- Little-Known U.S. Document Signed
by President Adams
- Proclaims America's Government Is
- by Jim Walker
Some people today assert that the United States government
came from Christian foundations. They argue that our political
system represents a Christian ideal form of government and that
Jefferson, Madison, et al, had simply expressed Christian values
while framing the Constitution. If this proved true, then we
should have a wealth of evidence to support it, yet just the
opposite proves the case.
Although, indeed, many of America's colonial statesmen practiced
Christianity, our most influential Founding Fathers broke away
from traditional religious thinking. The ideas of the Great Enlightenment
that began in Europe had begun to sever the chains of monarchical
theocracy. These heretical European ideas spread throughout early
America. Instead of relying on faith, people began to use reason
and science as their guide. The humanistic philosophical writers
of the Enlightenment, such as Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire,
had greatly influenced our Founding Fathers and Isaac Newton's
mechanical and mathematical foundations served as a grounding
post for their scientific reasoning.
A few Christian fundamentalists attempt to convince us to
return to the Christianity of early America, yet according to
the historian, Robert T. Handy, "No more than 10 percent--
probably less-- of Americans in 1800 were members of congregations."
The Founding Fathers, also, rarely practiced Christian orthodoxy.
Although they supported the free exercise of any religion, they
understood the dangers of religion. Most of them believed in
deism and attended Freemasonry lodges. According to John J. Robinson,
"Freemasonry had been a powerful force for religious freedom."
Freemasons took seriously the principle that men should worship
according to their own conscious. Masonry welcomed anyone from
any religion or non-religion, as long as they believed in a Supreme
Being. Washington, Franklin, Hancock, Hamilton, Lafayette, and
many others accepted Freemasonry.
The Constitution reflects our founders views of a secular
government, protecting the freedom of any belief or unbelief.
The historian, Robert Middlekauff, observed, "the idea that
the Constitution expressed a moral view seems absurd. There were
no genuine evangelicals in the Convention, and there were no
heated declarations of Christian piety."
Much of the myth of Washington's alleged Christianity came
from Mason Weems influential book, "Life of Washington."
The story of the cherry tree comes from this book and it has
no historical basis. Weems, a Christian minister portrayed Washington
as a devout Christian, yet Washington's own diaries show that
he rarely attended Church.
Washington revealed almost nothing to indicate his spiritual
frame of mind, hardly a mark of a devout Christian. In his thousands
of letters, the name of Jesus Christ never appears. He rarely
spoke about his religion, but his Freemasonry experience points
to a belief in deism. Washington's initiation occurred at the
Fredericksburg Lodge on 4 November 1752, later becoming a Master
mason in 1799, and remained a freemason until he died.
To the United Baptist Churches in Virginia in May, 1789, Washington
said that every man "ought to be protected in worshiping
the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience."
After Washington's death, Dr. Abercrombie, a friend of his,
replied to a Dr. Wilson, who had interrogated him about Washington's
religion replied, "Sir, Washington was a Deist."
Even most Christians do not consider Jefferson a Christian.
In many of his letters, he denounced the superstitions of Christianity.
He did not believe in spiritual souls, angels or godly miracles.
Although Jefferson did admire the morality of Jesus, Jefferson
did not think him divine, nor did he believe in the Trinity or
the miracles of Jesus. In a letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787,
he wrote, "Question with boldness even the existence of
Jefferson believed in materialism, reason, and science. He
never admitted to any religion but his own. In a letter to Ezra
Stiles Ely, 25 June 1819, he wrote, "You say you are a Calvinist.
I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."
Adams, a Unitarian, flatly denied the doctrine of eternal
damnation. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote:
"I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most
fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind
has preserved -- the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine
of grief has produced!"
In his letter to Samuel Miller, 8 July 1820, Adams admitted
his unbelief of Protestant Calvinism: "I must acknowledge
that I cannot class myself under that denomination."
In his, "A Defense of the Constitutions of Government
of the United States of America" [1787-1788], John Adams
"The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps,
the first example of governments erected on the simple principles
of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse
themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition,
they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although
the detail of the formation of the American governments is at
present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America,
it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never
be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews
with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven,
more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in
merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that
these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason
and the senses.
". . . Thirteen governments [of the original states]
thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without
a presence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread
over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are
a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind."
Called the father of the Constitution, Madison had no conventional
sense of Christianity. In 1785, Madison wrote in his Memorial
and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments:
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment
of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More
or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance
and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and
"What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments
had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect
a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many
instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political
tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties
of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty
may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries.
