A self-governing people, in short, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod. The whip and rod were clearly unacceptable for a free, self-governing people. A moral people respected social order, legitimate authority, oaths and contracts, private property, and the like. For these Americans, the Bible was the well-spring of religion, and biblical morality was the source of this essential virtue. Therefore, many founders regarded the Bible as indispensable to a regime of republican self-government and liberty under law.
Today’s guest post is from Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He has authored or edited 10 books, including Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter at @d3bach
John Adams, in his retirement, was disheartened. What had his life in politics counted for? he wondered.
The renewal in 1805 of a 30-year friendship with Doctor Benjamin Rush reinvigorated him. Their frank correspondence, touching on all manner of topics, lifted his spirits. “Dr. Rush’s letters are of inestimable value to me,” the former president recalled.
A Philadelphia physician, social reformer, and a venerated signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was respected by the leading political figures of the day. He would later negotiate a rapprochement between former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson a decade after the bitter political campaign of 1800 had left their relationship in tatters.
In one conversation about the “perfectibility of man” and religion’s role in making “men and nations happy,” both Rush and Adams lamented the moral decay they witnessed in the world around them. “By renouncing the Bible,” Rush interjected, “philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral Subjects. . . . It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published. It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, Vices & Crimes.” He then concluded: “All Systems of Religion, morals, and Government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the tho[ugh]t! — it will not only survive the wreck of those Systems, but the World itself. ‘The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it [Matt. 16:18].’”
“The Bible,” Adams promptly responded, “contains the most profound Philosophy, the most perfect Morality, and the most refined Policy, that ever was conceived upon Earth. It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it. . . . [W]ithout national Morality,” he continued, “a Republican Government cannot be maintained.”
Adams, as I note in my book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, was not alone among his contemporaries in making this remarkable claim. John Dickinson, the acclaimed “penman of the Revolution,” for example, similarly observed, “The Bible is the most republican Book that ever was written.” Such sentiments were common in the political discourse of the age.
The Bible is many things to the Christian. It is God’s Word; “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27); a guiding lamp (Ps. 119:105); and a divine handbook “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
But is it a republican book? What’s republican about the Bible?
The founding fathers were obsessed with all things republican, even at times wearing togas like the republican leaders in ancient Rome. They studied great republican leaders and theorists from both ancient and modern times.
To the founders, republicanism meant, at least, this: popular government, committed to the rule of law, in which government authority is derived from the consent of the governed and exercised through freely and fairly chosen representatives of the people.
On July 4th, 1776, the patriots threw off the monarchy and, pledging to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, embarked on a bold experiment in republican self-government.