"HISTORY SPEAKS" BLOG
The Founding Fathers of the United States of America had many influences, but possibly none more than John Locke (1632-1704).
Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Madison revered Locke. John Quincy Adams penned, “The Declaration of Independence [was]…founded upon one and the same theory of government…expounded in the writings of Locke.”
But who was this great man of the Enlightenment?
Most historians today call John Locke a philosopher and “father of liberalism,” but those monikers are incomplete.
Locke was also a dedicated theologian…and despite those who classify him as a deist, the evidence points in a much different direction. In fact, many of Locke’s religious works occurred at the end of his life (in the 1690s) and were theologically orthodox and biblically conservative.
For example, Locke penned an expository commentary on Paul’s epistles (published post-death, 1705-1707) and compiled one of the earliest topical Bibles: “Common Place: Book to the Holy Bible. (1697)” Similar to today, Locke also lived in a culture with anti-religious “enlightenment” sentiments. To combat the attacks on Christianity he wrote an apologetic text: “The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695).” He later wrote a sequel: “Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)” and a sequel to the sequel “A Second Vindication (1697).”
Our Founding Fathers, however, were most influenced by Locke’s earlier work “Two Treatises of Government” (1689)–a book that struggled for readership until after Locke died.
In its 400 pages, Locke outlined how civil government operates, but most people would be surprised his primary source was the Bible. Locke references biblical characters, ideas and passages over 1500 times in this influential work.
Essentially, our Founders–the majority being Christian churchmen–used the work of an English philosopher-theologian (who sourced his ideas to the Bible) to declare independence from Great Britain and frame our U.S. Constitution.
It’s why many of the unique features of our Constitution–including separation of powers, religious freedom and the consent of the people–are actually biblical ideas.
One more thought: in the early 1980s, a group of political scientists spent a decade studying over 15,000 writings from the Founding Era to determine “sources” for the establishment of American government. The top source by a wide margin was the Bible. Over 30% of the quotes in these Founders’ writings were biblical…four times more than any other individual, including John Locke.
It’s no wonder John Adams concluded: “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.”
Very few Americans, including today’s school children, learn this material in their history classes.
The History Channel and other media surprisingly overlook it. In fact, we’re largely being taught our Constitution is “godless” and the Founding Fathers were non- or irreligious types (some even contend they were agnostics and atheists). Of course these narratives are not true.
It’s why time to flip the script and tell the truth about the real influencers upon our American Founding.
And it begins with an Enlightenment Englishman and his Bible.
They were called the “Black Robe Regiment.”
A group of patriots who served in Congress, presided over influential American schools, led troops in the Revolutionary War, signed the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and other important founding documents.
- JOHN WITHERSPOON (President of Princeton)
- JOHN P. MUHLENBERG (Revolutionary War General)
- FREDERICK A. MUHLENBERG (1st Speaker of the House)
- ABIEL FOSTER (New Hampshire and U.S. Congressman)
- BENJAMIN CONTEE (Revolutionary War Officer, Congressman)
- ABRAHAM BALDWIN (Senator, President of Univ. of Georgia)
- PAINE WINGATE (Senator and Congressman)
- JOSEPH MONTGOMERY (Judge, Congressman)
- JAMES MANNING (President of Brown University)
- JOHN J. ZUBLY (Continental Congressman)
What did the “black robe regiment” have in common?
They were all “robed” as clergymen.
It’s true. They were local church pastors and preachers, highly educated and extremely influential.
Witherspoon, Zubly, and Montgomery were Presbyterians. The Muhlenbergs were Lutherans. Contee was an Episcopalian. Manning was a Baptist. Foster was a Puritan. Baldwin and Wingate were Congregationalists.
During the Revolutionary War these clergymen united around two causes: evangelism (enlarging God’s Kingdom) and freedom (liberation from England’s heavy rule).
They were some of the smartest men in the land, bred in the best American Universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Brown.
The open and vital influence of the “black robed regiment” proves how much contemporary America has misunderstood the “separation of church and state.” Our Founding Fathers built America upon a Christian foundation that permitted all citizens the right to religious freedom, speech, press, assembly, petition, trial by jury, among others. Any “separation” was to prohibit government interference into the church, not to keep the church out of the government.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: “The church must be reminded that it is…the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state…If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
America was first colonized by religious “pilgrims” and their leaders seeking a place to worship freely. It’s what liberated America originally, what made America powerful historically, and will restore America’s greatness again.
America is only as great as it is good.
We cannot have civility nor liberty without virtuous people and it’s impossible to have virtuous people without religion. Listen to the words of these Founding Fathers:
“It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.“ (John Adams)
“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.” (Samuel Adams)
“Our liberty depends on our education, our laws, and habits . . . it is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence all these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers.” (Fisher Ames)
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” (Benjamin Franklin)
“To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. . . . Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.” (Jedediah Morse)
“No free government now exists in the world, unless where Christianity is acknowledged, and is the religion of the country.” (The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1824)
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” (Benjamin Rush)
The most perfect maxims and examples for regulating your social conduct and domestic economy, as well as the best rules of morality and religion, are to be found in the Bible. . . . The moral principles and precepts found in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. These principles and precepts have truth, immutable truth, for their foundation. . . . All the evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible. . . . For instruction then in social, religious and civil duties resort to the scriptures for the best precepts. (Noah Webster)
Essentially, our Founders believed it was impossible to have a civilized republic without virtue…and impossible to have virtue without religion…and no religion exceeded Christianity, in the history of the world, in creating a better people.
1. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 401, to Zabdiel Adams on June 21, 1776.
2. William V. Wells, The Life and Public Service of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1865), Vol. I, p. 22, quoting from a political essay by Samuel Adams published in The Public Advertiser, 1749.
3. Fisher Ames, An Oration on the Sublime Virtues of General George Washington (Boston: Young & Minns, 1800), p. 23.).
4. Benjamin Franklin, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1840), Vol. X, p. 297, April 17, 1787.
5. Jedidiah Morse, A Sermon, Exhibiting the Present Dangers and Consequent Duties of the Citizens of the United States of America (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1799), p. 9.
6. Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1824. Updegraph v. Commonwealth; 11 Serg. & R. 393, 406 (Sup.Ct. Penn. 1824).
7. Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), p. 8.
8. Noah Webster, History of the United States, “Advice to the Young” (New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1832), pp. 338-340, par. 51, 53, 56.
On July 4, 1798, TIMOTHY DWIGHT, the President of Yale College gave an address titled “The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis.”
It was a stinging indictment upon the French Revolution and their enlightened, secular culture.
Dwight particularly noted how the infidel Voltaire had orchestrated the plan to convert Christian France into a secular state. By the time of Dwight, France had devolved into a cultural sewer, culminating with a “Reign of Terror” that slaughtered over 340,000 people. That’s the legacy of secularism, Dwight preached.