A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs
Although Franklin received religious training, his nature
forced him to rebel against the irrational tenets of his parents
Christianity. His Autobiography revels his skepticism, "My
parents had given me be times religions impressions, and I received
from my infancy a pious education in the principles of Calvinism.
But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after
having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found
them combated in the different books that I read, I began to
doubt of Revelation itself.
". . . Some books against Deism fell into my hands. .
. It happened that they wrought an effect on my quite contrary
to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists,
which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger
than the refutations; in short, I soon became a through Deist."
In an essay on "Toleration," Franklin wrote:
"If we look back into history for the character of the
present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not
in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution.
The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong
in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants
of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish church,
but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the
Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here
[England] and in New England."
Dr. Priestley, an intimate friend of Franklin, wrote of him:
"It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin's general
good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever
in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make
others unbelievers" (Priestley's Autobiography)
This freethinker and author of several books, influenced more
early Americans than any other writer. Although he held Deist
beliefs, he wrote in his famous The Age of Reason:
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish
church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Protestant
church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my church.
"Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,
there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying
to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself
than this thing called Christianity. "
The most convincing evidence that our government did not ground
itself upon Christianity comes from the very document that defines
it-- the United States Constitution.
If indeed our Framers had aimed to found a Christian republic,
it would seem highly unlikely that they would have forgotten
to leave out their Christian intentions in the Supreme law of
the land. In fact, nowhere in the Constitution do we have a single
mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, or any Supreme Being. There
occurs only two references to religion and they both use exclusionary
wording. The 1st Amendment's says, "Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion. . ." and
in Article VI, Section 3, ". . . no religious test shall
ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust
under the United States."
Thomas Jefferson interpreted the 1st Amendment in his famous
letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in January 1, 1802:
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the
whole American people which declared that their legislature should
'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation
between church and State."
Some Religious activists try to extricate the concept of separation
between church and State by claiming that those words do not
occur in the Constitution. Indeed they do not, but neither does
it exactly say "freedom of religion," yet the First
Amendment implies both.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Autobiography, in reference
to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom:
"Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure
from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment
was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it
would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the
holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected
by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend,
within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile,
the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindu and Infidel of every
James Madison, perhaps the greatest supporter for separation
of church and State, and whom many refer to as the father of
the Constitution, also held similar views which he expressed
in his letter to Edward Livingston, 10 July 1822:
"And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed,
as every past one has done, in showing that religion & Government
will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."
Today, if ever our government needed proof that the separation
of church and State works to ensure the freedom of religion,
one only need to look at the plethora of Churches, temples, and
shrines that exist in the cities and towns throughout the United
States. Only a secular government, divorced from religion could
possibly allow such tolerant diversity.
Christians who think of America as founded upon Christianity
usually present the Declaration as "proof." The reason
appears obvious: the document mentions God. However, the God
in the Declaration does not describe Christianity's God. It describes
"the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." This nature's
view of God agrees with deist philosophy but any attempt to use
the Declaration as a support for Christianity will fail for this
More significantly, the Declaration does not represent the
law of the land as it came before the Constitution. The Declaration
aimed at announcing their separation from Great Britain and listed
the various grievances with the "thirteen united States
of America." The grievances against Great Britain no longer
hold, and we have more than thirteen states. Today, the Declaration
represents an important historical document about rebellious
intentions against Great Britain at a time before the formation
of our independent government. Although the Declaration may have
influential power, it may inspire the lofty thoughts of poets,
and judges may mention it in their summations, it holds no legal
power today. Our presidents, judges and policemen must take an
oath to uphold the Constitution, but never to the Declaration
Of course the Declaration depicts a great political document,
as it aimed at a future government upheld by citizens instead
of a religious monarchy. It observed that all men "are created
equal" meaning that we all come inborn with the abilities
of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That "to
secure these rights, governments are instituted among men."
The Declaration says nothing about our rights secured by Christianity,
nor does it imply anything about a Christian foundation.
Unlike governments of the past, the American Fathers set up
a government divorced from religion. The establishment of a secular
government did not require a reflection to themselves about its
origin; they knew this as an unspoken given. However, as the
U.S. delved into international affairs, few foreign nations knew
about the intentions of America. For this reason, an insight
from at a little known but legal document written in the late
1700s explicitly reveals the secular nature of the United States
to a foreign nation. Officially called the "Treaty of peace
and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey
and Subjects of Tripoli, of Barbary," most refer to it as
simply the Treaty of Tripoli. In Article 11, it states:
"As the Government of the United States of America is
not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has
in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion,
or tranquility, of Mussel men; and as the said States never have
entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan
nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising
from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of
the harmony existing between the two countries."
The preliminary treaty began with a signing on 4 November,
1796 (the end of George Washington's last term as president).
