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Monday, 9 May 2011
In honor of Mother's Day

Mary Ball Washington, The Mother of the Father of our Country
By Michael Aubrecht (Patriots of the American Revolution July/August 2010)


There is an old adage that goes “Behind every great man is a great woman.” Throughout the course of American history this maxim has proven true in the lives of remarkable ladies, whose legacies are equally as memorable as their male counterparts. Many of these female protagonists made their mark as the spouses of celebrated gentlemen, while others followed in the footsteps of their remarkable fathers. Some women simply gave birth to their sons and then raised them for greatness. This is perhaps the noblest feat of all. One woman who nurtured perhaps our nation’s greatest citizen, soldier, and politician was Mrs. Mary Ball Washington.


In Stafford County Virginia, on the bank of the Rappahannock River sits Ferry Farm, the childhood home of our country’s first president. A short distance away in the small town of Fredericksburg stands the Mary Washington House. Both of these sites host thousands of tourists each and every year, yet the woman who lived at them both for the longest time is often forgotten in favor of her offspring. This is understandable as her son is held in the highest of venerations of any historical figure, but the story of Mary Ball Washington is one of a remarkably independent lady.


Today this Virginia farm woman is remembered as a citizen of great virtue and tenacity. According to the memoirs of her friends and family she was truly beloved, and equally infuriating. She was a splendid wife who was prematurely widowed and a stubborn mother who struggled in her relationship with her children. She was also a practicing Christian, who was said to have spent a great deal of time in meditation, seeking guidance and finding strength in her own faith. Hers is a legacy of independence and fortitude, passed down from mother to child.


Mary Ball was born in Lancaster County Virginia in 1708 and was one of many siblings in a combined family. Her father was a gentleman named Joseph Ball and her mother was the widow Mary Johnson. The first Ball family home was located at Epping Forest where her grandfather, William Ball, had immigrated from England to the Old Dominion around the year 1650. Unfortunately, as it often happened in this period, Mary’s parents fell sick and prematurely succumbed to their maladies, leaving her fatherless at age three and motherless at age twelve or thirteen.


As an orphan Mary was placed, in accordance with the terms of her mother’s will, under the guardianship of Mr. George Eskridge, who was a local attorney and friend of the Ball family. For the next decade, she lived with the Eskridge family, along with her married half-sister Elizabeth Bonum. Although there are not many records on this part of her life, it is apparent that Mary was well cared for. She was educated, an avid reader and a skilled equestrian.


This quality of upbringing for an orphan during colonial times was a blessing indeed, as many children without parents or relatives ended up on the streets or in unloving homes. Often they were abused and considered a source of labor. Mary had been very fortunate to be placed in the care of an established lawyer who had a comfortable income and a way of nurturing her. Because of this, she was given the opportunity to grow into what was considered to be a well-bred young woman.


By 1731, Mary had reached the age of twenty-three, which was considered old-maid status by Colonial standards. Once again good fortune favored her as she met a strapping entrepreneur named Augustine Washington. Augustine’s family, much like Mary’s had been in the colonies since the mid-1600s. He too was educated and had been schooled in England. Augustine was a well-established widower, fourteen years her senior, with three children, Lawrence, Augustine, and Jane.


Obviously there are no photographs of Mary Ball Washington, but there are several documented impressions of her as a young lady. She was considered to be tall for a female and later said to resemble her eldest son. Her cousins found her to have a very kind expression and two surviving portraits depict her as a typical young maiden. Beauty however appears to be in the eye of the beholder as Lafayette is said to have likened her to a Roman matron, while Eleanor Parke Custis, the wife of Betty Lewis’ son Lawrence, described her as “remarkably plain in her dress.”


After a brief courtship, the practicality of their relationship led to matrimony between the twenty-three year-old Mary and her thirty-seven year-old suitor. Augustine filled the much-needed role of provider while Mary became a nurturer for his children. At the onset of their marriage, the Washington’s were not extravagantly wealthy, but they would grow in net worth as Augustine’s success grew at a regional level. The following February Mary gave birth to a son, the first of six children. They named him “George” after George Eskridge, Mary’s adopted father.


The Washington family lived on a beautiful plantation called Pope’s Creek, which was later called Wakefield. There they prospered and the family grew. In the end Mary and Augustine had six children altogether: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred. Remarkably, most of the entire Washington-Ball clan found success in their adult lives. Betty married Fielding Lewis and built the Kenmore Estate. Samuel served as a justice of the peace and a lawman in Stafford County. John Augustine founded the Mississippi Land Company. Charles helped to establish Charles Town in West Virginia. Mildred unfortunately died at the age of sixteen months.


