A Senator’s Assault: From Tecumseh’s Slayer to Bernie Sanders

A brief summary of a political and very public controversy from 1829-1830 that shares parallels with 2017 regarding the issue of religious tests for public office.

Since 1810, U.S. postal law had called for the transportation of the mails without regard to the day of the week, and it required postmasters to open their offices on every day of the week. While this issue may appear inconsequential to Americans in a 24/7 society in which personal electronics and social media provide instantaneous news and communications, in that era the transportation of the mails and the activities of the post office were indispensable to the social-economic life of communities nationwide. Furthermore, the postmaster was the lone representative of the federal government in most communities, so his example carried great weight.

 

The recent exchange between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Trump administration nominee Russell Vought during a Senate committee hearing has captured evangelicals’, if not national attention, as well it should. Sanders not only appeared ignorant of the fact that the U.S. Constitution (Article VI) forbids that a “religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” But the senator also took the opportunity to berate, if not humiliate, the nominee specifically because of his religious beliefs even though they had no bearing upon the issue before the Senate Budget Committee. That the actions of the senator were outrageous seems self-evident upon cursory examination. Lest anyone think, however, that such outrages have not been witnessed before in the Senate’s history, a brief summary of a political and very public controversy from 1829-1830 that shares parallels with 2017 may be helpful.

In 1829, Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads. Famous as the slayer of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, Johnson advanced from high military stature in the War of 1812 to the halls of Congress and beyond.[1] Since 1810, U.S. postal law had called for the transportation of the mails without regard to the day of the week, and it required postmasters to open their offices on every day of the week. While this issue may appear inconsequential to Americans in a 24/7 society in which personal electronics and social media provide instantaneous news and communications, in that era the transportation of the mails and the activities of the post office were indispensable to the social-economic life of communities nationwide. Furthermore, the postmaster was the lone representative of the federal government in most communities, so his example carried great weight. And the postal department was the lone entity in the federal government that practiced Sabbath day labor. As historian Richard R. John argues in Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse, the post office department – by far the largest in the federal government in that era – became the nerve center of a national information network, supported by post roads that facilitated rapid transmission of the latest news to citizens, enabled farmers and merchants to transport goods to and from market, and allowed family and friends to see one another with relative ease.

For many evangelicals the point of contention regarding the postal department rested with the Fourth Commandment: “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work” (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and most Baptists understood the “seventh day” referred to one-day-out-of-seven, allowing for the change of day from the last to the first day of the week which was instituted by Christ’s resurrection and apostolic example). Many evangelicals, particularly Presbyterians, viewed the nation to be in a covenant with God, thus the nation’s laws and practices were subject to His moral law. At least during peacetime, transporting the mails and opening post offices on the Sabbath violated the commandment (and were not works of necessity).

Given widespread concerns for the national government to set an example of the righteousness that exalts a nation (Proverbs 14:34, which some petitioners referred to explicitly), evangelicals as well as locally prominent men including justices, merchants, bankers, and postmasters from around the country mounted two significant petitioning campaigns that sent memorials to Congress. The first, in the 1810s, suffered from the necessities of the War of 1812, but the second and more important campaign occurred between 1828 and 1830.[2] While there was more to the issue, the main request the petitioners (or memorialists) expressed was that Congress repeal that portion of the postal law that required the violation of the weekly Sabbath on the part of mail carriers (often stage coaches operating under government contract) in transporting the mails and postmasters (and clerks) in opening their offices. In no way did they ask for the government to decide any religious question or controversy or to enforce the weekly Sabbath.

Within that context, in January 1829 – as the Andrew Jackson administration was about to begin – Senator Johnson published a committee report that was badly flawed in its misrepresentation of the petitioners and their memorials. He stated,

The petitioners for [the Sabbath mails’] discontinuance appear to be actuated from a religious zeal, which may be commendable if confined to its proper sphere; but they assume a position better suited to an ecclesiastical than to a civil institution. . . . Should Congress . . . adopt the sentiment, it would establish the principle, that the Legislature is a proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God. It would involve a legislative decision in a religious controversy. . . . Among all the religious persecutions with which almost every page of modern history is stained, no victim ever suffered, but for the violation of what government denominated [to be] the law of God.[3]

Johnson’s lecturing of the petitioners, like Sanders’ of Vought, was entirely unfounded. The petitioners had not asked for Congress to determine any law of God – such an idea was utterly abhorrent to them – they had merely asked for that portion of the postal law that required the transportation of the mails and postmasters to open their offices on that day to be repealed, viewing it to be – certainly during peacetime – a violation of the Fourth Commandment.