Joel Barlow, the American diplomat served as counsel to Algiers
and held responsibility for the treaty negotiations. Barlow had
once served under Washington as a chaplain in the revolutionary
army. He became good friends with Paine, Jefferson, and read
Enlightenment literature. Later he abandoned Christian orthodoxy
for rationalism and became an advocate of secular government.
Barlow, along with his associate, Captain Richard O'Brien, et
al, translated and modified the Arabic version of the treaty
into English. From this came the added Amendment 11. Barlow forwarded
the treaty to U.S. legislators for approval in 1797. Timothy
Pickering, the secretary of state, endorsed it and John Adams
concurred (now during his presidency), sending the document on
to the Senate. The Senate approved the treaty on June 7, 1797,
and officially ratified by the Senate with John Adams signature
on 10 June, 1797. All during this multi-review process, the wording
of Article 11 never raised the slightest concern. The treaty
even became public through its publication in The Philadelphia
Gazette on 17 June 1797.
So here we have a clear admission by the United States that
our government did not found itself upon Christianity. Unlike
the Declaration of Independence, this treaty represented U.S.
law as all treaties do according to the Constitution (see Article
VI, Sect. 2).
Although the Christian exclusionary wording in the Treaty
of Tripoli only lasted for eight years and no longer has legal
status, it clearly represented the feelings of our Founding Fathers
at the beginning of the U.S. government.
According to the Constitution's 7th Amendment: "In suits
at common law. . . the right of trial by jury shall be preserved;
and no fact, tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined
in any court of the United States than according to the rules
of the common law."
Here, many Christians believe that common law came from Christian
foundations and therefore the Constitution derives from it. They
use various quotes from Supreme Court Justices proclaiming that
Christianity came as part of the laws of England, and therefore
from its common law heritage.
But one of our principle Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson,
elaborated about the history of common law in his letter to Thomas
Cooper on February 10, 1814:
"For we know that the common law is that system of law
which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England,
and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority
from that time to the date of Magna Carte, which terminates the
period of the common law. . . This settlement took place about
the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced
till the seventh century; the conversion of the first Christian
king of the Heptarchy having taken place about the year 598,
and that of the last about 686. Here then, was a space of two
hundred years, during which the common law was in existence,
and Christianity no part of it.
". . . if any one chooses to build a doctrine on any
law of that period, supposed to have been lost, it is incumbent
on him to prove it to have existed, and what were its contents.
These were so far alterations of the common law, and became themselves
a part of it. But none of these adopt Christianity as a part
of the common law. If, therefore, from the settlement of the
Saxons to the introduction of Christianity among them, that system
of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they
were not yet Christians, and if, having their laws from that
period to the close of the common law, we are all able to find
among them no such act of adoption, we may safely affirm (though
contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity
neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."
In the same letter, Jefferson examined how the error spread
about Christianity and common law. Jefferson realized that a
misinterpretation had occurred with a Latin term by Prisot, "*ancient
scripture*," in reference to common law history. The term
meant "ancient scripture" but people had incorrectly
interpreted it to mean "Holy Scripture," thus spreading
the myth that common law came from the Bible. Jefferson writes:
"And Blackstone repeats, in the words of Sir Matthew
Hale, that 'Christianity is part of the laws of England,' citing
Ventris and Strange ubi surpa. 4. Blackst. 59. Lord Mansfield
qualifies it a little by saying that 'The essential principles
of revealed religion are part of the common law." In the
case of the Chamberlain of London v. Evans, 1767. But he cites
no authority, and leaves us at our peril to find out what, in
the opinion of the judge, and according to the measure of his
foot or his faith, are those essential principles of revealed
religion obligatory on us as a part of the common law."
Thus we find this string of authorities, when examined to
the beginning, all hanging on the same hook, a perverted expression
of Priscot's, or on one another, or nobody."
The Encyclopedia Britannica, also describes the Saxon origin
and adds: "The nature of the new common law was at first
much influenced by the principles of Roman law, but later it
developed more and more along independent lines." Also prominent
among the characteristics that derived out of common law include
the institution of the jury, and the right to speedy trial.
Virtually all the evidence that attempts to connect a foundation
of Christianity upon the government rests mainly on quotes and
opinions from a few of the colonial statesmen who had professed
a belief in Christianity. Sometimes the quotes come from their
youth before their introduction to Enlightenment ideas or simply
from personal beliefs. But statements of beliefs, by themselves,
say nothing about Christianity as the source of the U.S. government.
