Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

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by Susan Jacoby

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At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers celebrates the noble and essential secularist heritage that gave Americans the first government in the world founded not on the authority of religion but on the bedrock of human reason.

In impassioned, elegant prose, Susan Jacoby offers a powerful defense of more than


At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers celebrates the noble and essential secularist heritage that gave Americans the first government in the world founded not on the authority of religion but on the bedrock of human reason.

In impassioned, elegant prose, Susan Jacoby offers a powerful defense of more than two hundred years of secularist activism, beginning with the fierce debate over the omission of God from the Constitution. Moving from nineteenth-century abolitionism and suffragism through the twentieth-century's civil liberties, civil rights, and feminist movements, Freethinkers illuminates the neglected accomplishments of secularists who, allied with tolerant and liberal religious believers, have stood at the forefront of the battle for social reforms opposed by reactionaries in the past and today.

Rich with such iconic figures as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Clarence Darrow -- as well as once-famous secularists such as Robert Green Ingersoll, "the Great Agnostic" -- Freethinkers restores to history generations of dedicated humanist champions. It is they, Jacoby shows, who have led the struggle to uphold the unique combination of secular government and religious liberty that is and always has been the glory of the American system.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Is America really one nation under God? Not according to Pulitzer Prize-finalist Jacoby (Wild Justice, etc.), who argues that it is America's secularist "freethinkers" who formed the bedrock upon which our nation was built. Jacoby contends that it's one of "the great unresolved paradoxes" that religion occupies such an important place in a nation founded on separation of church and state. She traces the role of "freethinkers," a term first coined in the 17th century, in the formation of America from the writing of the Constitution to some of our greatest social revolutions, including abolition, feminism, labor, civil rights and the dawning of Darwin's theory of evolution. Jacoby has clearly spent much time in the library, and the result is an impressive literary achievement filled with an array of both major and minor figures from American history, like revolutionary propagandist Thomas Paine, presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Robert Green Ingersoll. Her historical work is further flanked by current examples-the Bush White House in an introduction and the views of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in a final chapter-that crystallize her concern over secularism's waning influence. Unfortunately, Jacoby's immense research is also the book's Achilles heel. Her core mission to impress upon readers the historical struggle of freethinkers against the religious establishment is at times overwhelmed by the sheer volume of characters and vignettes she offers, many of which, frankly, are not very compelling. Still, Jacoby has done yeoman's work in crafting her message that the values of America's freethinkers belong "at the center, not in the margins" of American life. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Accomplished author and journalist Jacoby (Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge) turns her attention to the history of American free thought. Starting with the deism of America's Founding Fathers, she masterfully chronicles 200 years of religious doubt in the United States, including in her discussion many historical figures overlooked as freethinkers, such as Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Green Ingersol. Also significant is Jacoby's excellent overview of freethinkers' involvement in such issues as abolition, feminism, civil rights, and the separation of church and state. Despite her painstaking research, those familiar with the Founding Fathers will be surprised at her omission of Benjamin Franklin. As an admitted deist and trusted colleague of Jefferson (e.g., see Albert Post's Popular Freethought in America or Walter Isaacon's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life), he would have made Jacoby's chapter on the Founding Fathers much stronger were he included. Despite this small criticism, however, this is a much needed addition to the literature that restores many freethinkers to their rightful place in American history. Highly recommended for academic libraries or larger public libraries.-Brad S. Matthies, Butler Univ. Lib., Indianapolis Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A look at the genius, madness, cruelty and sensitivity of an acting legend. Writing a biography of stage-film-TV actress Stanley, author Krampner (The Man in the Shadows, 1997) faced a daunting challenge. Stanley fabricated accounts of her life, leaving the author to sort matters out. (She was not born in Texas, as she always insisted, but in Albuquerque.) Some theater artists found her luminous, while others found her behavior indulgent and enraging. Katharine Hepburn walked out of a nascent project when Stanley, a proponent of Method acting, started writhing on the floor; another actor chased her around backstage with an axe. Krampner plies these storm-tossed waters by hewing to a thoroughly documented account of the actress's career. Stanley turned to acting to receive the approval her Southern Baptist father withheld. After brief work in regional theater, she set out for New York, where, during the 1950s, her acting early on drew raves. Her performances in Picnic and Bus Stop became legendary. So did her behavior. She chugged alcohol to the point that actor Kevin McCarthy insisted she'd just thrown up before she kissed him onstage in The Cherry Orchard. She often cancelled performances and usually wangled out of contracts soon after her plays had opened. She fared better on TV in brilliant one-night performances during the golden age of live drama. She worked on five films, most notably The Goddess and Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Her appearance in The Cherry Orchard in London in 1965, directed by Lee Strasberg, went down as one of the greatest disasters in modern theater history, effectively ending her stage career. She was, Krampner concludes, a Mona Lisa-astounding, but unknowable. Asteadily turning kaleidoscope of vivid, unsettling images.
From the Publisher