Not surprisingly, Voltaire’s progressive plan to eradicate Christianity in France sounds rather familiar, especially to Americans over 50 years of age, who’ve watched it unfold in the United States:
INFECT THE ARTS.
In writing, art and music render Christianity “absurd and ridiculous.” Mock religion, morality and virtue. Music, in particular, can move a society. Use it to introduce new philosophy and theology. Create a new cultural tolerance to the profane.
UNDERMINE RELIGIOUS ORDER.
Using political and judicial means, erode the religious foundation of the State (in the case of 18th century France, it was Roman Catholicism). Use progressive and liberal theology to serve your secular narrative until these entities are no longer needed, then remove them too.
CONVERT THE ACADEMY.
Establish a new generation of “philosophists” (professors) to inculcate the emerging generations with secular, irreligious, anti-Christian ideas. Weaponize science, literature and history against the Bible and Christianity. The process begins in the university and moves to the local schools.
CREATE A CULTURE OF “WOKENESS.”
When these indoctrinated generations come of age, move them into political, social and ecclesiastical “awareness” against older generations. They are the only ones “right.” They dictate what’s “correct.” Devolve society into an “honor/shame” culture. Either follow the “narrative” and be accepted, honored and celebrated, or be shamed, protested and eliminated. Make everything about FEAR.
USE MEDIA AS A TOOL.
Create further doubt, contempt and division through books (the media of Voltaire’s day). Overwhelm the masses with THE (DESIRED) NARRATIVE. Emphasize feelings over facts. Shut down any opposing view. Never let a good crisis go to waste. Again, make everything about FEAR to control.
EMPLOY DECEPTION TO CONFUSE AND CONTROL.
Voltaire created a “secret Academy” that doctored books, even forged them after an author’s death, to further his SECULAR NARRATIVE. He focused particularly on revising and erasing history. These books were then widely circulated at low price.
It’s why, as the Yale President Timothy Dwight pointed out, FRENCH CULTURE WAS IN CHAOS.
Terror reigned. Falsehood ruled. Immorality prevailed. Religion was segregated, even silenced. Murder. Violence. Theft. Greed. Infidelity. Sexual perversion. Profanity. Atheism.
This was Voltaire’s wish. This was France’s fruit.
Dwight concluded with this warning to AMERICANS as they celebrated and feasted upon their July 4 independence in 1798:
“RELIGION and LIBERTY are the meat and the drink of the body politic. Withdraw one of them and it languishes, consumes, and dies. If INDIFFERENCE…becomes the prevailing character of a people…their motives to vigorous defense is lost, and the hopes of their enemies are proportionally increased …Without religion we may possibly retain the freedom of savages, bears, and wolves, but not the freedom of New England. If our RELIGION WERE GONE, our state of society would PERISH with it and nothing would be left which would be worth defending.”
Words, indeed, worth noting…and pondering in our day.
“The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis, Illustrated in a Discourse, Preached on the Fourth of July 1798” by the Reverend Timothy Dwight, D.D., President of Yale College (New Haven: Thomas and Samuel Green Printers, 1798)
Oregon. Washington. Idaho. Parts of Montana and Wyoming.
It’s nearly 300,000 acres of majestic, rugged land known as the Oregon Territory, a portion of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The infamous Oregon Trail snakes through this vast estate, connecting the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of westward wagons once traveled its corridors and canyons, leaving behind etchings, belongings, and graves. Today it’s scored by interstates and roads, towns and cities.
But who started the trail? And for what reason?
The Oregon Trail story originates with four Indians—two Flathead and two Nez Perce—who traveled over two thousand miles to visit “their great father” William C. Clark. Clark and Meriwether Lewis had encountered the Nez Perce and Flathead Indians in their exploration of the Missouri and Columbia rivers in 1803-1806. In 1831, Clark was the governor of the Missouri territory and the agent to the Indians, to handle disputes, relationships, conflicts and other questions.
That’s why these four Indians came to faraway St. Louis to meet with Clark.
The Indians wanted to secure the “book to Heaven” that allowed people to “live forever with the Great Spirit.”
However their journey was not easy. They all got sick along the way. One died prior to arrival.
The remaining three Indians found Clark at his home. Upon learning of their quest, Clark kindly gave them a tour of town and showed them a cathedral…but offered no answers. When another two Indians died, the remaining chief desperately pled Clark for insight. Don’t send us back “blind…broken and empty,” he begged. A young man overheard this Indian’s request to Clark, wrote his words and mailed it back east to a friend. The friend shared the request with another friend. And then another. Eventually the Indian request was published as an article titled “Wise Men from the West” for the Christian Advocate journal (March 1833).
The story inspired eastern Christian churches. Somebody needed to go West.
America, at the time, was in its “Second Great Awakening.” A period of great religious revival and fervor that spread like a wildfire across the young nation. Churches were full. Revivals were popular. Fresh forms of “non-denominational Christianity” and “restoration movements” (to restore ancient Christianity) were finding root. The Methodist church, thanks to its promotion of a program called “Sunday School”–that taught kids how to read and write through using the Bible–was particularly influential.
Consequently, when this article about Indians in the western frontier was published it caught the attention of those committed to missionary work.
A New York physician named Marcus Whitman was one of those inspired missionaries…and he was ready.
From his youth, Marcus wanted to be a clergy man. However, the schooling was too expensive and so he settled instead upon medicine. Nevertheless, this New Yorker hungered for the adventures of mission work. Consequently, in 1835, Whitman traveled with another missionary to Montana and Idaho to scope out the situation. They purposely visited the Flathead and Nez Perce tribes. From their efforts, some Indians converted to Christianity. The Nez Perce then invited Whitman to live among them and he promised to return.
Meanwhile another New Yorker in the east was excited about the news out West.
Narcissa Prentiss was a product of the Second Great Awakening.
All her life she felt called to mission work and attended Franklin Academy in Pittsburgh to prepare for that vocation. Then she met Marcus in 1835, after his return from the West. His convictions and stories inspired Narcissa…and they married February 18, 1836.
A month later Marcus and his new bride Narcissa headed west again.
This time they blazed a new trail deep into the Oregon Territory along with another missionary couple named Henry and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa became the first woman to travel west of the Rocky Mountains,…and she kept a journal of her experiences. Once in Oregon country, the Whitmans established a mission north of Pendleton in Walla Walla, WA. The Spaldings moved north to establish a mission among the Nez Perce.
For the next decade the Whitmans lived, worked, and churched among the Cayuse tribes of eastern Washington.
They proved the perfect power missionary couple. As a teacher, Narcissa taught the Indians how to read and write. Meanwhile Marcus tended to their health, treating wounds, disease, and aging. Through their Christian service, the Whitmans evangelized a few Cayuse. Nevertheless, the work was difficult, exhausting and bore little fruit. Some of the Cayuse grew suspicious of the Whitmans–particularly Narcissa–when they limited access to particular rooms at their mission. Narcissa was tired of the fleas the Indians carried and did not want them inside the bedrooms. The Cayuse saw this stand as inhospitable.
