A wide-ranging exploration of early Americans’ use of the Old Testament for political purposes
The Bible has always been an integral part of American political culture. Yet in the years before the Civil War, it was the Old Testament, not the New Testament, that pervaded political rhetoric. From Revolutionary times through about 1830, numerous American politicians, commentators, ministers, and laymen depicted their young nation as a new, God-chosen Israel and relied on the Old Testament for political guidance.
In this original book, historian Eran Shalev closely examines how this powerful predilection for Old Testament narratives and rhetoric in early America shaped a wide range of debates and cultural discussions—from republican ideology, constitutional interpretation, southern slavery, and more generally the meaning of American nationalism to speculations on the origins of American Indians and to the emergence of Mormonism. Shalev argues that the effort to shape the United States as a biblical nation reflected conflicting attitudes within the culture—proudly boastful on the one hand but uncertain about its abilities and ultimate destiny on the other. With great nuance, American Zion explores for the first time the meaning and lasting effects of the idea of the United States as a new Israel and sheds new light on our understanding of the nation’s origins and culture during the founding and antebellum decades.
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About the Author
Eran Shalev is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Haifa University, Israel.
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The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War
By Eran Shalev
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
"The Jewish Cincinnatus"
Biblical Republicanism in the Age of the American Revolution
An early-nineteenth-century essay in Jenk's Portland Gazette described the Israelite judge Gideon in a fashion reserved for virtuous yeomen-generals, from the Roman Cincinnatus to the revolutionary American "Washington, Greene, Lincoln, Putnam and others." The biblical Israelites under Gideon's lead were threatened by their Canaanite adversaries, and like Cincinnatus's Rome and Washington's America, their condition "was extremely distressing." Similar to the way in which the revered Roman and American republicans were mythologized, Gideon too, according to the anonymous American author, left his farm at once when he "was called to lead the army of Israel, while he was threshing wheat." Like wartime Rome and the young United States, Israel was consequently headed by a virtuous leader who provided a model of self-effacing republicanism, so different "from those spurious patriots, who trumpet their own praises, scramble for promotion; and impudently thrust themselves into offices." Yet Gideon, like other great republican leaders, performed the greatest service to his nation after returning victorious from battle: upon winning he "refused the offer of an hereditary throne," starkly reproving the Israelites: "I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you" (Judges 8:22–23). Like George Washington, who refused to become king after leaving the field to save his country, the Israelite Gideon was transformed in America into a classical republican in the Cincinnatian tradition.
In recent years we have gained a deeper appreciation of politically conscious Americans' attraction to the history of classical Greece and Rome from the early days of the Revolution and throughout the early national period. We now know better how, why, in what contexts, and for whom, those ancient polities provided laudable and heroic examples of public virtue; we also know of negative models of villainous and corrupt intrigues. Consequently, we are better informed about the roles that classical antiquity played in the construction of the American federal republic, hence are able to assess more accurately the modern political doctrine of classical republicanism in the early United States.
Less noticed, however, is that revolutionary-era Americans frequently discussed, adapted, and absorbed the fundamentals of classical republicanism through Old Testament narratives and figures. Indeed, by the early nineteenth century representations of biblical Israelite history through civic humanist language, such as the foregoing portrayal of the Israelite judge Gideon, were common, joining a tradition established in the early days of the Revolution. This biblical republicanism enabled revolutionaries and successive generations of Americans to conciliate two distinct cosmologies and harness them, indeed amalgamate them, to advance their political goals. This largely unnoticed biblical republicanism significantly expands our understanding of the ways in which contemporaries constructed their political worldviews, and sheds new light on how they made that revolutionary ideology meaningful for their lives. Identifying and charting this biblical republicanism will thus provide a fuller picture of the form and content of contemporaries' political cosmology, and consequently a better understanding of the parameters and forces shaping the political and intellectual history of the early United States.
In this chapter, then, I demonstrate how classical republicanism's ability to occupy an important role in the political discourse was supplemented by a hitherto unacknowledged branch of the republican language, one that cast biblical narratives and tropes in a civic humanistic mold. As we shall see, adding the Old Testament to our understanding of contemporary modes of political thought, or rather to the ways in which late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Americans thought about politics, may answer questions about classical republicanism's rise, prevalence, and impact in the early United States. Further, biblical republicanism underscores the importance of the Bible as a political text in that nation's formative years. It also offers a glimpse at the lost intellectual world that politically conscious Americans inhabited, hence a better understanding of their idiosyncratic ideological synthesis.
It would be an understatement to point out that republicanism has been a major analytical concept in the past few decades for understanding the ideological and intellectual universe of early America. It would also be a platitude: on few topics in American history has so much ink been spilled. After the paradigm shift that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the ideas of the school of Consensus History lost ground to those of the "republican synthesis," historiographic wars have raged between "liberals" and "classical republicans," each camp asserting its intellectual idols as better equipped to explain American (particularly early American) history. The contours of that debate are well known and need not be repeated here; suffice it to state that while "liberals" take rights, liberties, and their pursuit as the drivers behind the dynamism of American history, "classical republicans" underscore the primacy of liberty, virtue, and public duty. Nonetheless, the vigorous debate between individualist and communitarian interpretations of American history began to wane during the 1990s, as historians largely sidestepped a controversy that has rightly come to be seen as arid.