The Washingtons moved to Hunting Creek in 1736, which was later christened Mount Vernon. In 1738 Augustine purchased a farm (which was later known as Ferry Farm) to be closer to his iron business. It was then that the family moved and settled in Fredericksburg. Here is where the tall tales that would become ingrained in Washington’s legacy originated; whether it was George confessing to chopping down a cherry tree, or skipping a silver dollar across the river. After settling at the new homestead in central Virginia, Mary kept busy with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the farm and tending to her children. Augustine focused his energies on his business interests.


In 1743 tragedy repeated itself in the life of Mary Ball Washington, as her husband passed away unexpectedly at the age of forty-nine. Mary, who had been orphaned in her early teens, was now widowed at the tender age of thirty-five, with five children. George was only eleven years old at the time of his father’s death. In accordance with Augustine’s will, Mt. Vernon was left to George’s half-brother Lawrence, and the 600-acre family farm in Fredericksburg was left to George. Provision was made for Mary to receive the benefit of the crops for five years and possession of the property until George came of age. Various portions of other land holdings and personal property were divided among the all of the siblings. This included slaves.


Although there were tumultuous years that followed, Mary was said to have remained a vigilant parent. Historians over the years have traced George’s epic honesty and fortitude to the influence of his parents and some have even credited his mother alone with his rise to greatness. According to the publication Archiving Early America:


“To Mary Ball Washington we owe the precepts and example that governed her son throughout his life. The moral and religious maxims found in her favorite manual — ‘Sir Matthew Hale’s Contemplations’ — made an indelible impression on George’s memory and on his heart, as she read them aloud to her children. That small volume, with his mother’s autograph inscribed, was among the cherished treasures of George Washington’s library as long as he lived. When George was 14 years old, his half-brother Lawrence obtained a midshipman’s warrant for him in the English naval service. George made plans to embark on-board a man-of-war, then in the Potomac. His baggage was already on the ship. But at the last minute his mother refused to give her consent, preventing her son from a life that would have cut him off from the great career he would eventually pursue. A noted biographer described her action as the debt owed by mankind to the mother of Washington.” (It was rumored that Mary gave George a beautiful pen-knife as a consolation gift, and playfully had it engraved “Always Obey your Superiors.”)


Mary remained in mourning and lived in Fredericksburg for more than forty-five years after the death of her husband. She never remarried, which could be viewed as a testament to her constitution and strong will. She was, by all accounts, a self-supportive woman, although she was obliged, once George came of age, to rely on his generosity for financial support. As George’s military and political career prospered, his mother continued to be a meager farmer who maintained the land that her husband had purchased.


Years passed and the relationship between Mary and George deteriorated. Although she was by no means poor, she regularly complained to outsiders that she was destitute and neglected by her children, much to George’s embarrassment. This led to an animosity between mother and son that persisted. Despite the strain on their relationship, George remained in contact with his mother and made it a point to send her correspondence while deployed on military affairs. One preserved letter, dated 1755, followed a military engagement early on in his career and was meant to reassure Mary of his safety. George concluded his letter with the phrase “Your most dutiful son.”


At the age of 64, Mary became too old to run the farm. In 1772, her eldest son purchased a home for her in downtown Fredericksburg, where she lived for the remaining seventeen years of her life. When the War for Independence began, General George Washington took command of the Continental Army in June of 1775 and did not see his mother again for nearly ten years. During this time Mary remained in town and rarely visited the family farm.


It was recorded that Mary’s stubbornness began to rear its ugly head. She requested that the Virginia House of Delegates (formally the House of Burgesses) provide her with an allowance, since she was, after all, the mother of the army’s supreme commander. She then petitioned for a state pension and also to have her taxes lowered. None of her requests were granted.


Despite their rift, Mary’s proudest moment may have come during a visit by her son to Fredericksburg in February of 1784. After being awarded the honors of the town, George accepted and responded with a declaration honoring “My reverend mother by whose maternal hand, early deprived of a father, I was led to manhood.”


George continued to pay Mary’s rent for the livestock and slaves at Ferry Farm and in 1787 he strongly urged her to move from the house and live with one of her children. It was thought that she might move in with her son John, however John died before she ever moved and she never agreed to go elsewhere.