Nevertheless their work was not in vain. The converted Christian Cayuse, increasing by the year, inspired the Whitmans to continue their work.
In 1842, Marcus returned east to Washington, DC to beg President John Tyler and other politicians to help them settle the Oregon Territory.
Christianity was spreading, Whitman preached, and there was great need for additional Christians to teach, lead, serve and comfort. The idea proved unpopular. Most easterners viewed settling the Oregon Territory as pointless. It was desolate, worthless…and few cared about the Indian. One southern senator chortled he “would not give a pinch of snuff for the whole territory.”
But Marcus was not deterred. Eventually President Tyler approved his request to fund a group of missionaries, and told the buckskin-clad Whitman: “your long ride and frozen limbs testify to your courage and your patriotism. Your credentials establish your character.” Whitman recruited a group of “Christian soldiers”–over 200 wagons and nearly a thousand people strong–to head back to Oregon along the path he had charted in 1836.
The “Oregon Trail” was born.
Soon their western route (and news of fertile land in the Willamette Valley [Portland, OR]) inspired additional wagon trains to form.
The Whitmans continued to work among the Cayuse…but now saw a greater need to serve the emigrant. They opened their mission and established a school for widows and orphans who had lost the fathers and parents along the Trail.
This shift in focus from the Indian to the emigrant didn’t sit well with the Cayuse. Their homeland was filling up with white people, many who came not to serve the Indians but start a new life on a patch of ground in Oregon. The Cayuse were slowly being pushed out of their native lands…and began to despise the Whitman Mission. It was a symbol of white aggression.
The Nez Perce, in contrast, favored Christianity and the mission work of the Spaldings. Chief Joseph’s father converted, and the famous “chief” was himself educated in a mission school. The Nez Perce had promised Lewis and Clark that they would never war against the white man and considered him a friend.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for gold-seekers, outlaws, frontiersmen, gamblers, and politicians with greed (not God) on their minds to spark problems.
Skirmishes between the Indian and white emigrants increased. New infectious “white” diseases–including cholera and measles–were introduced through contact. Lacking immunity, these deadly viruses spread quickly among the Indians.
In 1847 a measles epidemic spread through the area, infecting both the white and Indian (who had no immunity to this deadly disease). Marcus Whitman, at great risk to his own health, doctored both the infected white and Indian. While he had some success with the whites,. many of the sick Indians died from the disease. The Cayuse tribe–and their chief named Tiloukaikt–grew suspicious and angry. Their tribe, especially the children, had been decimated by measles and they blamed the “medicine man” Whitman. Some even spread false rumors that he intentionally infected the Cayuse to kill them off. According to Cayuse tradition, Whitman was a “healer who couldn’t heal” and needed to be eliminated.
On November 29, 1847, Tiloukaikt and a band of warriors massacred Marcus and Narcissa Whitman along with eleven other settlers.
The Cayuse then torched the buildings, destroyed property, and kidnapped dozens of women and children–holding them hostage for a month. This event sparked a manhunt and a conflict known as the Cayuse War (1847-1855). Eventually five Cayuse confessed to the crime and were tried, convicted and hung in Oregon City (1850).
The Whitman mission was gone.
But their legacy was not.
Twelve years later, a seminary to train ministers was established in Marcus’ name. Today that college still exists as Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. In his youth Marcus dreamed of becoming a clergyman but family and money dissuaded him. Instead, he apprenticed medicine for two years to become a doctor. God used Marcus’ medical skills and Narcissa’s teaching abilities to serve the Indian. And while there are differing interpretations on the motives, methods and success of their mission, one thing cannot be denied.
Christianity is why the Oregon Trail was pioneered.
It wasn’t carved by gold seekers, outlaws or easterners seeking new land as much as by an army of Christians committed to serve, teach and nurse the Indians. They came to settle Oregon and Washington for God.
Many modern western histories miss this spiritual element. And too many historians blame all white men for atrocities against the Indian, but these claims lack merit. In reality, the West was also settled by Christians who came not for gold, land, power, or escape…but rather to selflessly evangelize, minister, and educate those in need…and that included the Indian. From Jason Lee’s Methodist mission in The Dalles, OR to Catholic missions like St. Ignatius in Montana, the mountain and Pacific Northwest was largely populated, from the beginning, by Christians sent to serve.
Ironically, a half century after the Cayuse burned down the Whitman mission, a remnant of Christian Cayuse invited another white missionary to come to their lands. His name was Jimmy Cornelison and this small in stature missionary proved rather popular. The Cayuse adored the diminutive pastor–nicknaming him “Little White Man.” Hundreds of people–Indian and white–converted to Christianity as a result of his long ministry in the Pendleton, OR area.
In 1923, President Warren G. Harding summarized this first emigrant expedition: “Never in the history of the world has there been a finer example of civilization following Christianity. The missionaries led under the banner of the cross, and the settlers moved close behind under the star-spangled symbol of the nation.”
Now that’s how the West was really won.
- Warren G. Harding’s “Address in Meacham, Oregon” on July 3, 1923: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-meacham-oregon
- How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon by Oliver W. Nixon, M.D., LL.D. (Chicago: Star Publishing Company (1895). Available for download at Google books.
- Marcus Whitman: Pathfinder and Patriot by Rev. Myron Eells, D.D. (Seatte: The Alice Harriman Company (1909). Available for download at Google books.
- Transactions of the 19th Annual Reunion of the Oregon Pioneer Association (Portland, OR: A. Anderson & Co), 1893. Contains the complete journal of Narcissa Whitman. Available for download at Google books.
- The Oregon Missions by James W. Bashford (New York: Abingdon Press, 1918). Available for download at Google books.
- Little White Man by Rick Steber (Bonanza Publishing, 2017).
He led one of America’s greatest expeditions and proved the apple of Thomas Jefferson’s eye.
To this day the name Meriwether Lewis sells books, inspires audiences and provokes pride. His leadership of the Corps of Discovery, along with William Clark, remains one our nation’s most enduring tales. In his post-expedition years he enjoyed fame and fortune, and a cushy job as the governor of the newly-minted Louisiana territory.
And yet, in the fall of 1809, a lot of things were going wrong for Meriwether Lewis.
He was physically ill, some say due to malaria and others claim because of syphilis, both likely consequences of his journey to the Pacific. Emotionally, he was a lonely guy who struggled with relationships–whether it was the failure to find a wife or work with the political powers in St. Louis and Washington. Even his most ardent supporters and personal friends–Thomas Jefferson and William Clark (who governed along side him in St. Louis)–were losing faith in his abilities. Lewis was tasked with preparing the expedition journals for publication in 1806. Three years later he had yet to pen a single word.
