Every week thousands of Americans visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to observe with awe and reverence the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These two eighteenth-century political documents continue to express so much of what it means to be an American that some recent scholars have elevated them to the status of “sacred relics of the American civil religion” (sociologist Robert Bellah) or “creeds of the theology of the Republic” (historian Sidney Mead).
A different school of recent interpreters, who use economics to study the American past, argue that there was not just a tension but a wide gap between the principles expressed in the Declaration and those incorporated in the Constitution. They are currently issuing a call, therefore, for a new Revolution that will finally assure the triumph of the democratic philosophy of the Declaration (with its optimistic view of human nature and history) over the conservative elitism and pessimism reflected in the Constitution.
In the wake of the bicentennial celebration of our Constitution, it is important to speak out against both of these trends—one, which dangerously exalts the Declaration and the Constitution, and the other, which elevates the principles of the Declaration while debunking those incorporated in the Constitution. To understand this protest we must reexamine the relation between the Declaration and the Constitution in light of the religious and philosophical positions of the two Founding Fathers most intimately associated with each of the documents, namely, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Jefferson, author of the Declaration, and Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” each in his own way unified the two major intellectual and cultural influences on eighteenth-century American thought—the rational Enlightenment and Calvinist Puritanism. The path of rationalism had been prepared in Virginia by the intellectual side of Anglicanism, which had, in turn, been heavily influenced by English Puritanism. The natural-law theory, social-contract thinking, and constitutionalism of the sixteenth-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (who himself had been heavily influenced by Calvinist theology) was well known to the Virginians through the writings of John Locke. In short, Enlightenment rationalism in colonial America was overwhelmingly a “rational Christian supernaturalism.”
There was consequently a body of common theological, philosophical, and political convictions that Jefferson and Madison shared between themselves and with the other signers of the Declaration and drafters of the Constitution. Jefferson, for example, deliberately chose religious language in the drafting of the Declaration that would be acceptable to both devout churchmen and Enlightenment rationalists.
This common body of convictions included belief in a Creator God who governs the world through the physical laws of nature and the natural law that endows every individual with certain unalienable rights, a state of nature in which humans are created free and equal, and yet where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger, the origin of society and government in a social contract, and the principle of consent of the governed as the only legitimate foundation of governmental authority. All were familiar with and accepted as canonical the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.
The Value Of Religion
Yet, in spite of all this, there were striking differences between Jefferson and Madison, both in theory and temperament. In his personal religious views, for example, Jefferson was far more radical and outspoken than Madison. He was unjustly called an atheist by some of his religious and political opponents. He has most often been designated a deist, and he certainly espoused many of the beliefs associated with that movement—including an intense distrust and dislike for institutional religion and the clergy. A major difficulty arises with this classification, however, for there were several kinds of deism during the eighteenth century, including specifically Christian and anti-Christian types. The problem is further complicated because Jefferson’s religious beliefs fluctuated. Nominally an Anglican, he at various times called himself a deist, a theist, a Unitarian, and a “rational Christian.” Although he sought to humanize the deified concept of Christ, he took the moral teachings of Jesus seriously. He was most likely in his religious views somewhere between the deism of Thomas Paine and the Unitarianism of the English scientist Joseph Priestley, whose writings Jefferson greatly admired.
In the final analysis, Jefferson did not consider labels important, and he believed the ultimate test of a religion was whether it produced upright men. Shortly before his death, Jefferson expressed the view that it would be good if all Americans believed, without compulsion, that there is “only one God, and he all perfect,” and that “there is a future state of rewards and punishments.”
Madison’s religious views were more orthodox. Raised in an Anglican home, he was educated from his early years through college by teachers who were either clergy or devout churchmen. After being graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1771, Madison stayed on for a year to study Hebrew and moral theology under president John Witherspoon, a moderate Presbyterian and the only cleric to sign the Declaration. It was through his encounter with the thought of Witherspoon and the Scottish common sense philosophers that Madison said he received “very early and strong impressions in favor of Liberty both Civil and Religious.”
Madison was not inclined toward religious speculation, but he held a calm faith in a moral, orderly universe governed by a God who transcends the limited capacity of humans to conceive or understand. In 1825, he summarized his general attitude toward religion: “Belief in a God All Powerful wise and and good is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources.” Characteristically, Madison thought that reasoning empirically from effect to cause, “from Nature to Nature’s God,” was more persuasive than theological abstractions.
The Optimist And The Realist
Jefferson’s and Madison’s differences in religious beliefs included differing perspectives on human nature. Jefferson was consistently more optimistic than Madison in his evaluation of the innate disposition of individuals to follow reason and appreciate virtue. Jefferson was well aware of human frailties, but he trusted education and enlightened self-interest to produce intelligent participation in public life by the majority of citizens. Since Jefferson identified the greatest danger to republican democracy with the potential tyranny of a powerful executive, he frequently expressed his dislike for strong central government: “I own that I am not a friend to a very energetic government—it is always oppressive.” And again: “That government is best which governs least.”