Two years later, President-elect George Washington, en route to New York for his inauguration, paid his last visit to his mother at the house in Fredericksburg in April of 1789, four months before she died. It was reported that the two were reunited and repaired their relationship. George Washington Parke Custis, the president’s adopted son, gave a moving account of Mary Ball Washington’s last meeting with her son. He recalled:


“Immediately after the organization of the present Government, the Chief Magistrate [Washington] repaired to Fredericksburg to pay his humble duty to his mother, preparatory to his departure for New York. An affecting scene ensued. He told her I have come to bid you an affectionate farewell. So soon as the weight of public business which must necessarily attend the outset of a new Government can be disposed of, I shall hasten to Virginia, and— Here the matron interrupted with, “And you will see me nomore; my great age, and the disease which is fast approaching my vitals, warn me that I shall not be long in this world; I trust in God that I may be somewhat prepared for a better. But go, George, fulfill the high destinies which Heaven appears to have intended for you; go, my son, and may that Heaven’s and a mother’s blessing be with you always.”


He added, “The President was deeply affected. His head rested upon the shoulder of his parent, whose aged arm feebly, yet fondly, encircled his neck. That brow on which fame had wreathed the purest laurel virtue ever gave to created man relaxed from its lofty bearing. That look which could have awed a Roman Senate in its Fabrician day was bent in filial tenderness upon the time-worn features of the aged matron. He wept. A thousand recollections crowded upon his mind, as memory, retracing scenes long passed, carried him back to the maternal mansion and the days of youth, where he beheld that mother, whose care, education and discipline caused him to reach the topmost height of laudable ambition. Yet, how were his glories forgotten while he gazed upon her whom, wasted by time and malady, he should part with to meet no more! Her predictions were but too true. The disease which so long had preyed upon her frame, completed its triumph, and she expired at the age of eighty-five [actually eighty-one], rejoicing in the consciousness of a life well spent, and confiding in the belief of a blessed immortality.”


President Washington went on to serve his country once again, as Mary Ball Washington died at the age of eighty-one from cancer during his first year in office. She was buried at Kenmore on the Lewis plantation, a few steps from “Meditation Rock.” This location was her favorite retreat for reading, prayer and meditation. It somehow seemed fitting that a woman who was so connected to the area’s land, would be returned to it upon her death. The plaque at the base of the rocks reads: “Here Mary Ball Washington prayed for the safety of her son and country during the dark days of the revolution.”


Mary’s impact on the region remained and, in the 1830s, the women of Fredericksburg banded together to raise funds for a monument dedicated to her memory. The following year, the prominent Silas Burrows of New York offered to pay for it himself. In laying the cornerstone, Andrew Jackson said this about her:


“Mary Washington acquired and maintained a wonderful ascendancy over those around her.  This true characteristic of genius attended her through life, and she conferred upon her son that power of self-command which was one of the remarkable traits of her character.  She conducted herself through this life with virtue and prudence worthy of the mother of the greatest hero that ever adorned the annals of history.”


Unfortunately Mary’s first marker was destroyed during the Civil War, but another one was placed in 1893. It was formally dedicated by President Cleveland in May of 1894 and featured an inscription that paid tribute to what may be considered her greatest accomplishment. It simply reads “Mary the Mother of Washington.” Yet perhaps it was her beloved son George, who most fittingly summed up the life of Mary Ball Washington when he said, “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”


Few women have reared children who rose to the heights of Mary Ball Washington’s son George. Her motherly influence on him was a cornerstone in the foundation of America’s greatest father and helped to make him the most celebrated military and political figure in our nation’s history.



George Washington's Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore (, George Washington Foundation) 

In Search of the ‘real’ Mary Ball Washington by Paula S. Felder (The Free Lance-Star, March 12, 2005) 

Mary Ball Washington: “His Revered Mother” (History Library Point: Central Rappahannock Regional Library) 

Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington by John Lossing Benson (1886, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square) 

The Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes by M. L. Weems (1877, J.P. Lippincott & Co. Philadelphia) 

Washington and His Mother by Frederick Bernays Weiner (American Historical Review, 1991. 26, Vol. 3)

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 7:59 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 9 May 2011 8:13 AM EDT
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Friday, 6 May 2011
New Blog

It gives me great pleasure to introduce a new writer’s blog courtesy of my friend and collaborator Chris Williams. You may recall that Chris is a member of The Jefferson Project and has been a guest blogger here on “Blog, or Die.” He is a Print Journalism graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as an internationally published journalist covering the topics of politics, race, culture, entertainment and world events. Both of us were longtime contributing writers at The Free Lance-Star and co-wrote an interesting multi-racial perspective piece on Black History Month. Chris shares my distaste for the Tea Party and wrote an outstanding piece for Street Report Magazine on the subject (Part 1Part 2). Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University and the author of five books told Chris that he is the “future of this industry.” I couldn’t agree more. Check out "Chris Williams Writes" today.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 9:01 AM EDT
Updated: Friday, 6 May 2011 12:08 PM EDT
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Thursday, 5 May 2011
Was GW PC?