And then, in 1809, the Madison administration audited Lewis on his gubernatorial expenditures. He was spending unauthorized funds and his invoices for reimbursement were denied. This news shocked Meriwether Lewis, as it could mean financial ruin. He faced not just bankruptcy but also scandal. Lewis’ reputation, honor and legacy were all at stake.
To make matters worse, Meriwether Lewis was hitting the bottle.
As a young man he was known in the socialite circles of Washington and Philadelphia to imbibe too much. The Expedition hauled 18 barrels of whiskey up the Missouri and it didn’t last long. After his return to the States, Lewis and Clark enjoyed balls, parades, galas and other events in their honor. Lewis, in particular, enjoyed these parties…perhaps a bit too much. His friends noted that he was not just drinking…but drinking heavily.
Lewis was also sporting an opiate addiction. He was self-medicating on pain killing powder. While it’s speculative, his addiction could be rooted to a painful gunshot wound in his buttocks in the waning weeks of the return voyage from the Pacific. Lewis was shot by one of his own men (Pierre Cruzatte)–the nearly blind fiddle-player and river man–who somehow thought Lewis was an elk. The shot could’ve killed Lewis but instead only wounded him. Nevertheless, for the next several weeks, the Captain had to lie on his stomach in the canoe due to the pain of sitting upright. As the medical doctor for the Corps he had access to the drug cabinet and the Corps had plenty of opium on board as a pain reliever. Could this incident be the genesis for an opiate addiction? Possibly.
On September 4, 1809 Meriwether Lewis left St. Louis for Washington, DC.
His plan was to argue his expenditures before James Madison himself. However, there were signs that he was mentally unstable. He penned a will only a week after his departure and then arrived at Fort Pickering on September 15, 1809 drunk and under a suicide watch. Lewis spent the next two weeks in quarantine to dry out. During that time he penned a confusing and messy letter to Madison.
While the commander of the fort–Capt. Gilbert Russell–wanted to accompany Lewis to DC, a Maj. James Neelly was assigned as an escort. On September 29, Lewis and Neelly, along with his personal attendant John Pernier and another servant, set out for the famed Natchez Trace trail that ran from Mississippi to Tennessee.
On October 10, two the horses carrying important documents had strayed and were missing.
Neelly knew the area and stayed behind to round them up. Lewis and is two servants ventured ahead. By this time, Lewis was drinking again and likely dipping into the opium. A sad irony is that Maj. Neelly was known for his drinking too. Could the person assigned to escort Lewis be the one who reignited his alcohol addiction?
For whatever reason, Lewis arrived ahead of his two servants at Grinder’s Stand on October 10, 1809. He rented a room from Priscilla Grinder and settled in for the night. Mrs. Grinder’s husband was away on business and she quickly became suspicious, even fearful, of her new guest. Lewis was acting strangely and erratically. He didn’t want a bed but rather desired to sleep on his buffalo robe. She noted he was drinking that night and musing about William Clark coming up the trail soon. She could hear him debating a case in his room. She became so fearful of his “mental derangement” that she opted to sleep next door. John Pernier and the other servant also stayed in a nearby cabin.
On the night of October 10, 1809, Meriwether Lewis was all alone.
Around 3 a.m. Priscilla Grinder heard two shots shatter the early morning silence. She saw nothing outside but Lewis staggering back to his cabin. Remaining fearful she rendered no aid, even though she heard Lewis cry out for help. At dawn she awoke his servants and they entered the room to find Lewis on the floor, still alive. They saw two wounds, one in his forehead and the other in his side. Lewis, again, asked for water and for Pernier to use a nearby rifle and finish the job. Pernier declined.
As the sun rose, Meriwether Lewis died.
His final words were cryptic: “I am no coward, but I am so strong, so hard to die.”
Later that morning, Maj. James Neelly arrived with the stray horses to learn that Lewis was dead. Both Priscilla Grinder and John Pernier stated the cause of death was suicide. Meriwether Lewis had used two flintlock pistols to “do the deed.” Neelly gathered Lewis’ personal effects, buried him nearby and wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson that Meriwether Lewis was dead “by suicide.” Jefferson received that letter a week later on October 18, 1809.
William Clark was on the road with his wife Julia, and in Kentucky at his brother’s place in Louisville, KY when he heard the news…by way of a newspaper on October 28. His response echoed what he hoped was not true: “I fear O! I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him.” For Clark, he knew Lewis’ sour dispositions and depressive moods. He knew his partner was in bad shape when he left St. Louis a month earlier. It was sad news to hear of the suicide of his friend…but it was not surprising news.
In the weeks, months and years after Lewis’ death there were investigations and reports into what happened that night…and all concluded that Lewis died “by his own hand.”
Gilbert Russell, the captain at Fort Pickering, issued an 1811 report to the American Philosophical Society (the same think tank that resourced Lewis with insight for his journey west). Alexander Wilson interviewed the Grinders, toured the area and viewed Lewis’ grave…also released his report in 1811.
And while there were some who suspected foul play, the evidence, testimony and general and national assessment seemed to agree: Meriwether Lewis was capable of suicide. His depressing circumstances, his addictions, his melancholy and emotional detachments, his failures to produce, his political oppositions, his two previous suicide attempts…were all enough to drive a man both mad…and to the grave.
Thomas Jefferson was also not surprised by Lewis’ suicide.
He knew Meriwether well. The Jefferson and Lewis families lived near each other. Lewis was mentored by Jefferson and a father figure to him. Jefferson penned that Lewis “had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition.” Jefferson also observed that when Lewis lived with him in DC that he “observed at times sensible depressions of the mind.”
It would seem, given the clear history and testimonials, that we have the full story. However, since the mid-19th century, the speculation of “murder” has continued to bubble. And for good reasons. There are serious issues that seemingly undermine the integrity of the eyewitnesses.
- Priscilla Grinder was not an “eye” witness but an “ear” witness. She did not see Lewis pull the trigger nor anyone else. She only heard gunshots on a moonless, pitch black night. The fact she didn’t render aid is suspicious. And her recollection of that event 30 years later added several details not contained in her 1809 and 1811 accounts. What was she covering up?
- John Pernier, Lewis’ black servant, had a financial motive to harm Lewis (who owed him money). He was present that night and could’ve easily slipped back to his cabin. Lewis’ own mother fingered Pernier as suspicious from the beginning. The fact that only months later he is found dead leaves a question whether he committed suicide (as reported) or murdered too.
- And then there’s Maj. James Neelly, the military escort. His absent that night is equally opportunistic. Could he have slipped into Grinder’s Stand, found a drunk Lewis, and used his own guns against him? The likelihood he had already reintroduced Lewis to drinking suggests some foul play. And Neelly is no church boy. He’s a known trouble-maker. His alibi that he’s not present that fateful night leads to ask “What if he was?”
