Guest Post: Spencer McBride, Benjamin Rush and the Divine Right of Republics

We are thrilled to have another guest post from Spencer McBride, a historian and editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. You can read Spencer’s previous two posts here and here. More importantly, you can order his hot-off-the-press book, Pulpit & Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (UVA Press) here. You can look forward to a review and Q&A later this month. -BP

pulpit-and-nationIn researching and writing my book, Pulpit & Nation, I became keenly interested in the religious language employed by participants in the ratification debates of 1787-88. Not only did it illuminate the role of religion and clergymen in the politics of Revolutionary America, but it seemed particularly relevant to the almost canonical way in which so many twenty-first century politicians and pundits view the Constitution. Of course, when—or if—these individuals ever consult that document’s history, they rarely bother to question what political motivations drove so many of the seemingly religious expressions made by early national leaders. And there are many such statements. Yet, amid the numerous examples of Federalists and Anti-Federalists employing (and exploiting) providential language and Old Testament Biblicism in arguing for ratification, one example stands out as particularly complex in its motives and implications: the argument Benjamin Rush made for ratification in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention.

Rush was a Philadelphia physician, an eager student of the Enlightenment, and—during the late 1780s, at least—a devout Christian. He had signed the Declaration of Independence as a member of the Continental Congress, but left public office in 1778 to pay full attention to his medical practice. His election to the Pennsylvania ratifying convention marked his reentry into the political arena. Convention minutes recorded Rush asserting that he “as much believed the hand of God was employed in this work [of drafting the Constitution], as that God had divided the Red Sea to give passage to the children of Israel or had fulminated the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai!” To Rush, “the unanimity of the [Constitutional] Convention, the general approbation of the Constitution by all classes of people, and the zeal which appeared everywhere… from New Hampshire to Georgia,” were “reasons to believe that the adoption of the government was agreeable to the will of Heaven.” He argued that “the Vox Populi” was the “Vox Dei;” that in a republican government, God manifested his will through the people. As the convention’s secretary summarized the speech, Rush was expounding upon a “new species of divine right.”[1]

What are we to make of Rush’s hagiographic endorsement of the controversial Constitution? Did he really believe the proposed government was the product of divine intervention, or was he relying on religious hyperbole to court political support for ratification? His language is best understood if we examine both the pragmatic and ideological context in which he spoke.

Pragmatically, Rush declared that the Constitution bore a divine stamp of approval as a way of facilitating its quick ratification by the Pennsylvania convention. If the convention delegates went through the Constitution line by line dismissing the language and clauses with which it found fault and amending the text throughout, Rush feared ratification would never occur. Furthermore, if this same process was mirrored in the other twelve states, the Constitution was sure to drown in a sea of irreconcilable amendments. To prevent this fate, Rush adopted what one of his biographers terms a “block-amendments strategy” wherewith he endeavored to keep the attention of the Pennsylvania convention—and those outside the state who read his published speeches—on the merits of the Constitution as a whole.

Rush used this strategy early in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. Ardent Anti-Federalist William Findley compared the Constitution to a new house, declaring that the purpose of the state convention was to examine its parts, accepting those which were “fitting… and rejecting everything that is useless and rotten.” “That is not our situation,” Rush retorted, “We are not, at this time called to raise the structure. The house is already built for us, and we are only asked, whether we choose to occupy it. If we find its apartments commodious, and upon the whole that it is well calculated to shelter us from the inclemencies of the storm that threatens, we shall act prudently in entering.” But if the state conventions found the “structure” otherwise, Rush concluded, “all that is required of us is to return the key to those who have built and offered it for our use.” Pragmatically speaking, Rush used his religious praise for the Constitution as a way of counteracting the Anti-Federalist strategy of death-by-amendment.[2]