There did occur, however, some who wished a connection between
church and State. Patrick Henry, for example, proposed a tax
to help sustain "some form of Christian worship" for
the state of Virginia. But Jefferson and other statesmen did
not agree. In 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill for the Statute
for Religious Freedom which became Virginia law. Jefferson designed
this law to completely separate religion from government. None
of Henry's Christian views ever got introduced into Virginia's
or U.S. Government law.
Unfortunately, later developments in our government have clouded
early history. The original Pledge of Allegiance, authored by
Francis Bellamy in 1892 did not contain the words "under
God." Not until June 1954 did those words appear in the
Allegiance. The United States currency never had "In God
We Trust" printed on money until after the Civil War. Many
Christians who visit historical monuments and see the word "God"
inscribed in stone, automatically impart their own personal God
of Christianity, without understanding the Framers Deist context.
In the Supreme Court's 1892 Holy Trinity Church vs. United
States, Justice David Brewer wrote that "this is a Christian
nation." Many Christians use this as evidence. However,
Brewer wrote this in dicta, as a personal opinion only and does
not serve as a legal pronouncement. Later Brewer felt obliged
to explain himself: "But in what sense can [the United States]
be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity
is the established religion or the people are compelled in any
manner to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically
provides that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Neither
is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either
in fact or in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions
have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess
other religions, and many reject all."
The Framers derived an independent government out of Enlightenment
thinking against the grievances caused by Great Britain. Our
Founders paid little heed to political beliefs about Christianity.
The 1st Amendment stands as the bulkhead against an establishment
of religion and at the same time insures the free expression
of any belief. The Treaty of Tripoli, an instrument of the Constitution,
clearly stated our non-Christian foundation. We inherited common
law from Great Britain which derived from pre-Christian Saxons
rather than from Biblical scripture.
Today we have powerful Christian organizations who work to
spread historical myths about early America and attempt to bring
a Christian theocracy to the government. If this ever happens,
then indeed, we will have ignored the lessons from history. Fortunately,
most liberal Christians today agree with the principles of separation
of church and State, just as they did in early America.
"They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion
in their country mainly to the separation of church and state.
I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I
did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity,
who was not of the same opinion on this point"
-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
- Borden, Morton, "Jews, Turks, and Infidels," The
University of North Carolina Press, 1984
- Boston, Robert, "Why the Religious Right is Wrong About
Separation of Church & State, "Prometheus Books, 1993
- Boston, F. Andrews, et al, "The Writings of George Washington,"
(12 Vols.), Charleston, S.C., 1833-37
- Fitzpatrick, John C., ed., "The Diaries of George Washington,
1748-1799," Houghton Mifflin Company: Published for the
Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, 1925
- Gay, Kathlyn, "Church and State,"The Millbrook
- Handy, Robert, T., "A History of the Churches in U.S.
and Canada," New York: Oxford University Press, 1977
- Hayes, Judith, "All those Christian Presidents,"
[The American Rationalist, March/April 1997]
- Kock, Adrienne, ed., "The American Enlightenment: The
Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society,"
New York: George Braziller, 1965
- Mapp, Jr, Alf J., "Thomas Jefferson," Madison Books,
- Middlekauff, Robert, "The Glorious Cause," Oxford
University Press, 1982
- Miller, Hunter, ed., "Treaties and other International
Acts of the United States of America," Vol. 2, Documents
1-40: 1776-1818, United States Government Printing Office, Washington:
- Peterson, Merrill D., "Thomas Jefferson Writings,"
The Library of America, 1984
- Remsburg, John E., "Six Historic Americans," The
Truth Seeker Company, New York
- Robinson, John J., "Born in Blood," M. Evans &
Company, New York, 1989
- Roche, O.I.A., ed, "The Jefferson Bible: with the Annotated
Commentaries on Religion of Thomas Jefferson," Clarkson
N. Potter, Inc., 1964
- Seldes, George, ed., "The Great Quotations," Pocket
Books, New York, 1967
- Sweet, William W., "Revivalism in America, its origin,
growth and decline," C. Scribner's Sons, New York, 1944
- Woodress, James, "A Yankee's Odyssey, the Life of Joel
Barlow," J. P. Lippincott Co., 1958
- Encyclopedia sources:
- Common law: Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 6, "William
Benton, Publisher, 1969
- Declaration of Independence: MicroSoft Encarta 1996 Encyclopedia,
MicroSoft Corp., Funk & Wagnalls Corporation.
- In God We Trust: MicroSoft Encarta 1996 Encyclopedia, MicroSoft
Corp., Funk & Wagnalls Corporation.
- Pledge of Allegiance: Academic American Encyclopedia, Vol.
15, Grolier Incorporated, Danbury, Conn., 1988
- Special thanks to Ed Buckner, Robert Boston, Selena Brewington
and Lion G. Miles, for help in providing me with source materials.