Those who advocate for murder also offer highly speculative conspiracy theories, political assassination attempts and Natchez Trace thuggery as potential suspects for homicide.
The problem is no argument is iron-clad for how Lewis died.
The historical and origin narrative of SUICIDE does have holes, but many of these can be explained.
Yes, Priscilla Grinder embellished the story in 1839–three decades after the fact, and now as an old woman–but she continued to state the basic facts of that night for suicide. If she was growing senile, that would explain the embellishments, but it also affirms the suicide narrative. Senility causes a person to forget the lies just as much as the truth. If she had been lying all these years, senility would’ve brought it out. And if she’s not senile, nothing has changed (but a few embellishments): Meriwether Lewis committed suicide.
The idea that John Pernier, fingered by Lewis’ mom as suspicious, was quickly shot down…by Lewis’ own family. Pernier was never a serious suspect because the Lewis family rejected and denounced Lucy Marks suspicion of Pernier…who was a deeply faithful and trusted servant to Lewis.
As for Maj. James Neelly, he clearly wasn’t the best person to escort Lewis to DC. And he did retain some of Lewis’ possessions because Lewis also owed him money. Why he chose to buy Lewis in a shallow grave instead of taking him to Nashville will remain a mystery. However, in that day and age, it was not unusual to do what Neelly did. He was a military officer with other work on his plate. His job with Lewis was over the moment Lewis died. Neelly completed all the paperwork, finished the burial task and was on his way.
In the end, there’s no compelling reason to revise the story toward a murder plot.
First, because there’s no evidence of murder. There’s only speculation and imagination.
Second, there’s no attractive plot nor suspect for murder. While Lewis had political opponents that might have wanted him dead, they could’ve done that deed easier in St. Louis. If James Neelly wanted Lewis dead it would’ve been easier to kill him in the woods (without witnesses) than in a notable inn along the Natchez Trace (with witnesses). Priscilla Grinder had no reason to lie or cover up. John Pernier was too loyal. The only other suspects would be Natchez Trace thugs bent on theft and murder. And yet there were no other sounds or sights on that moonless night. No whoops or hollers. No torches. No horses galloping away.
Only two shots in the dead of night.
Leaving Meriwether Lewis in the final hours of his life.
Ultimately, the Captain does prove “so hard to die.” And so doe his legacy, leadership and life.
Meriwether Lewis likely died of suicide. But that doesn’t change his national influence.
Nor does it change his glorious story to the western sea in 1804-1806.
America’s schools are a mess.
Teacher morale is low. Disrespect, truancy and discipline problems are rampant.
Today’s kids are more profane, angry, hurting, confused, violent…and ignorant (especially of their history).
But a failing education system was a problem our Founding Fathers knew was possible.
In a rather inconvenient quote about American education. Dr. Benjamin Rush penned:
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty; and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments….”[i]
Dr. Rush fully knew the destructive nature of secular education. In his day the French Revolution had removed God from its cultural institutions…and French society collapsed as a result. There was a clear line between the religiosity of a people and her social dysfunctions.
Our Founders observed how a French secular state produced disobedience, crime, disrespect, division and ignorance.
Dr. Rush, who also founded the Sunday School movement in America, argued:
“We waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity, by means of the Bible; for this Divine book, above all others favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws.”[ii]
American education originated in the mid-1600s in the Puritan colonies with the “Four R’s”: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and religion.
For centuries, American children were schooled in, with and through biblical values.
The purpose wasn’t to evangelize (a task for church and home) but to inculcate general Christian virtues of civility, temperance, respect, compassion, industry, self-reliance, frugality, self-restraint, fortitude and modesty. Children had the clergy as teachers. Many churches housed schools. Prayers and Bible readings were part of the curriculum. The greatest distinction was between Protestant and Catholic education (which is what prompted the rise of parochial schools).
A biblical philosophy guided the work of American education for three centuries, although not without occasional challenges.
In 1844, for example, a French Deist named Stephen Girard attempted to establish a secular school in Philadelphia prohibiting Christian education. The resulting lawsuit against Girard went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The famous lawyer Daniel Webster argued America was founded upon Christian values and religious principles, and Girard’s request was “repugnant to the law.” In the unanimous Supreme Court decision against the establishment of a purely secular school., Supreme Court justice Joseph Story opined:
“Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the (school)–it’s general precepts expounded…and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? …Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament.”[iii]
Fifty years later, at the 1892 Columbian Exposition, Kansas teachers issued a national historical review of public education. They were concerned with a trend in public education to divorce itself from church control, noting in the 19th century how “the church reluctantly relinquished her claim upon the elementary schools.” Then these public educators made this stunning conclusion (and request):
“…if the study of the Bible is to be excluded from all State schools–if the inculcation of the principles of Christianity is to have no place in the daily program–if the worship of God is to form no part of the general exercises of these public elementary schools–then the good of the state would be better served by restoring all schools to church control.“[iv]
The “good of the state?” Absolutely. These teachers knew without a virtuous education (based upon biblical principles), a secular America, and all her social institutions, was doomed to descend into chaos, anarchy, violence and other evils.
In the 20th century progressives, socialists and secularists worked for decades–finally succeeding in the early 1960s–to remove religion from public schools.
On June 25, 1962, a U.S. Supreme Court–without legal precedent and invoking a vague line by Jefferson about the “separation of church and state”–banned the use of non-sectarian prayers in American schools. A year later the same Court, relying upon the precedence of its earlier ruling, removed Bible readings from public schools. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, America scrubbed public prayers, courthouse nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments and Christian crosses, among other religious imagery from its culture.
By the 1990s, America had raised its first purely secular generation (known as Gen X). By 2010, Millennials were checking “none” for spiritual preference, no longer attended church and embracing secular lifestyles. Not to be outdone, Gen Z is now the most agnostic and atheist generation in American history.
Why would a secular culture be so dangerous to America’s future?
A secular American culture is not only more profane, disrespectful, angry, divisive and narcissistic, but it’s also easier to manipulate for state control. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote in the 1920s:
Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity…In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.
Gramsci essentially laid out the playbook for American progressives and secularists. The first step is controlling the curriculum and changing the narratives. In order for a secular state to rise, it must eliminate the centrality of Christianity from its culture.
Ironically, in 1892 another Supreme Court ruled on the centrality of Christianity in shaping America’s political institutions. The case was the Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States. The conclusion of that Court clearly supported religion as central to the civil health and happiness of a society:
“The happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government depend upon piety, religion and morality.”[v]
Besides home and church, where does this “good order and preservation” propagate?
Founding educator Noah Webster, echoing the words of Benjamin Rush, argued for our American school system:
[T]he Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed. No truth is more evident than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.[vi]
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln noted the connection between education and government when he reportedly said: “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”
And that proverb has proven true. Just talk to any teacher over 45 about how education and students have changed. Today’s students, not to mention many of their parents, are generally confused, ignorant, depressed, wounded and lost. Their lives are a mess. Their homes are a mess. Their neighborhoods and cities are a mess.