The recent post on debating America as a Christian nation prompted some interesting discussion over on my Facebook page. My conclusion was that our country was indeed founded on Christian-Judeo principals, but it was not a Christian Nation. Some of my peers approved of my findings while others vehemently disagreed. Both Facebook friends and fellow historians alike offered up their own interpretations on the topic and one friend specifically asked what I thought about George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in relation to the debate. To be honest, I never thought about this correlation before. Of course it’s purely speculation, but here is my personal ‘take’ on Washington’s Thanksgiving prayer in relation to disputing America as a Christian nation. First, let’s look at the proclamation as it was written by our first president in October of 1789:


By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. Go: Washington

At first glance, there is no doubt a heavy religious influence to the verbiage used. This is quite common in decrees from this period. We know for a fact that George Washington was a Christian, so it makes sense that his faith would influence his language in a proclamation this personal. In fact, it is the essence of the holiday as Thanksgiving is an act of offering gratitude to one’s divinity for their blessings.

You may also notice that there is no mention of a Christian God, or more specifically, Jesus Christ. Much like the Declaration of Independence all references to a deity are generic. One can only speculate that this was an intentional move so as not to alienate any non-Christian citizens. It speaks to my previously stated conclusion that the Founding Fathers understood the distinction between living in a nation of Christians and legislating a nation of Christianity. Now let’s take this comparison one step further. In 1891, a book believed to be George Washington's prayer journal was discovered. One of the prayers quoted from it follows:

Almighty God, and most merciful father, who didst command the children of Israel to offer a daily sacrifice to thee, that thereby they might glorify and praise thee for thy protection both night and day, receive, O Lord, my morning sacrifice which I now offer up to thee; I yield thee humble and hearty thanks that thou has preserved me from the danger of the night past, and brought me to the light of the day, and the comforts thereof, a day which is consecrated ot thine own service and for thine own honor. Let my heart, therefore, Gracious God, be so affected with the glory and majesty of it, that I may not do mine own works, but wait on thee, and discharge those weighty duties thou requirest of me, and since thou art a God of pure eyes, and wilt be sanctified in all who draw near unto thee, who doest not regard the sacrifice of fools, nor hear sinners who tread in thy courts, pardon, I beseech thee, my sins, remove them from thy presence, as far as the east is from the west, and accept of me for the merits of thy son Jesus Christ, that when I come into thy temple, and compass thine altar, my prayers may come before thee as incense; and as thou wouldst hear me calling upon thee in my prayers, so give me grace to hear thee calling on me in thy word, that it may be wisdom, righteousness, reconciliation and peace to the saving of the soul in the day of the Lord Jesus. Grant that I may hear it with reverence, receive it with meekness, mingle it with faith, and that it may accomplish in me, Gracious God, the good work for which thou has sent it. Bless my family, kindred, friends and country, be our God & guide this day and for ever for his sake, who ay down in the Grave and arose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

If this is an authentic Washington prayer it is very telling. You will notice that he specifically refers to “Jesus Christ” multiple times throughout. This reference appears in other prayerful petitions attributed to him. IF America was in fact founded to operate under the premise of a Christian nation would not Washington’s presidential decrees mimic his own Christian beliefs? Why does he repeatedly petition our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in his own prayers, yet refrain from mentioning him in his presidential proclamations? I believe this to be an intentional choice and a case of something that many conservatives would refer to today as “political correctness.” 

Does that mean that the Father of our country could have been motivated by political influence to maintain a religious neutrality? Was George Washington...politically correct? Perhaps. There is a definite difference between his private prayers and public proclamations. We do know that Washington carefully crafted his persona as both a military man and politician. What people thought of him mattered. I assume that the leader of a Christian nation would publicly echo its beliefs.

So why didn't President Washington address his constituents as followers of Jesus Christ? I believe that he wanted to acknowledge all American citizens regardless of their beliefs. I will add that even if a majority of them were Christians, they were NOT citizens of a Christian nation. In retrospect, this proclamation may be one of the earliest attempts at promoting religious tolerance and unity among faiths. Isn't that what our country is all about? 