“Ardent and insightful.” —The New York Times

“In lucid and witty prose, Jacoby has uncovered the hidden history of secular America.” —The Washington Post Book World

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.39(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Freethinkers:

In 2004, it is impossible to imagine an avowed atheist or agnostic winning the American presidency or even being nominated. Ronald Reagan, whose record of religious observance during his Hollywood years was spotty at best, started turning up regularly at church services as soon as he was elected governor of California. Although Democrats have been more careful to separate private religious views from policy-making, Jimmy Carter, the first born-again Christian in the White House, and Bill Clinton, the first president to publicly ask God’s forgiveness for adultery, did their part to blur the distinction between personal faith and civic responsibility. In the Bush White House, where Cabinet meetings routinely begin with a prayer, the institutionalization of religion has reached an apotheosis. Today, it is possible that Lincoln, who refused to join a church even though his advisers argued that some affiliation would help his election chances, could well be unacceptable as a major party presidential candidate.

Meet the Author

Susan Jacoby is the author of several books including Wild Justice, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. A contributor to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, and Vogue, she lives in New York City.

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Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I have read on the subject at hand. This is a must read for any secular minded person. The research that the author puts into the book is quite unbelievable and her knowledge on the subject is second to none. I was very impressed with the background history provided in the book about such great freethinkers as Robert Ingersoll and many others. This book also provides a great detailed account of the feminist movement of our secular history, which is an important part of our secular history......Susan Jacoby is brilliant.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jacoby writes a lot like Richard Hofstadter but perhaps even better. This is intelligent prose that is also clear and easy to read. The first two chapters alone will debunk anyone who says that America is a Christian nation and that the Constitution is a Bible-based document. Jacoby goes on to debunk some other myths along the way, such as the one about the abolition and civil rights movements being predominantly Christian efforts, and the one about atheists and agnostics being libertines and anarchists. Most importantly, Jacoby gives full credit to some unsung heroes of American history--Thomas Paine, Robert Green Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and Clarence Darrow. My only criticism is that she doesn't devote enough pages to one of the greatest heroes of American secularism, W.E.B. Dubois, and I don't think she even mentions H.L Mencken. But what she does include is brilliant.
songcatchers More than 1 year ago
Freethinkers is a history lesson we never learned in school. Susan Jacoby brings to light a number of significant people from the past who wanted to change the future. She begins in the days of the American Revolution and covers more than 200 years of freethinking people and the principles they fought for. The writing can be a little cloying and dull at times but the information Jacoby relates is important and much of it probably unknown to much of the American populace. This book illuminates many (sadly) uncelebrated freethinkers in our history and is certainly worth a read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Susan Jacoby's book is an excellent history on American Secularism. She provides a comprehensive explanation to the reader of the importance and intent of the framers of the Constitution in establishing a 'wall of separation' between church and state. She strips away all the misconceptions that have been historically constructed to obscure the issues in the minds of the American people. This book serves to clear the mind and give it's readers the ability to think freely on issues confronting America's future. The book is worth the price, worth the read and is rich in food for thought.
RobertK3 More than 1 year ago
Excellent. The research that went into this book is exceptional. As it's the work of a highly respected scholar, it's not a book to be simply read. It's more so a book to be digested. I agree with a few of the other reviewers suggesting that it should be required reading by any student of American history.
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Anoracle More than 1 year ago
This is for the most part a 'History of SECULARISM in America'. It covers much ground and details many who were active for, and several who were nefariously against, freedom of expression about Secularism and the anti -religious! I have found it somewhat long, and repetitive as to the named, and their activities deleanating their stand. I do not like long 'drawn-out' writing of any kind, about any subject, so my opinon about this book may not be the same as yours. It is a history!