American schools are simply reflecting the culture.
And harvesting the fruit of sixty years of secular education.
[i] Benjamin Rush Quoted in “Report of the Commissioner of Education for the Year 1893-1894”; Washington Printing Office, 1896: p. 721. Download available at Google Books.
[ii] A Century of Gospel Work: A History of the Growth of Evangelical Religion in the United States” by the Rev. W.F.P. Noble (Philadelphia: H.C. Watts and Co, 1876): 184. Download available at Google Books.
[iii] Mr. Webster’s Speech in Defence of the Christian Ministry and in Favor of the Religious Instruction of the Young Delivered to the Supreme Court of the United States (February 10, 1844). Download available at Google Books.
[iv] “Columbian History of Education in Kansas” (Topeka: Hamilton Printing Company, 1893): 82. Download available at Google Books.
[v] “The United States: A Christian Nation” by David J. Brewer (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1905). Download available at Google Books
[vi] Noah Webster, A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (New York: Webster and Clark, 1843), p. 291. Download available at Google Books.
The summer of 2022 was a season for shortages. From fuel to rental cars, certain food items to paper goods, stock was low and prices were high.
Gasoline, for the first time in U.S. history averaged more than $5/gallon. In some places a gallon of petrol could run as high as $10/gallon!
But it wasn’t the first time that America had to tighten its fiscal belt.
In the summer of 1777, Americans faced a similar scarcity as the Revolutionary War ramped up.
It started when British embargoes severed supply chains, impacting commodities like paint, glass, tea…and Bibles. Suddenly a lot of items were no longer available, but the Bible shortage was particularly noticeable. After all, at that time, religious materials were licensed by the Crown, then regulated and shipped by Britain’s blessing.
The situation got so serious three prominent clergymen—Francis Alison, John Ewing and William Marshall–wrote to Congress. Alison founded the Universities of Pennsylvania and Delaware. These pastors told Congress that America was in trouble without “Bibles for our schools and families, and for the public worship of God in our churches.”
It was illegal and costly to print an English Bible.
But there was another problem: the war blockades produced shortages for ink, paper and equipment to publish works. These shortages created deep concerns. Our citizens, churches, courthouses and schools needed printed Bibles for personal reading and public services, oaths and lessons.
In late 1777, a Continental Congress committee addressed the Bible shortage.
On September 11, the committee proposed importing “20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere.” Unfortunately, on that same day, Washington’s troops were routed in battle. Two weeks later the British invaded and occupied Philadelphia, forcing Congress to scatter.
Consequently, the matter was tabled…for another two years.
In 1780 Congress motioned again on the Bible shortage. This time they agreed to print English Bibles on American soil.
A Philadelphia printer named Robert Aitken offered to handle the job, despite great risk. On one occasion Aitken had to “remove his type and materials hastily out of the city, and bury them under a barn in order to save them from destruction by the British soldiers.” Nevertheless, on September 12, 1782, the first English-language Bible on American soil was printed. After chaplain review, it was recommended and authorized by Congress for use:
Resolved,…the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken,…and being satisfied…of his care and accuracy…recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish.
The Aitken’s Bible is the rarest of Bibles. In 1940, fewer than fifty copies had survived. However, this “Bible of the Revolution” opened the floodgates for other American Bibles to be printed. From churches to schools to homes, Americans no longer had a want for the Holy Scriptures.
The Bible was influential in America’s infancy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt observed: “We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a Nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic.”
America’s founding fathers also spoke highly of the Bible:
JOHN ADAMS: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited…What a Eutopia – what a Paradise would this region be!”
PATRICK HENRY: “[The Bible]…is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed.”
JOHN JAY: “The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.”
JAMES McHENRY: “Public utility pleads most forcibly for the general distribution of the Holy Scriptures. Without the Bible, in vain do we increase penal laws and draw entrenchments around our institutions.”
BENJAMIN RUSH: “The Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life…the Bible…should be read in our schools in preference to all other books because it contains the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public happiness.”
NOAH WEBSTER: “The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is good and the best corrector of all that is evil in human society – the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men.”
America can face many shortages that cause people to suffer. But our founders knew a depletion of biblical principle and moral foundation was the worst. It’s why they legislated and authorized the printing of the Bible in early America.
In God’s Word they trusted.
- Letters of Delegates to Congress, Paul H. Smith, editor (Washington: Library of Congress, 1981), Vol. 7, p. 311, n1.
- Journals of the American Congress, Volume 2, 1777 to 1778 (Washington: Way and Gideon, 1823): 262. Download available at Google Books.
- Early Bibles of America by Rev. John Wright, D.D. (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 2&3 Bible House, 1894): 66.
- Journals of the American Congress, Volume 4, 1782 to 1788 (Washington: Way and Gideon, 1823): 76. Download available at Google Books.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Statement on the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Printing of the English Bible.” October 06, 1935: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/…/statement-the-four…
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), Vol. II, pp. 6-7, diary entry for February 22, 1756. Available for download on Google Books.
- William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1818), p. 402; Available for download at Google Books.
- John Jay, John Jay: The Winning of the Peace. Unpublished Papers 1780-1784, Richard B. Morris, editor (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980), Vol. II, p. 709, to Peter Augustus Jay on April 8, 1784.
- James McHenry: Bernard C. Steiner, One Hundred and Ten Years of Bible Society Work in Maryland, 1810-1920 (Maryland Bible Society, 1921), p. 14.
- Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral & Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1798), pp. 94, 100, “A Defence of the Use of the Bible as a School Book.”
- Noah Webster, The Holy Bible . . . With Amendments of the Language (New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1833), p. v.
America’s first colleges were in the Ivy League. And they were created for a distinct purpose.
The original 1636 purpose of a Harvard education was to “…advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity: dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”
Essentially, Harvard trained the clergy and equipped missionaries to work among the Indian.
When Harvard started to drift from that original objective, a new school called “Collegiate College” was founded in New Haven, CT (1701). Thanks to funding by a Boston merchant named Elihu Yale, the New Haven school was eventually renamed Yale University.
One of Yale’s earliest students was a 13-year old kid named Jonathan Edwards. Four years later this teenager graduated valedictorian of his class and started his career as a member of the Presbyterian clergy.
In 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached a “fire and brimstone” message that ignited the Great Awakening revival in America.
It’s a religious revival–at the time mostly among America’s youth–that would have significant consequence upon America’s moral and political fabric. In fact, the Great Awakening spiritually united the colonies in their revolt from England. That was no small feat, as each colony was religiously distinct and often fought with other colonies over doctrinal matters and biblical interpretations.