Although Washington's Thanksgiving decree is considered to be the first “official” presidential proclamation, it is not entirely unique in the annals of American history. Both John Adams and James Madison also issued similar declarations during their tenure in office. Today, we are very fortunate to have this document in our possession as it was lost for over 130 years. The original was scribed in long hand by William Jackson, secretary to the President, and then signed by George Washington. Shortly thereafter it was lost. It is believed that the document was accidentally shuffled in with some private papers when the United States capitol was transferred from New York to Washington DC. As a result, the manuscript was not placed in the National Archives until 1921 when the assistant chief of the manuscripts division of the Library of Congress, a man named Dr. J. C. Fitzpatrick, discovered it at an art gallery auction in New York. He purchased the document for $300.00 for the Library of Congress where it now resides as part of the George Washington’s Papers collection.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:40 AM EDT
Updated: Friday, 6 May 2011 3:09 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 3 May 2011
A Christian nation or a nation of Christians?

[Inspired by Richard William's post]

Of all the hot-topics debated in our country none seem to ignite more arguments than the premise that America was founded as a Christian nation. As a historian who is also an active Presbyterian, I like to think that I understand where both sides of this dispute are coming from. On one hand, the core concept of “liberty and justice for all” appears contrary to the claim of a formally-established Christian nation. After all, didn’t the earliest settlers flee to our continent in order to escape religious persecution? At the same time, many people (predominantly conservative Christians) vehemently maintain that it was their faith alone that served as the keystone in America’s foundation. Some of these folks even believe that the United States was somehow divinely inspired, perhaps even ordained by God.

I have written about this topic in the past both here on ‘Blog, or Die.’ and over at ‘The Jefferson Project.’ Personally, I don't think anyone with even a basic understanding of our country’s origins would deny that the founding of this nation was definitely influenced by Christian-Judeo principals. I think the point is that they did not intend for the country to be a Christian-Judeo nation, but a nation where all religions (emphasis on the word “all”) could worship freely and prosper. That means liberty, on day-one, for every faith from Catholic and Protestant – to Atheist and Scientologist. I have friends who are devout Christians and friends who are devout Pagans. Is this not equally their nation? Was it not established so that BOTH of them would have an equal opportunity to pursue a life of happiness? Of course it is. That was the point.

So when people say America was founded on Christian-Judeo principals I agree. BUT if they say America was founded to BE a Christian nation I say no. Why? Because I find that statement in itself contradictory to the whole concept of religious freedom. Now I understand that most people have an innate desire to be right and that we all want to have a sense of belonging. Simply put, we want to relate in some way to our past. Naturally Christians want to believe that the Founding Fathers were on their side, while the Atheists wish the same. Historically I believe that America is, and indeed always has been, a nation of Christians but it is not, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation. And I absolutely believe that the Founding Fathers understood the distinction between living in a nation of Christians and legislating a nation of Christianity.

In April of 2009, President Barack Obama upset some people when he answered the question of whether the country he represented was indeed a Christian nation. He said that America is “a predominantly Christian nation,” but “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” He added that “We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” I agree with that premise, but I am also aware of the fact that there is conflicting evidence spread throughout the country’s infancy. Let’s look at some historical facts supporting both sides of this debate instead of relying on our differing opinions.

By early 1776, the colonies were religiously diverse, with several Protestant groups, minority Catholic and Jewish populations, and a large number of African-American slaves, many of them Muslim. In July of that year the Declaration of Independence was unveiled. The document contains just four theological references: “nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and “Divine Providence.” There is not a single specific mention of either Jesus Christ or Christianity. The Declaration, reflecting their signer’s collective thinking, was carefully written and edited; words were included, or not, so as not to appear as an endorsement of any particular faith.

In 1785 Patrick Henry, Virginia’s governor and an Anglican (Episcopalian), wanted residents to pay a church tax to support the country’s expanding religious institutions. Thomas Jefferson, who was raised in the Anglican tradition, strongly opposed the concept. By enlisting the support of his friend James Madison and Baptist minister John Leland, he was able to lead a campaign that successfully defeated Henry’s bill in the Virginia Legislature. The following year, 1786, the Legislature overwhelmingly adopted Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom by a vote of 74 to 20. Madison, a Presbyterian and future president himself, predicted the rise of a “multiplicity of religious sects” in the U.S., similar to diverse political parties.

On the other hand, Samuel Adams, who has been called ‘The Father of the American Revolution’ wrote The Rights of the Colonists in 1772, which stated: “The rights of the colonists as Christians...may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institution of the Great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.” John Quincy Adams, our sixth president supported this notion when he said “From the day of the Declaration...they [the American people] were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of The Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct.”

