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Fourth of July: Words of wisdom from the Founding Fathers

This group of mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant property owners had profoundly differing opinions about governance.

July 04, 2011

Independence Day 2011 dawns amid a resurgence of interest in our nation's Founding Fathers. "Tea party" conservatives in particular like to invoke them as an inspiration. Yet while it is certainly possible to find writings by individual founders that adhere closely to modern right-wing principles, this group of mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant property owners had profoundly differing opinions about governance — differing not only among themselves but often from the views of today's conservatives.

Those who believe the founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation, for example, should consult the writings of the deist Thomas Jefferson or note the appalling views of Boston patriot Samuel Adams, who thought religious tolerance should apply to everyone except Catholics. Benjamin Franklin's views on taxation and private property would sound downright Marxist if Karl Marx hadn't been born after they were written. All the men quoted below signed the Declaration of Independence 235 years ago today.

Religious freedom

I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another; for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents. And I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches; and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy; for awing the human mind by stories of raw-head and bloody bones to a distrust of its own vision, and to repose implicitly on that of others; to go backwards instead of forwards to look for improvement; to believe that government, religion, morality, and every other science were in the highest perfection in ages of the darkest ignorance, and that nothing can ever be devised more perfect than what was established by our forefathers."

— Thomas Jefferson, 1799

In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practised, and, both by precept and example, inculcated on mankind…. Insomuch that Mr. [John] Locke has asserted and proved, beyond the possibility of contradiction on any solid ground, that such toleration ought to be extended to all whose doctrines are not subversive of society. The only sects which he thinks ought to be, and which by all wise laws are excluded from such toleration, are those who teach doctrines subversive of the civil government under which they live. The Roman Catholics or Papists are excluded by reason of such doctrines as these, that princes excommunicated may be deposed, and those that they call heretics may be destroyed without mercy; besides their recognizing the Pope in so absolute a manner, in subversion of government, by introducing, as far as possible into the states under whose protection they enjoy life, liberty, and property, that solecism in politics, imperium in imperio, leading directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war, and bloodshed.

— Samuel Adams, 1772

I shall proceed in the next place, to inquire, what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all the advantages that are to be derived from the proper institution of youth; and here I beg leave to remark, that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than to see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament.

— Benjamin Rush, 1798

Taxation

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