American political discourse refers a lot to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, but the Founding Fathers often found themselves at odds with one another with very different religious, political, and economic ideas. In this episode, we’ll examine some of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and examine the ranges of opinions they held about issues from slavery to states’ rights and their opinions on the form of the new American Republic.
Guest Henry A. Wiencek from UT’s Department of History walks us through an era of American history that, it turns out, isn’t so easy to summarize as it might appear.
- Henry Alexander WiencekIndependent Scholar
- Christopher RosePostdoctoral Fellow, Institute for Historical Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
There is a tendency to focus on the better-known Founding Fathers: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, while they’re important, there are a wider variety of people who contributed a great deal to the Revolution who can also teach us a lot about the diverse economic, religious, ideological concerns that went into 1776 and our independence from Britain.
The first person we’re going to talk about is Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was a Philadelphia physician, writer, educator. He signed the Declaration of Independence and he was a member of the First Continental Congress. He’s also known because, at the end of John Adams’ life, Rush reconciled him with Thomas Jefferson. He’s a unique figure. In contrast to some of the other founding fathers that we are familiar with, he had his own concerns. Notably, he was a very strong opponent of slavery, and he was a strong opponent of capital punishment.
He was a firm believer in Enlightenment principals, which, loosely defined, means that he believed that humans are naturally inclined toward liberty and that tyranny is an unnatural circumstance. He believed that both capital punishment and slavery were institutions of tyranny.
There’s a bit of hypocrisy on his part, though, because in 1776 he did buy a slave in Philadelphia, only three years after he wrote Address to the People of the United States, which was a pamphlet attacking the slave trade as incompatible with liberty.
Another figure in the revolution, Charles Caroll, who was a very wealthy plantation owner from Maryland, had a unique take on abolition as well. He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and eventually became a Senator, and he signed the Declaration of Independence. He believed in the gradual emancipation of slaves. He introduced a bill in Maryland that would gradually emancipate slave—it didn’t pass.
Even though he was a tobacco farmer and owned slaves himself, he believed that slavery should be gradually dissolved in the new Republic. Again, like Rush, there may be a little bit of hypocrisy here—he never freed his own slaves—so I think this shows some unique views on abolitionism, and also the distinct regional economic views. Rush was urban, from an environment where slavery was less prevalent, and he wanted the immediate cessation of slavery; Caroll was from a region in which farmers were heavily invested in slavery and heavily dependent on it.
One possible reason why Caroll went against type may be his religious views. He was Catholic, which was very rare at that time in American history. Catholics were generally viewed by the Protestant majority as being suspicious, as being beholden to the pope. It was believe that Catholics couldn’t make good Republicans because they would be so dependent on the authority of the pope rather than a democratically elected government.
Religion is an interesting sub topic that is not discussed a whole lot in our narrative of the Revolution, but there was a variety of religious—Christian—beliefs among the people who supported the revolution. Caroll was a Catholic. Another, John Witherspoon, who was president of the College of New Jersey—now Princeton University—is another individual for whom religion played a big role in forming his revolutionary ideals. He was a Presbyterian minister, which is an evangelical religion that came out of the Great Awakening, a period of great religious reform in America that saw the formation of denominations that were more egalitarian and less hierarchical.
At the College of New Jersey, he was very influential in teaching both Aaron Burr and James Madison. He penned a sermon called On The Dominion of Providence Over The Passions of Men in which he argues that political liberty and adherence to Christian ideals are very compatible. So, for Witherspoon, notions of Presbyterian Christianity were very important to how he viewed liberty and justifying his revolutionary attitudes.
John Peter Muhlenberg, who was from the Pennsylvania Dutch colony, was a Lutheran minister. He used his beliefs toward revolutionary ends. On January 21, 1776, he gave a speech at a church in Woodstock, VA, in which he cited Christian Biblical doctrine to assert that Americans needed to stand up for justice and liberty, and, at the very end of the speech, tore off his robe to reveal an officer’s uniform, and marched out of the church and enlisted several young men on the spot who were in the crowd. So, in this case, religion informs military reviews.
Muhlenberg, after the war, was elected to the first Congress as a Republican representing Pennsylvania, which again represents diversity among these individuals in their political views. Muhlenberg was a Republican, he believed that states should be vested with more power than the federal government and that states are the best guarantors of the people and the people’s rights. We can contrast this with Charles Caroll and John Jay, who eventually became the first Supreme Court Justice, who were both Federalists. They had a very distinct view of the American government as Federalists, they believed in a strong federal government, they distrusted states power, and believed that ordinary citizens should be managed within a more hierarchical government and be governed by their betters.
Just to say a little bit more about John Jay: he was from New York, he was a strong Federalist, and he was president of the First Continental Congress. After the war, he was very prominent in international affairs. He was the ambassador to Spain and France, and negotiated the Treaty of London—or “Jay’s Treaty”—in 1795 which essentially normalized relationship (at least for the time being) between Great Britain and the United States and forced Britain to recognize the US as an independent power.
And, as a bookend to the earlier discussion of Benjamin Rush, John Jay was also an abolitionist and the president and founder of the New York Manumission Society.
While this is just a small sampling of individuals, they do help to illustrate that there was no uniform set of beliefs among the Founding Fathers and other Revolutionary Americans. They had distinct religious beliefs, they had distinct ideas about slavery, and they really had very different visions of what America could be after independence. It also shows how regional interests informed their revolutionary and political ideas.