- American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War by Eran Shalev
Bible, Old Testament, Biblical language
In the index of Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1967) appear many references to Rome, a couple to Greece, and none to the Old or New Testament. Since then, numerous historians—not the least of whom is Eran Shalev, author of Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville, VA, 2009)—have investigated how familiarity with ancient history and the classics informed American political and artistic culture. Shalev’s recent book, American Zion, departs from Bailyn’s model by revealing how profoundly the Old Testament influenced political debate and reflection in the United States between the Revolution and the 1830s. It shows how the Hebrew Bible was the source of images, stories, and tropes that resonated with Americans as they fashioned an understanding of themselves as a “chosen people” and of their nation as a “new Israel.”
Drawing on Hebraic political studies, which investigates the “Hebraic tradition in political thought” (3, 52), Shalev has written an intellectual history that traces the origins, circulation, and adaptation of Old Testament themes in American political and religious treatises. He extends Eric Nelson’s inquiry in The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, MA, 2010) to the American context. Shalev investigates the fluorescence of what he calls “Old Testamentism” during the Revolutionary decades and [End Page 771] beyond, before proposing in a closing chapter that midcentury debates over slavery contributed to its demise as a frame of political and religious reference.
Shalev’s focus on the political imagination rather than on politics frees the book from a developmental trajectory whereupon one sort of reference to the Old Testament begets another. In five chapters, the book instead highlights the incidence of what Shalev characterizes as “Hebraic” tropes, themes, and metaphors in various forms of political speech. Drawing attention to “biblical republicanism,” the first chapter redresses the scholarly neglect of the role of the Old Testament “in the formation and evolution of an American republican worldview” (19). It underscores how Americans relied on the Old Testament to identify corruption. Shalev masterfully explains how Americans “made sense of civic corruption through biblical narratives” (30), particularly in their oft-repeated references to the Maccabean Revolt (167–160 BC); Persia’s corruptible king Ahasuerus and his mendacious, scheming minister Haman; and the Israelite town of Meroz, which sided with Canaan’s invading armies. Thus, Americans “read the Old Testament as a narrative of resistance to tyranny” (41). It gave them a language and discourse through which they could talk about tyranny and republican virtue. To close chapter 1, Shalev shows how Gideon provided a model for disinterested republican virtue as important as the Roman Lucius Quinticus Cincinnatus. George Washington, it was said, embodied the admirable traits of the biblical as well as the Roman hero.
Shalev’s literary analysis, particularly discourse analysis, illuminates the book’s middle chapters. Chapter 2 explores the appropriation of Israel as a model of republican governance by figures as diverse as patriotic pastors Gad Hitchcock and Samuel Cooper, Harvard President Samuel Langdon, and the inestimable Thomas Paine. Even Lyman Beecher believed that the American Constitution came from the Bible, not Rome or Greece. The chapter concludes with a fascinating account of Mordecai Manuel Noah, who in 1825 tried to “reconstitute a Hebrew government” (77) a few miles from Buffalo on an island in the Niagara River, in a city he named Ararat, after the biblical Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark landed after the flood.
Chapter 3 investigates the uses of biblical language, arguing that the discourse itself perpetuated and supported ontological claims for authority and legitimacy. The biblical style influenced nomenclature as well as [End Page 772] literary form, and provided a venue through which satire could be developed. More important...