Bench Memos

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An Afterthought on Religion and the Founders


One of the most annoying things about George Will’s review of Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority (discussed yesterday below, and quite a bit over in The Corner) was this bit.  Remarking that “the Constitution made no mention of God” (not so, actually: see here, with thanks to Ramesh Ponnuru for the reminder), Will writes: “When Hamilton was asked why, he jauntily said, ‘We forgot.’”

I presume this is Allen’s story, accepted by Will, rather than Will’s own.  But it struck me as having a false ring right away.  I doubt very much that Alexander Hamilton was ever such an ass as to say such a thing, even in his most freethinking days.  Nothing like it appears in Hamilton’s collected papers.  In addition to general histories of the Constitution and the founding lying about the place, I have now at my elbow the dozen or more books on Hamilton’s life and career that I’ve collected over the years, and nothing resembling this story appears in any of them either.

Not that there aren’t some Hamilton apocrypha floating around.  Rick Brookhiser notes one of the most famous ones in his latest book What Would the Founders Do?—that when Ben Franklin moved halfway through the Philadelphia Convention that they begin each morning’s session with a prayer, Hamilton is “supposed to have joked that they should not call in foreign aid.”  I heard this chestnut years ago from a beloved teacher—also a first-rate Hamilton scholar—but it has never been attested, and Rick is careful not to imply that it has been.

Like many real people who are not the playthings of others’ pet theories, Alexander Hamilton went through some interesting changes in his life.  A devout Christian in his youth, he turned more skeptical of organized churches during the Revolution, and for some years afterward kept up appearances while keeping personal religious devotion at arm’s length.  As Ron Chernow records in his big recent biography (praised once by George Will, I seem to recall), Hamilton and his wife had their children baptized in the Episcopal Church; he did free legal work for Trinity Church in New York.  In this middle period of his short life, Chernow writes, “Hamilton had probably fallen under the sway of deism . . . At the same time, he never doubted God’s existence, embracing Christianity as a system of morality and cosmic justice.”  Not exactly Richard Dawkins, or even Heather Mac Donald.

Later, after the death of his son Philip in a duel, Hamilton’s devotion revived.  As Forrest McDonald writes in his 1979 biography: “His youthful faith had never entirely departed him, and the overt atheism of the French Revolution had rekindled his sense of the importance of religion.  Now, in the wake of Philip’s death, he became as devout as he had been as a protégé of the Reverend Hugh Knox.  In the spring of 1802 he went so far as to propose the formation of a political party to be known as the Christian Constitutional Society.”

Imagine that.  Alexander Hamilton, lifelong devotee of Enlightenment republicanism, and would-be founder of a society that, if it existed today, would probably count Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson among its members.  And maybe Michael Novak, and Richard John Neuhaus.  And me too.  And Hamilton saw no evident contradiction between his reinvigorated faith (there’s your believer in the creed, Derb!) and his commitment to American liberalism.

Tags: Franck


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