However, although classical republicanism was obviously a salient component of early American political language, questions about its role and its ultimate contribution to early American political consciousness remain unresolved. For example, while classical republicanism clearly pervades the political discourse after the mid-1760s, it is unclear how an ideology based on classical education, from which only a fraction of eighteenth-century Americans benefited, could have enjoyed widespread appeal. An arguably even more important question is how people as permissive as revolutionary Americans (who by the nineteenth century would become citizens of the swiftly democratizing—hence decidedly "liberal"—United States) could maintain for decades a stern, collectivist, and demanding ideology such as civic humanism as, in the words of the political scientist Alan Gibson, a "distinguishable political language." Indeed, it is fair to say that the burden of explaining this puzzle—the apparent mismatch between the social and political anti authoritarian and centripetal character of American culture and the restrictive and communitarian nature of classical republicanism—seems to lie on those who would suggest that civic humanism had a significant impact in the early United States. At the very least, one would have to explain how contemporaries could overcome their cultural inclinations, bring themselves to internalize civic humanism, and make that creed meaningful to their experiences and compatible with their cognitive paradigms.
Biblical republicanism may help alleviate such tensions as it sheds light on the adjustments and calibrations to civic humanism to make it more easily co-opted and absorbed through the Bible's mediation. Biblical republicanism enabled potentially every literate American—not merely the formally educated elites—to come to terms with civic humanism through the use of well-known Old Testament structures, narratives, forms, and metaphors, which functioned throughout the era as, in the words of Mark Noll, "the common coinage of the realm." In the Protestant universe that emerged in colonial British North America and the early United States, the Bible was, according to Paul Gutjahr, the "most printed, most distributed, and most read written text in North America up through the nineteenth century." This biblical supremacy led to the Good Book's dominance of the world of American print, creating countless shared "idioms, metaphors, narratives [and] themes." The Bible was the chief source for school-age children from which to learn reading and writing; together with a few other heavily doctrinal texts, such as catechisms and the New England Primer, it yielded the form and content of education in early America. In such an intellectual environment, biblical references and motifs permeated the rhetoric of revolutionary and early-national politicians and commentators.
The prevalence of the Bible in the American Protestant world was of course no accident, but the consequence of a theology that emphasized a direct relationship with the Word as an essential component of spiritual life and necessary for salvation. From early in the history of Protestantism, in stark contradiction to centuries of Catholic dogma and practice, Protestant vernacular Bibles proclaimed themselves, in the words of the Great Bible (1539), the first authorized translation of the Bible into English, as intended for all "manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things that they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do." The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura—by Scripture alone—eventually raised the readership rates of the Bible in America to unprecedented if not quite universal levels.
Sandra Gustafson reminds us of the inherent tension between republican deliberation on the one hand and inherited systems of belief on the other. Nevertheless, for quite some time now historians have recognized that religion had a unique role in the formation of American republicanism. In the words of the historian Dorothy Ross, while the "republican rhetoric of corruption formed an alliance with the jeremiad," fervent Protestants "identified the American republic with the advent of the millennial period." Historians from Edmund Morgan to Nathan Hatch, Ruth Bloch, and Mark Noll, among others, have indeed recognized the interrelatedness of religion and classical republicanism and have consequently offered religion-oriented explanations pertaining to revolutionary Americans' political consciousness. Nevertheless, the significant merging of civic humanism and millennialism that they have revealed does not cover the whole spectrum of late-eighteenth-century intersections between classical republicanism and Protestantism in America. The role of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, in the formation and evolution of an American republican worldview has gone unnoticed as yet.
The best-known example of an American republican reading of a biblical narrative is the Exodus, a liberation story that echoes throughout American history. Students of American history have long recognized the central role of the Exodus, as generations of historians explored the influences of the story of the Israelites, rising from the house of Egyptian bondage, led by a charismatic and god-inspired Moses to escape Pharaoh and his host. They roamed the wilderness for forty years, eventually conquering Canaan and settling in the land of milk and honey. By the time of the Revolution, Exodus already had a long typological history in the British North American colonies, especially in New England, where the Puritan immigrants and succeeding generations interpreted the Great Migration of the 1630s as a crossing of the Red Sea and an escape from the British Egypt. That trope was little employed after the decline of the Puritan orthodoxy and throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. Once the imperial conflict between Britain and its American colonies erupted in 1765, however, Exodus once more became central to contemporaries' typological imagination and historical understanding of their conflict.