Edward’s sermon was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (preached and published on July 8, 1741).” Here is a synopsis:
The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hat opened her Mouth under them…
However unconvinced you [the unconverted] may now be of the Truth of what you hear, by & by you will be fully convinced of it…The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire…O Sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in…
Therefore let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the Wrath to come. The Wrath of almighty GOD is now undoubtedly hanging over great Part of this Congregation: Let everyone fly out of Sodom: Haste and escape for your Lives, look not behind you, escape to the Mountains, least you be consumed.
The purpose of Edward’s message was to teach on the reality of Hell, but his words left congregants in tears, fear and repentance. During the sermon, Edwards was interrupted several times due to wailing, moaning and shouts of “what must we do to be saved?”
The response to Jonathan Edward’s message, especially after it was published for others to read, spread like wildfire.
A revival, now known as the First Great Awakening, changed America between 1740 and 1770.
Ben Franklin observed that this Great Awakening “was wonderful to see.” It moved Americans, he wrote, from “being thoughtless or indifferent…it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in…every street.” It wasn’t without its critics though. Conservative Congregationalist clergy, particularly the Puritans, bitterly denounced the “bodily effects” of congregants fainting, convulsing and crying loudly.
But Edwards didn’t let the opposition faze him. He also didn’t just preach about Hell and repentance, even though that’s what he’s remembered for. He denounced the African slave trade (a radical idea at the time), and rallied to support the Indians by criticizing those who profited or stole their land. Edwards wrote several books, including one on The Life of David Brainerd (1749) that inspired missionaries for generations.
Edward’s preaching style was surprisingly bland.
According to one biographer, Edwards “scarcely gestured or moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination.” Instead, Edwards powerfully persuaded by “overwhelming weight of argument” and “intenseness of feeling.”
In his twilight years Edwards worked with the Indians. However, his preaching proved unpopular. For years no one converted or joined his congregation. Eventually he was fired. Edwards was then elected president of Princeton in 1758, but he didn’t live a year in that work (dying of a smallpox inoculation). He left behind his wife Sarah and eleven children.
Despite Edward’s troubles, his mark on America (and her founding fathers) was deep. The First Great Awakening revivals in America rooted our nation (and her leaders) to a biblical foundation for democracy, government, human rights and justice. These are all Judeo-Christian principles found in the Bible. Americans in the late 18th century were overwhelmingly Christian in their views.
And that religiosity was significant for a world in revolution.
The French Revolution was known for its infidelity, immorality, violence, theft, irreligion and obscenity, but the American Revolution emerged beneath a flag of valor, honor, sacrifice, perseverance, freedom and duty. These uniquely positive and productive values were rooted to America’s Christianity. It’s something that the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville noted was still dominant in 1831:
Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…
It’s possible to argue the American Revolution might never happened without an American revival first. And that first “Great Awakening” was sparked by the “hell and brimstone” preaching of a Presbyterian named Jonathan Edwards…who was trained at Yale and later served at Princeton.
At the heart of America’s greatness has always been its goodness.
A goodness that was centered by a nation’s Christianity.
In 1937 nobody was more popular than Franklin D. Roosevelt.
His “New Deal”–hinged to Social Security and unemployment benefits–catapulted FDR to a 523-8 electoral landslide (60.8% of the popular vote) to a second term in 1936.
Only Ronald Reagan would come close to that margin of victory in 1984 with 525-13 electoral votes (58.8% popular vote).
But Roosevelt had a problem with parts of his New Deal being constitutional and the Supreme Court of the United States often weighed in against him.
That’s when FDR introduced the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 that would add SCOTUS justices–presumably ones that favored his New Deal politics–to get his agenda legally passed.
The central provision of his bill would have granted a U.S. president power to appoint an additional justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, up to a maximum of six, for every member of the court over the age of 70 years.
At the time, six of the 9 justices were over 70 and the U.S. Supreme Court had leaned to the Right for decades thanks to Republican dominance since the Civil War. Until Franklin D. Roosevelt, there had only been two Democrat Presidents–Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson–between 1868 and 1932.
And the U.S. Supreme Court reflected this Republican rule.
But in 1937 the Great Depression still raged. And it was a year of more losses. Many Americans were now questioning the logic and cost of Roosevelt’s New Deal. And his bill to enlarge the Supreme Court smacked of a power grab by the executive branch (setting off alarm in both the House and Senate). Eventually the Senate rejected Roosevelt’s idea (July 22, 1937) and his bill died.
Despite the political rebuke, FDR’s popularity remained.
He was re-elected to a third and fourth term (1940, 1944). Of course this circumstance prompted the 22nd Amendment (1951) to limit future U.S. presidents to two terms.
Nevertheless, in his 12 years as U.S President, Roosevelt appointed eight new Supreme Court justices, all of whom reflected his political ideology:
- HUGO BLACK (1937): A “thumping evangelical New Dealer” Alabama senator and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
- STANLEY REED (1938): A staunch Kentucky Democrat who supported New Deal policies. He never graduated from law school.
- FELIX FRANKFURTER (1939): A liberal Austrian immigrant who was hard to pin down politically, yet considered a radical for his views. He founded the ACLU.
- WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS (1939): The youngest SCOTUS appointee at age 40, Douglas was a “progressive civil libertarian” who served the Court for 36 years. Known for his “pithy” first draft opinions, penned under 20 minutes, Douglas also wrote 30 books.
- FRANK MURPHY (1940): A liberal Democrat Catholic who served as governor of Michigan. Dissented on FDR’s internment of the Japanese during WW2, using the word “racism” for the first time in a SCOTUS opinion.
- JAMES F. BYRNES (1941): A fervent New Deal South Carolina Democrat. He supported FDR’s court-packing bill.
- ROBERT H. JACKSON (1941): A New York Democrat and New Deal supporter who served as U.S. Solicitor and Attorney General. Known for his public feud with fellow jurist Hugo Black, Jackson also lauded for his superior opinion writings and commitment to due process.
- WILEY RUTLEDGE (1943): A Kentucky Democrat, he was among the most liberal SCOTUS justices (most of his views not popular until the 1960s Warren Court emerged). A committed New Dealer, he supported FDR’s court packing plan,. Rutledge served six years, dying of a massive stroke at age 55.
In the end, Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t need to enlarge the U.S. Supreme Court.
His long tenure as a U.S. President allowed him to replace eight of the nine justices, all who were Democrats and sympathetic to his New Deal policies. Furthermore, the rulings of Roosevelt’s Supreme Court appointees reshaped America beginning in the 1950s. And this transformation would be helped by other Democrat Presidents. Between 1932 and 1980, five of the nine U.S. Presidents were Democrats (FDR, Truman, JFK, Johnson, Carter), 32 of 48 years.
It’s why, after 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court leaned to the Left for 70 years, offering rulings over some of the most transformative legal cases related to civil, religious, parental and personal rights.
