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The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life

edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, Jeffry H. Morrison

Publication Year: 2009

This interdisciplinary volume brings together essays on eleven of the founders of the American republic—Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Paine, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Mercy Otis Warren—many of whom are either little recognized today or little appreciated for their contributions. The essays focus on the thinking of these men and women on the proper role of religion in public life, including but not limited to the question of the separation of church and state. Their views represent a wide range of opinions, from complete isolation of church and state to tax-supported clergy. These essays present a textured and nuanced view of the society that came to a consensus on how religion would fit in the public life of the new nation. They reveal that religion was more important in the lives and thinking of many of the founders than is often portrayed and that it took the interplay of disparate and contrasting views to frame the constitutional outline that eventually emerged.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

The period of the American founding was filled with individuals of unusual interest as historical actors and unusual significance for the history of the United States. A recent burst of literary and televised attention has made John and Abigail Adams nearly as familiar to contemporary Americans...

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pp. xiii-xxi

Two weaknesses in much of the scholarship on the American founding inspired this collection of essays. First, there has long been a tendency to discount or ignore the role of religion in the American founding in general, and in the political thought of influential founders in particular. Second, much that has been...

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1. Famous Founders and Forgotten Founders: What’s the Difference, and Does the Difference Matter?

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pp. 1-25

Consider the political career of Roger Sherman (1721–1793) of Connecticut, a largely self-taught man, devout Calvinist, and lifelong public servant.1 He was one of only two men who signed the three great expressions of American organic law: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.2 He was a delegate...

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2. The Way of Duty: Abigail Adams and Religion

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pp. 26-39

According to Adams family lore, when the Reverend William Smith preached the sermon at his daughter Abigail’s marriage ceremony on October 25, 1764, he chose for his text Luke 7:33: “For John came, neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and Ye say ‘He hath a Devil.’”1 Even in the mid-eighteenth century’s still...

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3. Samuel Adams: America’s Puritan Revolutionary

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pp. 40-64

Although scholars debate how important religion was to many of the nation’s founders, they unanimously agree that Samuel Adams was one of the most devout. If George Washington is the “indispensable man” in winning the Revolutionary War and insuring that the new republic succeeded...

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4. Oliver Ellsworth’s Calvinist Vision of Church and State in the Early Republic

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pp. 65-100

Oliver Ellsworth (1745–1807) is, unfortunately, an obscure person to most twenty-first-century Americans—even to historians. But he was well-regarded in late-eighteenth-century America and played an influential role in creating our federal republic. James Madison wrote that he “always regarded [Ellsworth’s] talents of a high order...

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5. Alexander Hamilton, Theistic Rationalist

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pp. 101-124

The study of Alexander Hamilton’s religion presents a daunting, but interesting, challenge to the historian. Most biographers discuss the early religious influences on Hamilton and his apparent piety during his youth, then mention his religion briefly or not at all until the final years of his life. Hamilton is...

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6. Patrick Henry, Religious Liberty, and the Search for Civic Virtue

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pp. 125-144

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom ranks among the foremost documents in the history of American liberties. In sweeping terms it placed the rights of conscience—the freedom to believe and to worship without pressure or coercion of any kind—beyond the reach of the state. Thomas Jefferson...

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7. John Jay and the "Great Plan of Providence"

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pp. 145-170

In 1809, the Congregationalist minister and author Jedidiah Morse wrote the retired statesman John Jay to ask for advice about writing a history of the American Revolution. Jay responded that “a proper history of the United States . . . would be singular, or unlike all others.” Jay believed...

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8. Thomas Paine’s Civil Religion of Reason

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pp. 171-195

Although Thomas Paine (1737–1809) spent only about a quarter of his life in North America, he deserves to be counted among the founders of the United States and as a champion of republican government. Common Sense, which Paine published in 1776, just thirteen months after he arrived in Philadelphia...

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9. Anglican Moderation: Religion and the Political Thought of Edmund Randolph

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pp. 196-219

Edmund Randolph (1753–1813), a central actor in Virginia’s revolutionary and constitutional politics from the 1770s to the 1790s, was in many ways a conventional figure. A staunch republican, he celebrated those exemplary Virginians who, he believed, had led Virginia through two foundational, constitutional...

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10. Benjamin Rush and Revolutionary Christian Reform

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pp. 220-247

At exactly nine in the morning on July 4, 1788, as a cloudy but rainless sky hung over Philadelphia, the bells of Christ Church joyously announced the beginning of the Grand Federal Procession.1 Partisans of the recently ratified Constitution had created an unprecedented public extravaganza to celebrate...

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11. Roger Sherman: An Old Puritan in a New Nation

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pp. 248-277

By any measure, Roger Sherman is a forgotten founder. He is virtually unknown to the American public, and history and government professors know little about him other than that he helped craft the Connecticut Compromise. Yet as Daniel L. Dreisbach suggests, Sherman deserves to be better...

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12. Mercy Otis Warren on Church and State

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pp. 278-294

Among the forgotten founders, Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814) has been particularly neglected. As a woman she was never eligible to hold elected or appointed office. Yet because of the particular circumstances of her upbringing and her social position as an adult, she was one of the few women...

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pp. 295-303


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pp. 304-305


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pp. 306-316

E-ISBN-13: 9780268077679
E-ISBN-10: 0268077673
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268026028
Print-ISBN-10: 0268026025

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Church and state -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Religion and politics -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • United States -- Religion -- To 1800.
  • Founding Fathers of the United States -- Views on religion.
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