Madison’s view of human nature was far more dialectical and realistic than Jefferson’s. It was strongly influenced by the Calvinist belief that man, although created in the image of God, has fallen into sin and is therefore inherently driven by self-seeking passions—although at least some human beings are in process of being redeemed by grace. This balanced, cautiously optimistic understanding of human nature, which Madison shared with the vast majority of the signers of the Declaration and framers of the Constitution, was ultimately as far from the cynical pessimism of the English philosopher Hobbes as it was from the excessive optimism of eighteenth-century French philosophes. Madison gave classic expression to his Christian realism in such political maxims as, “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree,” and that the greatest danger to popular governments is that “the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.”
Madison specifically located the greatest potential danger of an undisciplined majority in the legislative branch of government, particularly in the House of Representatives. Therefore, consistent with his dialectical view of human nature, he first sought to endow the federal government with sufficient authority to control individual outbreaks of passion and to umpire conflicts between competing interest groups; but he then immediately stressed the necessity of forcing government to control itself. Madison thought this self-restraint could best be attained through the principle of counterpoise, by pitting “ambition against ambition” through the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances.
Debate And Change
The author of the Declaration and the father of the Constitution more than once influenced and even changed each other’s points of view through their exchange of ideas and collaborative efforts. For example, although Jefferson’s more optimistic view of human nature was never drastically altered, it shows evidence of at least some modification by Madison’s more realistic analysis: In 1792 he conceded, “In questions of power let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
The most dramatic change on Madison’s side took place with regard to the addition of a Bill of Rights to the proposed Constitution. Jefferson, along with other critics of the new document, protested vigorously that it lacked a means of restraining the power of government by securing once for all the fundamental civil rights specified in the Declaration. Madison, however, was then equally concerned that the calling of a new convention to make amendments would end in anarchy or undermine the new federal government by returning essential powers to the state legislatures. He therefore took the conservative stance that only experience would prove the real shortcomings of the Constitution, and that guarantees of fundamental civil liberties would be better formulated after the Constitution had been functional for several years, and after antipathy to federal powers had died down in the state legislatures.
Yet it was none other than Madison himself who, on June 8, 1789, stood up in the first House of Representatives to recommend speedy adoption of the Bill of Rights, lest further delay occasion suspicion that “we are not sincere in our desire to incorporate such amendments in the constitution as will secure those rights which they consider as not sufficiently guarded.” This substantial shift in Madison’s position was due in no small part to the animated and lengthy personal debate he had carried on with Jefferson.
One can best summarize the relation between Jefferson and Madison, and by extrapolation between the Declaration and the Constitution, by recalling a comment by Henry Clay: “Jefferson and Madison both were great and good, and though different—yet equal.” As with Jefferson and Madison, so with the meaning and significance of the Declaration and the Constitution for contemporary Americans: both were great and good, and though different—yet equal.
America does not need today to witness a further revolution to insure the popular triumph of the democratic principles expressed in the Declaration over the conservative forces at work in drafting the Constitution.
America does not need today to exalt dangerously and idolatrously two eighteenth-century political documents to the status of being “holy relics of the American civil religion” or “creeds of a national theology of the Republic.”
America does need today a clearer understanding and a renewed appreciation of the religious and philosophical principles that were so essential to the work of the Founding Fathers, and that remain so vital to the health of our nation and to us as Americans and Christians.
Lee W. Gibbs, an Episcopal priest, is professor and chair of religious studies at Cleveland State University.
From Defiance To Responsibility
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution reflect different but related stages in the emergence of the Republic. The Declaration was both a battle cry to rally the colonial population and an attempt to justify the Revolution at home and abroad. In performing these functions, the Declaration specified the goal of legitimate government as that of securing the liberty of individuals who have been created free and equal in the state of nature. To support this goal, the Declaration made a compelling argument for the natural or unalienable rights of individuals that no government can take away—including the right of self-government.
However, the Declaration was never intended to be a well-balanced statement on which to build a theory of society or government, much less a philosophy of life. For example, the Declaration offers no guidance on how best to secure the liberty it so vigorously affirms. It focuses upon the rights of the colonists and the infringement of those rights by what was perceived as a tyrannical British government; but it says little or nothing about the social and political obligations of responsible citizens. The Declaration remains silent about the claims of the divine will, which, in the natural-law tradition to which the Declaration was so heavily indebted, always had priority over the rights of the individual or those of the neighbor. Moreover, the Declaration has little to say about human nature or the capacity for self-government.
The framers at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, therefore, had the task of creating a new political system that would effectively secure for the citizens of the new Republic the natural rights specified in the Declaration. This new responsibility entailed a shift of emphasis from defiance of established authority and violent revolution to political reconstruction in the attempt to create “a more perfect union.”
Nevertheless, even though the Constitution clearly reflected this different mood and emphasis, it by no means set aside the revolutionary principles as set forth in the Declaration. John Quincy Adams, representing the early Federalists, was more accurate than past or present opponents of the Constitution when he said: “The American Revolution was a work of thirteen years, incomplete until 1787. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, are parts of one consistent whole, founded upon one and the same theory of government.”
By Lee W. Gibbs.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more