America and the Ambiguity of History


In which I comment on three books on the Founders of America, two of them secular, one, Christian, and meditate on the perplexity and relative ambiguity of history, its difficulty in interpretation, the dangers of writers with an agenda–albeit Christian or secular–and pass on a little homeschool-gleaned advice.

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
5 stars for solid research, balanced perspective, and compelling exploration
Pros: remarkably balanced and emphasizes the importance of studying all “sides” of a story before coming to a judgement.
Cons: demonstrates a bias when it comes to the religious convictions of the “founding brothers”.

By my own assessment, no high school education is complete without this book. 😉

Christianity and the Constitution By John Eidsmoe
Mixed feelings about the book. I appreciate Mr. Eidsmoe’s refutation of secularists trying to dechristianize The Founding Fathers but I felt he did so at the expense of truth and integrity in his sources at times. He pressed his points too far and lost his credibility as a historian, for me.

Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser
A fascinating, balanced read that brought George Washington to life for me, put flesh on him, made him human but without making up anything and in fact, dispelling many common myths surrounding this legendary figure including modern slanders that attributed to him an out-of-wedlock child.

Combined review below written in July 2012 when I was 17

What I liked most about the book “Founding Brothers” was how the author started with a series of stories (each one which could stand alone) and used that as a launching pad to discuss the characters and the issues involved in the story. He always started with inviting you into the story then he stepped back and pointed out the implausibility of the account or else its insignificance. But just when the author has the reader (or listener!) nodding in agreement he flips sides and shows how there was actually a lot more going on then you originally thought! Then he shows how history has taken up different sides of the story and has oversimplified and reduced the details. This is great because it gives the stories depth and insight, removes the layers to expose the complexity of issues, people and historical events but this also results in confusion. How can we know anything for certain? There is no impartial, unbiased view of the facts. What seems the simplest question “what did the American Revolution mean?” is actually the hardest. It depends on who you ask.

Even the founding fathers–or brothers–could not agree what the American Revolution meant. John Adams rightly predicted that it was the Jeffersonian view that would dominate the history books. Jefferson, an enlightenment thinker and a unitarian, reduced the meaning of the American Revolution to mankind’s struggle to free itself of the various chains in which they have enbondaged themselves. That it was a time when “all eyes are opened to the rights of man.” These were the ideas of the enlightenment and Jefferson, like the other optimistic humanists, believed that the American Revolution was a dawn of a new age-an age of “enlightenment”.

Jefferson was correct in asserting that the American Revolution was “about” freedom but it wasn’t only that. The Jeffersonian view was an over simplification. The author, Joseph Ellis describes the American Revolution as an experiment, a conflict of ideas and ideology that set a precedent for America today.

Another distinguishing feature of “Founding Brothers”-the one that gave the book its name-is how the Joseph Ellis captures the relationship between the revolutionaries. Most of the time we study the founding fathers as–fathers, independent of one another rather than “brothers” who knew each other on a personnel level and had personnel disagreements that affected their politics and therefore our country. They were brothers before they were fathers.

One thing that troubled me was how Joseph Ellis tried to secularize the founding brothers. This wasn’t a prominent discussion in the book-more like something running in the background. There was one section where the author claimed that Jefferson and Adams looked forward to Heaven not because they would be with God but so they could continue to debate. The author quoted several of their letters. Then there was one off-handed, unsupported comment about George Washington believing that Jesus had possibly been buried alive. I almost missed the comment because it seemed to come out of nowhere. I kept thinking that Joseph Ellis would bring it back up later but he never did. So I looked it up online. Though I could not find any source material about George Washington’s stance on the resurrection I did discover that Joseph Ellis believes that George Washington was not a Christian.

I then pulled out “Christianity and the Constitution” by John Eidsmoe, thinking to lay the matter to rest once for all. But I was shocked to find that one of Mr. Eidsmoe’s primary sources for his statements about Washington is the Rev. Weems! Weem’s biography on George Washington is where “The Cherry Tree” and other anecdotes originated.

In “Rediscovering George Washington” Richard Brookhiser pointed out that “the only problem with these stories is that, in order to tell them, Parson Weems had to first make them up, since we know very little about Washington’s education or his father.” He said that Weems responded to the needs of the public for an emotional bond to the austere president and that he assumed, like many people over the course of history, that George Washington was born with the qualities we so admire rather than that they were cultivated over a lifetime. “We treat what was a result as a natural condition, as if Washington had been carved from the same stone as his monument.” says Richard Brookhiser.

Yet, John Eidsmoe uses Parson Weem’s book as one of two primary sources for his chapter on George Washington, arguing that just because Weem’s account is unsubstantiated does not mean it is false.

My reply is: try that argument in a courtroom.

Weems left virtually no sources for his anecdotes other than a vague “ [it came from] an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and when a girl spent much time with the family.” Eidsmoe argues that if pressed, Weems might very well have been able to produce more substantial evidence. Right. But the fact is he didn’t and the burden of proof lies on Weems and his advocates.

So…was George Washington a Christian or not? This is a question that carries a lot of weight because, implied in the question, is the question of whether America was founded as a Christian or not. Those that claim George Washington was a deist deliberately overlook the facts. But just because George Washington wasn’t a Deist doesn’t make him automatically a Christian. What, after all, is meant by “Christian”? Which of the following do you mean?: he had a Christian worldview, he was a born again Christian, he was motivated by Christian principles or a combination of these three? To say that a man entertained some Christian principles doesn’t make him a Christian man no more than a few Christian principles make America a Christian nation.

The question of Washington’s salvation is one, I think, that we need to be content to lay aside. But as far as the other two “options” go I can make arguments for both sides. Washington speaks frequently of Providence in his life and in the life of the nation but then he makes statements like:

“[Americans] are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” GW, First Farewell Address, Circular to the States, June 14th, 1783

Christians leap on the references to Providence and the stage metaphor but sail over “the display of human greatness and felicity”, a statement which, if closely examined, sounds more like the words of a humanist than a Christian.

Furthermore, God’s Providence does not require Christian vessels. If God can use the pagan Pharoah He certainly will have no trouble with a couple humanists.

So was America a Christian nation or not? What source do I trust? Ellis’ account is likely colored by his desire for a secular state just as Eidsmoe’s account (and *cough* Little Bear’s) is colored by a desire for a Christian nation. I am just as wary of Christians with an agenda as I am with secularists. When you have an agenda, you will always see what you want to see. When it comes to history, there’s more than two sides to that coin. Obtaining a balanced view of any historical event requires examining multiple sources and multiple perspectives, sources and perspectives you may be tempted by your own bias to discount or too hastily embrace, but which when examined together have a tendency to balance each other out and provide a richer, fuller, closer-to-the-truth portrait.

Pictures taken from public domain.

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