Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

by Susan Jacoby


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"Jacoby accomplishes her task with clarity, thoroughness, and an engaging passion."

-Los Angeles Times Book Review

At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers offers a powerful defense of the 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, celebrated author Susan Jacoby traces 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 achievements of secularists who, allied with tolerant believers, have led the battle for reform in the past and today.

Rich with such iconic figures as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, and the once-famous Robert Green Ingersoll, Freethinkers restores to history the passionate humanists who struggled against those who would undermine the combination of secular government and religious liberty that is the glory of the American system.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805077766
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/01/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 640,315
Product dimensions: 5.53(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.80(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents

1Revolutionary Secularism13
2The Age of Reason and Unreason35
3Lost Connections: Anticlericalism, Abolitionism, and Feminism66
4The Belief and Unbelief of Abraham Lincoln104
5Evolution and Its Discontents124
6The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age of Freethought149
7Dawn of the Culture Wars186
8Unholy Trinity: Atheists, Reds, Darwinists227
9Onward, Christian Soldiers268
10The Best Years of Our Lives292
11Culture Wars Redux317
12Reason Embattled348
AppendixRobert Ingersoll's Eulogy for Walt Whitman, March 30, 1892367
Selected Bibliography389

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Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 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.
itsmemaven on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This *should* be included in high school history classes so that before folks go off into the real world and believe what they want to believe, at least they have a solid foundation of what this country was founded upon.
wirkman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I did not finish this book. I really enjoyed early sections, but when I got to the author's treatment of Herbert Spencer, I realized that either she had not read Spencer, was a liar, or else an ideologue utterly unfitted to do scholarly work. The untrustworthiness of that section is so amazingly flagrant that I could not in good conscience continue reading the book.
Qshio on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Truly eye-opening. You can not only see how secularists and nonbelievers have been written out of our history, but how it is happening before our eyes today. Even more alarming, is the process by which religious interests of today claim the successes and sacrifices of yesterday's secularists for themselves. Read this and see history differently.
Clueless on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Eloquent explanation of how the religious right has gotten a strangelhold on politics today.Chilling.I'm old enough to remember the Goldwater/Kennedy presidential race and am appalled about how such recent history has been already revised.Jacoby gives a clear if not concise history of how the American constitution was specifically written with no mention of faith. The strange bedfellows formed along the way as various groups defended the division of the separation of church and state brought a smile to my lips.I always balked at the sanitized and biased way history was taught in my midwestern public school. Now I know why.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent examination of US secular protagonists of the 18th to the 20th century that loses steam as modern issues are approached. The chapter on abolitionism and early feminism is outstanding as is the examination of the (non-)religiosity of Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, conservatives and fundamentalists will probably refrain from studying the mistaken ideas of their spiritual ancestors and reexamine their own positions.
nabhill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
`Freethinkers¿ provides an interesting history, one not often covered by history books, from an interesting perspective. The book presents the role of secularists in shaping the framework and the laws of the U.S. and in safeguarding the rights of its citizens; and necessarily also presents a less than flattering role of the religious and religious organizations in the same. The author appears to have extensively researched the subject and has presented those facts that support her thesis. While not unbiased, the book is nonetheless a persuasive argument for separation of state and religion that reminds readers why the U.S. has a ¿godless¿ constitution.
Devil_llama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book details the history of religious dissent in America. There have been all too few books written of this nature, but fortunately this one came along to fill the void with erudition and elegant prose.
yapete on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great book. Details a history that is too often forgotten or glossed over by our religiously correct media. The people introduced in this book are true heroes of thought and humanity!
ThomasCWilliams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent history of Freethought in the United States. Note the reference to the influence of Volney's Ruins of Empires on Abraham Lincoln in Chapter 4. There is also a brief (non-indexed) reference to Joel Barlow in Chapter 2.There is a potential for more research here: the various 19th century editions of the Jefferson/Barlow translation appear to coincide with the establishment of the abolitionist/women's rights movements in the pre-civil war period (see the Gaylord edition in my library) as well as during the so-called Golden Age of Freethought (1870-99: see the Josiah Mendum (Boston Investigator), Calvin Blanchard and Truth Seeker Press editions).It would be interesting to confirm whether Freethinkers such as Ernestine Rose, Lucretia Mott, Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Clarence Darrow ever read Volney's Ruins.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very readable and informative survey of agnosticism and other fields in American history.
selfnoise on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent, energetic work of historical examination. Americans often seem profoundly queasy in the presence of secular thought, and this can be reflected in our seeking to frame our brief history in a way that sidelines expressions of the same. Freethinkers is a great step towards correcting this error, and acknowledging the extensive contributions that secular thinkers have made to American society.
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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