One month after Johnson’s report was issued, an editorial appeared in the nationally prominent newspaper, Niles’ Register. The anonymous minister of the gospel appreciated the opportunity to express views not necessarily shared by the newspaper. He stated:

Col. Johnson and his committee pretend to see in the [request] of the memorialists what is not in it, nor would be allowed by those presenting [memorials] to have been in it, in any form, either expressed or implied, or any thing having such a bearing. They have more good sense and sound patriotism, than to wish civil legislatures to decide in religious disputes, or systems, or doctrines, – . . . the insinuation that the memorialists are aiming at a religious establishment by the civil power, is an ungenerous calumny. Such an union, of church and state, is most abhorrent to the presbyterians in America, and I believe so to all other denominations of Christians in the United States.[4]

The pastor continued, noting that the civil code in the U.S. acknowledged various laws of God, such as “to do justly . . . to obey civil rulers – to take and administer legal oaths – not to profane God’s name – not to rob God of a seventh portion of time, called a Sabbath day [nearly every state had Sabbath laws] – not to rob our neighbor of his life, good name or property.”  But according to Johnson’s report, wrote the minister, such laws were part of a religious system and so “they must not be touched in any way by congress, or by any civil body. Pray what sort of a government would we have without them?”[5]

If, perhaps, in 1829 Senator Johnson had been uninformed as to the actual request and the intent of the petitioners who sent hundreds of memorials to his committee from throughout the country, by 1830 any continued ignorance was willful. After the 1829 Senate report, various writers both within and without churches, including pamphleteers, newspapermen, and editorialists labored incessantly to rectify any possible misunderstandings regarding the petitioners’ intent. But in 1830, Johnson issued a second report, this time as the chairman of the U.S. House post office committee. Brazenly disregarding the legitimate issue at hand, Johnson – whose popularity skyrocketed and led him to the vice presidency under Martin Van Buren – warned, “We should all recollect that Cataline, a professed patriot, was a traitor to Rome; Arnold, a professed Whig, was a traitor to America; and Judas, a professed disciple, was a traitor to his Divine Master.”[6]

The petitioners in early Jacksonian America who had sought nothing more than for their government to refrain from sanctioning the transgression of a part of God’s moral law – which in the process set an immoral example for the citizenry – were accused of attempting to establish the old stalking horse of a union of church and state. Perceiving advantages in doing so, a United States senator led the way in taking the unwarranted and reprehensible step of vilifying thousands of the best citizens in the land as traitors to the nation, as though they intended to deny religious liberties to their fellow Americans. Sad. But in 2017 at least it may be said that Sen. Sanders, like Richard Johnson before him, has raised the important question, as Sanders said, of “what this country is supposed to be about.” A little-known magazine published in Rogersville, Tennessee, had offered its answer in 1829: “Let the people of this nation look to this, and remember, that religious liberty may be destroyed, under the specious pretext of defending it.”[7]

[1] The military victory of William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames advanced his political career as well as Johnson’s. Harrison was elected president in 1840 but died shortly after taking office.

[2] The petitions – perhaps close to one thousand – are held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., under Record Group 46 (U.S. Senate) and RG 233 (U.S. House of Representatives).

[3] “Sabbath Mails,” The Western Luminary (Lexington, Ky.), February 25, 1829, including quote from the Senate report.

[4] “Sunday Mails,” Niles’ Register (Baltimore, Md.), February 28, 1829, 5, including quote of the unnamed minister.

[5] Ibid., including quotes.

[6] Forrest L. Marion, “Calvinists, Campbellites, and Clerical Usurpations: The Sabbath Controversy in Kentucky and Tennessee, 1826-1832,” 1, including quote of Johnson’s report, in Nineteenth-Century America: Essays in Honor of Paul H. Bergeron (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press), 2005.

[7] Calvinistic Magazine (Rogersville, Tenn.), vol. 3, no. 6 (June 1829), including quote.

Forrest L. Marion is a ruling elder in Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.