From prayer in schools to abortion to gay marriage, the effects of Democrat appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court reverberated for decades.
And then in 2016, it happened.
With President Donald Trump’s three conservative appointees (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett), the U.S. Supreme Court suddenly shifted to the right. These three Republican-appointed justices were joined by two other longstanding conservative justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Chief justice John Roberts, a G.W. Bush appointee, occasionally rules to the RIGHT as well, creating a potential 6-3 super majority.
But despite its critics, this conservative shift reflected the political tone of the U.S. Presidency since 1980.
In the 40 years between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, twenty-four years were controlled by four Republican Presidents (Reagan, HW Bush, GW Bush, Trump), while the remaining sixteen were led by two Democrats (Clinton, Obama). Consequently a political SCOTUS shift to the RIGHT should be expected.
Ironically, in recent years many Democrats have again issued calls to “expand” the U.S. Supreme Court.
As more opinions–including Roe v. Wade–are overturned or decided by a more conservative juris view (known as the “strict constitutional” or literal position), this option is popular among those on the left side of the aisle.
However, constitutionally, the U.S. Supreme Court (nor any court) is intended to make law. A court’s only purpose is to give an opinion and ruling that makes a certain law valid or void. It’s why Roosevelt needed the U.S. Supreme Court on his side in 1937. It’s also why elections matter, especially national contests.
Our Founding Fathers knew that America’s laws need to be checked.
Not all laws are good laws. Similarly, U.S. Presidents (the executive branch) also need checked, because not all executive orders are good ones. The Supreme Court reflects the ultimate will of “we the people.” It may take decades for a shift (left or right) to fully manifest but when it does, it does so in a way that transforms the American landscape.
And depending on your political perspective, that’s either a good or bad thing. But in many ways these “checks and balances” are what makes the American “idea” GREAT. Our Founding Fathers were geniuses. And we are most fortunate. Can you imagine our lives without a U.S. Supreme Court? Without a group of legal experts to rule for (or against) the laws our legislatures–both state and federal–produce? To offer an opinion on executive (presidential) orders that can easily be over reaches and breaches of constitutional rights?
Yes, our Courts may act “political” (even rogue) at times. And yes, certain Courts may overturn or correct earlier rulings. But these decisions only reflect how culture changes. American is always shifting, from left to right and right to left. Outside of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court is American’s best bet against tyrannical government.
DID YOU KNOW that the U.S. Supreme Court did not have a permanent place to do business until 1935? It’s true. For 146 years, the U.S. Supreme Court operated from chambers located in the U.S Capitol. Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to make the Supreme Court a “co-equal” branch of government (even though the U.S. Constitution speaks to the judicial branch far less than the other two branches of U.S. government).
Roosevelt also felt that since the President has the White House and the Congress has the Capitol that the U.S. Supreme Court needed its own building. In many ways a permanent home for the U.S. Supreme Court philosophically reshaped its purpose for the 20th century. Up to Roosevelt’s time, Supreme Court rulings were often ignored and never considered to “legalize” anything. That was not its purpose. The role of the U.S. Supreme Court was simply to validate or invalidate law passed by state and federal legislators.
“[It’s] the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America that has ever been written.”
That’s how one historian described Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; a work considered among the most influential books of the 19th century.
Published in two volumes between 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville analyzed the social and political life of early America.
Born in the wake of the French revolution, he was a diplomat, philosopher, historian and aristocrat. Initially he traveled to America in 1831 to study our prisons, but quickly found something greater underfoot.
Alexis de Tocqueville discovered our Christianity.
He penned: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…”
Alexis de Tocqueville observed how our “notions of Christianity and of liberty” were so deeply intertwined that it was “impossible to…conceive one without the other.”
He noted in his travels how our Puritan forefathers immigrated and established both a “democratic and republican religion.”
He summarized how “religion in America…must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country…[imparting] a taste for freedom.” Alexis confessed his inability to “know whether all Americans [had] a sincere faith” but was “certain” that we fully accepted religion and all other institutions being connected. “This opinion,” he wrote, “is not particular to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”
Alexis de Tocqueville affirmed this thesis through an anecdote of an August 23, 1831 court case he observed in Chester County, New York. In this case, a witness admitted to the judge his atheism. In Alexis’ home nation of enlightened France, atheism was not uncommon nor was it reason for concern in matters of integrity. And yet this American judge “refused his testimony” because atheism was enough reason to lose the “confidence of the court” in any testimony someone possessed. Alexis also documented a local newspaper’s report for how this judge was surprised to discover “a man living who did not believe in the existence of God…[and] knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.”
Alexis de Tocqueville wasn’t alone in his perception of America’s Christian roots.
His traveling partner—Gustave de Beaumont—penned his own memoir known as the Marie ou l’Esclavage aux E’tas-Unis (1835). Beaumont documented over a dozen different sects of Christianity in early America and wrote: “Religion…is not only a moral institution but also a political institution … In the United States, the law is never atheistic … All of the American constitutions proclaim freedom of conscience and the liberty and equality of all the confessions…”
Beaumont noted how the Massachusetts’s Constitution recognized “only Christians.” He cited how Maryland’s Constitution declared “all of the faiths are free” and gave its legislature the power to tax “for the support of the Christian religion.” The Vermont Constitution recognized “only the Christian faiths” and mandated “every congregation of Christians [to] celebrate the Sabbath.” Pennsylvania required a belief in God as part of its citizenry. Beaumont further documented how most states demanded profession of Christianity to serve in public office.
Beaumont summarized: “In general, anyone who adheres to one of the religious sects, whose number is immense in the United States, enjoys all of his social and political rights in peace. But the man who would claim to have neither a church nor religious beliefs would not only be excluded from all civil employment and from all political offices … but … would be an object of moral persecution of all kinds. No one would care to have any social relations with him … No one in the United States believes that a man without religion could be an honest man.”
In 21st century America such religious fervor would be considered prejudicially extreme, even among the Christian faithful. We’d never consider excluding someone from employment or political office if they were not Christian, nor discounting the court testimony of the agnostic or atheist.
But in early America—founded as a Christian nation–we did…and it was a preferred state of living.
Alexis de Tocqueville also opined on how America could lose our democracy and freedom. It would happen, he said, in slow measures as Americans “in a restless search for…petty, vulgar pleasures” eventually numbed to its political “protective powers” who removed “autonomy… from each citizen.”
“It is …difficult to imagine,” de Tocqueville concluded, “how men who have completely given up the habit of self-government could successfully choose those who should do it for them…The vices of those who govern and the ineptitude of those governed would soon bring it to ruin and…revert to its abasement to one single master.”
It’s why Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America should be required reading in America’s history classes. He not only documented, as an outsider, America’s Christian founding and deep religious fabric, but offered a blueprint for how “we the people” could lose our cherished liberty and democracy.
Essentially, it’s how one French man saw America’s past…and future.