As for the ideological context of Rush’s metaphysical language, we have seen that biblical references were prevalent in American political culture at this time. But because of Rush’s religious devoutness, it is possible to view his rhetorical style as possessing a greater level of biblical literalism than we would assume in the writings of men such as Thomas Jefferson, who used biblical allusions in a far more conventional way. When Rush used religious language in his letters and speeches, it was often as a way for him to mesh his religious beliefs with his scientific and philosophical studies. He recorded many of his meditations on this subject in his commonplace book. In one such instance, he wrote that “The affairs of men are governed alternately by and contrary to their wills, to teach us both to use our Reason and to rely upon Providence in all our undertakings.” On another occasion, he wrote that “God reveals some truths to our senses and to our first perceptions,” but that “many errors are [also] conveyed into the mind through both, which are to be corrected only by reason.” As an example of such a multifarious path to knowledge, Rush explained that without astronomical inquiry and investigation, mankind might still believe that the sun revolved around the earth. For Rush, men and women did not need to choose between enlightened reason and revealed religion. As paths to knowledge, they were complementary and codependent. Accordingly, Rush sought to make sense of the Revolutionary events shaping his life by Christianizing the Enlightenment and enlightening Christianity.[3]

It was likely in this vein of thought that Rush professed his strong approval for the Constitution. Though his use of biblical language aligned with earlier American precedents for appropriating religion for ostensibly political ends, the ideological implications of Rush’s claims went beyond mere political propaganda. It had been over a century since the divine right of kings had been a viable political theory in the British Atlantic. Constitutional thought in England, and subsequently America, had been largely shaped by the liberalism of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and others who maintained that civil society originated by social compact and not by divine appointment. By 1788, these ideas were prevalent—even commonplace—in American society. But the idea that some form of divine intervention influenced state formation had not yet vanished entirely. Rush had not been in the Constitutional Convention, but owing to his experience as a former member of Congress, he found it incredible that the framers had agreed on a system of government despite the many competing interests of the states they represented. When Rush ascribed the near unanimity of the delegates to divine intervention, he was suggesting that God still intervened in the formation of civil governments, but that such intervention occurred in more enlightened, republican ways. It was, in a sense, the divine right of republics.[4]


[1] “Convention Debates, P.M.” December 12, 1787, in Merrill Jensen, John P. Kaminski, Gaspare J. Saldino, et al., eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, 26 vols. to date, (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1976 –) (hereafter DHRC), 2:592-596. The development of Rush’s religious beliefs throughout his life is discussed in David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merril), 33-42, 259-261, 310-312, 320, 336. On the publication of Rush’s speech in other states during the ratification debates, see ibid., 353-355.

[2] Hawke, Benjamin Rush, 351. “Newspaper Reports of Proceedings and Debates,” in DHRC 2:366-368. For a thorough account of Rush’s participation in the ratification debates, see Hawke, Benjamin Rush, 338-357.

[3] The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His “Travels Through Life” Together With His Commonplace Book for 1789-1813, George Corner, ed. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1948), 334-336. On the “Christianization” of the Enlightenment and the “enlightenment” of Christianity as a common theme in other country’s experiencing enlightenments, see David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[4] Thomas Hobbes, De Cive. (London: 1642). Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil (London: 1651). John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (London: 1689). On the prevalence of the liberalism of philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke in eighteenth-century American society, particularly as it pertained to the idea of the social contract, see Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 28-29, 229; and Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Knopf, 1996) 18.

5 responses

  1. Thank You!! What a brilliant piece… I enjoyed the “House” analogy that was used to debate the ratification… especially the reply…”We are only asked if we choose to occupy it.” I can share that with my AP students… a great primary source 🙂 I also enjoyed comments on meshing religious, scientific, and philosophical ideas… especially the piece about the role of sense and perception in learning… and how it can be discovered later… to have been in error. Really a fantastic piece in discussing the metacognition of the era… certainly relevant in our classrooms today.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Jonathan! I’m delighted that you find the piece useful. I have an entire chapter in Pulpit and Nation focused on the role of clergymen and religious language/symbolism in the ratification debates.

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Jeremy C. Young, “James Rush and the Invention of Personal Magnetism” « The Junto


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