These words were on the lips of Americans as their representatives huddled in Philadelphia, agitating for their rights and, eventually, declaring independence from Great Britain.
What were the sources of the ideas encapsulated in the great documents of the nation’s founding and in these trenchant phrases that mobilized the American people? While some of the sources are familiar and much discussed, others are often overlooked.
The founding generation drew on and synthesized diverse intellectual traditions in forming their political thought. Among them were British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.
To this list of intellectual influences, one must add the Bible — both the Hebraic and Christian biblical traditions. As the eminent scholar Martin E. Marty remarked, America “has more than the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution enshrined in a vault in its archival heart. The Bible also is there.”
The Bible was the most accessible, authoritative and venerated text in late 18th-century America. It was, by far, the most cited book in the political discourse of the age, referenced more frequently than the great political theorists John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu.
Not all of the founders acknowledged the Bible as the revealed Word of God. Nonetheless, it was widely regarded as a receptacle of great wisdom and, especially Jesus’ teachings, a handbook for ethical and virtuous conduct.
Many Americans of this generation thought Christianity and its sacred text were valuable resources for their time and predicament. And they figured prominently in the momentous events that unfolded in Philadelphia.
When the First Continental Congress convened in Carpenters’ Hall in early September 1774, one of its first official acts was to call a minister, who read Psalm 35 to the assembled delegates and prayed for God’s blessings on their important work.
In the years that followed, as Americans articulated their fundamental rights, agitated for political independence, and established new constitutional republics in the aftermath of a devastating war, many Americans — including those who doubted the Bible’s divine origins — looked to the Bible for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority, and other concepts essential to the establishment of a new political society. Some saw in Scripture political and legal models — such as republicanism and separation of powers — that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities.
A popular view among Americans, for example, was that the Hebrew “republic” described in the Scriptures was a model of and divine precedent for a republican government well designed to promote political prosperity. The founders were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and studied these traditions both ancient and modern. The republic described in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system that enjoyed divine favor.
More important than a model for republicanism, some founders thought the Bible was an indispensable handbook for republican citizenship. In particular, the Bible, more than any other source, taught the civic virtues required of citizens in a regime of political self-government. A self-governing people, in short, had to be a virtuous, disciplined people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod. And the Bible, many believed, was the well-spring of this essential civic virtue. This prompted John Adams to describe the Bible as “the most republican book in the world.”
The Constitution gives evidence of a political vision informed, in part, by the Bible, and it includes features that were familiar to a Bible-reading people. Scholars, for example, have noted that the founders’ devotion to the separation of powers and checks and balances reflected a biblical understanding of original sin and a reluctance to vest unchecked government power in the hands of fallen human beings.
Convention delegates occasionally invoked the Bible in surprising and interesting ways. During debate on the qualifications for public office, the venerable Benjamin Franklin spoke in opposition to any proposal that, in his words, “tended to debase the spirit of the common people. … We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in Rulers.” He invoked Jethro’s advice to Moses regarding qualifications for prospective Israelite rulers, “that they should be men hating covetousness” (Exodus 18:21). Significantly, Franklin appealed to a biblical standard in this debate on a substantive provision, informing his audience in unambiguous language that his source was “Scripture,” and then he referenced a specific biblical text.
Some years ago, in a cover story on “The Bible in America,” Newsweek magazine reported that the Bible “has exerted an unrivaled influence on American culture, politics and social life. Now historians are discovering that the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our founding document.” Whether or not one accepts this bold statement, the evidence suggests that the story of American independence and the constitutional experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law cannot be told accurately without referencing the Bible.
About the writer: Daniel L. Dreisbach is a scholar adviser to the Faith & Liberty Discovery Center coming to Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, a professor at American University in Washington, and the author of “Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers” (Oxford, 2017). He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.