The Exodus was certainly the story of "the miraculous deliverance of the children of Israel from the Egyptian Bondage." Nevertheless, revolutionary preachers also portrayed the Exodus, perhaps more significantly, as "a very signal instance of God's appearing in favour of liberty, and frowning on tyrants." The late-eighteenth-century God of Israel was a republican god, who "shews how much he regards the rights of his people, and in how exemplary a manner, hard hearted tyrants, and merciless oppressors, sometimes feel his vengeance." Some, such as Nicholas Street in his remarkable but characteristic sermon The American States Acting Over the Part of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness, and thereby Impeding Their Entrance into Canaan's Rest (1777), referred to the Exodus to elaborate the precarious American situation. Street's impressive typological reading, coming at a time of dire straits for the young American confederacy, lengthily juxtaposed "the history of the children of Israel in Egypt, their sufferings and oppression under the tyrant Pharaoh, their remarkable deliverance by the hands of Moses out of the state of bondage and oppression, and their trials and murmurings in the wilderness." In Street's wartime Jeremiad, Americans "act[ed] over ... the children of Israel in the wilderness, under the conduct of Moses and Aaron, who was leading them out of a state of bondage into a land of liberty and plenty in Canaan."
As the Revolution continued, it became clear that the Exodus was not a model that applied merely to New England, and that not only New Englanders would use it. Historians have noted the process through which, in the words of Harry Stout, "speakers engrafted New England onto the sacred history of Israel, and then extended that history to America." This graft included the typological relevance of the Exodus to the young United States. Americans outside New England, particularly in the middle colonies–turned–states, were becoming accustomed to think that although they, like the Israelites in Egypt, were enslaved in foreign bondage, with "a wilderness still before us," they should expect soon to "have crossed the Red Sea of our difficulties." Although "crossing the Rubicon" would arguably better describe the stakes before declaring American independence than crossing the Red Sea, the biblical metaphor seems to have been at least as popular during the early months of 1776. Even the most deist of revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin imagined the revolution as an Exodus-like deliverance from slavery, as evident in their proposals for the American Great Seal in 1776. Numerous references to the tyrannical English "Pharaoh" and his Israelite-American subjects-turned-enemies during the Revolution attested to that popularity. In 1785 it was manifested in Timothy Dwight's epic and metaphoric poem The Conquest of Canaan, which he dedicated to the American Moses (and now victorious Joshua), George Washington.
The centrality and importance of the trope of the Exodus to the Revolution's political imagination is undeniable. Nevertheless, historians' focus on that particular discursive strand, which may have intensified still more due to its future importance for diverse American groups, from enslaved and free African-Americans and Mormons in the nineteenth century to the civil rights movement in the twentieth, may have obscured the presence and significance of other key contemporary biblical narratives and tropes for the revolutionary cosmology. The Exodus has overshadowed a larger world of Hebraic revolutionary political imagination. Other biblical idioms reveal how deeply invested American revolutionaries were in representing their political situation in biblical terms. Further, the "other" biblical tropes we shall now examine differed significantly from the Exodus: while that was a story of deliverance from slavery to freedom which could be convincingly presented as antimonarchical, it was not necessarily a civic humanist plot. Once we appreciate the full spectrum of revolutionary biblical language, the familiar classical republican picture appears: of corruption versus stern virtue, of self-aggrandizement versus sacrifice and self-effacement. To that biblical civic humanist language we now turn.
Corruption is a crucial yet elusive concept in the civic humanistic creed. While early modern republicans wished to preserve the health of their polity through active and disinterested citizenship, they knew that from the time of the classical polities, humans were too weak to preserve indefinitely free republics, which depended on the virtue of their citizens and magistrates. The civic humanist worldview, which idealized self-sacrifice and disinterestedness, and dreaded the advancement of personal or sectional interests at the expense of the public good, saw "corruption" as a vicious and potent force; men could hardly be expected to withstand the egotistic temptations of self-betterment. Corruption was thus believed incessantly to undermine virtue, hence to ruin the innately frail republic.
Excerpted from American Zion by Eran Shalev. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "The Jewish Cincinnatus": Biblical Republicanism in the Age of the American Revolution 15
Chapter 2 "The United Tribes, or States of Israel": The Hebrew Republic as a Political Model before the Civil War 50
Chapter 3 "A Truly American Spirit of Writing": Pseudobiblicism, the Early Republic, and the Cultural Origins of the Book of Mormon 84
Chapter 4 Tribes Lost and Found: Israelites in Nineteenth-Century America 118
Chapter 5 Evangelicalism, Slavery, and the Decline of an Old Testament Nation 151
Conclusion: Beyond Old Testamentism: The New Israel after the Civil War 185
What People are Saying About This
An illuminating study of the Old Testament’s political influence from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Shalev has made an outstanding contribution to the conversation around one of the most accepted religious constructions of American exceptionalism in recent historiography.—James P. Byrd, Vanderbilt University
In this erudite, readable, and exciting new book, Eran Shalev takes the reader to previously uncharted biblical waters He breaks new ground by presenting a unified vision of an “American political theology.” I would present this book as an exemplary model for how to “do” history in relation to theology.—Shalom Goldman, Duke University
This well-researched, creatively argued, historiographically well-informed, and genuinely insightful book is an impressive piece of work and should have a broad appeal.—Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame
American Zion offers a revelatory account of how Hebraism shaped the American political, literary, and religious imagination during the first century of our national life. Eran Shalev demonstrates unforgettably that when Americans referred to themselves as the “new Israel,” they were not speaking metaphorically.— Eric Nelson, Harvard University