward religiously motivated wars, going back to the Crusades. I believe this was an attempt at eggshell diplomacy by the Adams Administration, to distance themselves from the baggage of past European history. In modern times, we have the same strategy being played out when President Bush emphatically declares Islam to be a religion of peace. Despite the president's effort, many Imams still claim to their laity, that the conflict in Iraq is really an assault on Islam-a religious war.


Much else has already been written (I can't improve upon these essays) on reconciling the Treaty of Tripoli with the claims contrary to Article 11, so I will finish with one final point. We often hear pundits talk of America as a democracy; that is, of the people, by the people, and for the people. Then, when it comes to the issue of America's ideological foundations, they want to limit the discussion to a few select quotes from certain Founders, while ignoring the zeitgeist of the general population? They apply either a populist analysis or elitist analysis as in suits them.


 
Robert E. Meyer