Additionally, of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention the vast majority were Christians of one form or another: 29 were Anglicans, 16-18 were Calvinists, and among the rest were 2 Methodists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 lapsed Quaker-sometimes Anglican, and only 1 open Deist. The presence of these diverse denominations is undeniable. Still it’s impossible to believe that these brilliant minds would not think that the interweaving of religion and politics is dangerous, even offensive in some ways.

Michael Lind, author of The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, offers some spiritually-practical perspective on the matter. In an article penned for Salon he writes, “The idea that religion is important because it educates democratic citizens in morality is actually quite demeaning to religion. It imposes a political test on religion, as it were -- religions are not true or false, but merely useful or dangerous, when it comes to encouraging the civic virtues that are desirable in citizens of a constitutional, democratic republic.” So by Christians insisting that it was absolutely essential for their faith to be the moral backbone of civilized democracy, they are in fact demeaning it by proclaiming it as political doctrine.

Unfortunately, I believe that far too many of my fellow practitioners fail to honestly scrutinize this topic from a purely analytical view. No one has summarized this problem better than John Fea, an American history professor at Messiah College and contributing writer to the History News Service. He writes, “And how do they demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation? By selectively choosing texts from the writings of the Founders without any effort to explore them in the context of the 18th-century world in which they were written. Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today’s evangelical churches.”

How does this argument end? The answer in my opinion is that it doesn’t. It will go on and on and on…because there will never be a distinct verdict on this. The evidence supporting both sides is far too complex and the belief itself is way too personal. I will say in closing that you CAN be a devout Christian (like me) and still maintain that we are NOT a Christian nation. It doesn’t make you any more or less a believer – or any more or less a patriot. I believe in Jesus Christ and I also believe in an equal legacy of liberty for my fellow citizens who don’t. To me that is what America is all about. So if you ask me, I will say that we are NOT a Christian nation. We are a great nation of religiously diverse citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:08 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 3 May 2011 2:33 PM EDT
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Monday, 2 May 2011
Back from the 'Burg

Scott Lang and me at the CarnegieCarnegie's 6th Annual Civil War Weekend

This past weekend I had the honor of participating in the CarnegieCarnegie’s 6th Annual Civil War Weekend in Pittsburgh. My contribution to the festival (which featured re-enactments, musical performances, exhibits, tours, sutlers and a ball) came in the form of a lecture that presented the experiences of the 123rd Pennsylvania Volunteers at the Battle of Fredericksburg, as well as a screening of our documentary “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” I will post the video of my talk (if the quality is decent), or the transcripts w/ slides in the coming weeks. Personally, I wasn’t that pleased with my delivery, but the audience seemed very receptive and enjoyed it. I was joined in the Music Hall by Pittsburgh author Scott Lang who wrote The Forgotten Charge: The 123rd Pennsylvania at Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, Virginia. Scott shared an extensive knowledge of the 123rd and displayed his wonderful collection of relics. It was great to have a REAL expert on hand.

I was unable to make it down to the new Ben Franklin exhibit at the Heinz Museum as the NRA Convention was in town. Instead I had the pleasure of having dinner and cocktails with longtime friend Maroon David, a tremendously gifted historian and teacher's assistant at Carnegie Mellon University. In addition to providing me with some insights on achieving academic accreditation, Maroon also gave me a copy of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier. One of my interests nowadays is the misrepresentation of the Founding Documents in support of a religious or political agenda. I am amazed at how many folks sincerely believe that the Constitution was somehow inspired or ordained by God and is therefore a sacred document free from scrutiny. Personally, as a Christian, I find it extremely offensive that anyone would equate the Constitution with the Bible, yet it is Christians who are often the guiltiest at propagating this notion. Let’s see what Thomas Jefferson had to say on the matter:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched; who ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. (Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816. Page 199. The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia)

Of course the Constitution isn't the only document worth our examination. According to the publisher American Scripture provides a thorough analysis of the Declaration of Independence's origins, influence, and regard. The author also examines the ways in which the Declaration has been revered and redefined by different groups of Americans. In the current ‘Age of Misinformation’ where it has become tolerable for political extremists and fringe groups to misquote and misrepresent our Founders (and their documents), it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about their history. I just started reading this book, so I am not quite sure if Ms. Maier’s interpretations are revolutionary. I will post my own review after I finish reading it.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 10:51 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 3 May 2011 8:49 AM EDT
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