At over 400 pages, I doubt I will get through Gary North’s Ebook, Conspiracy in Philadelphia, anytime soon. For those interested, it’s certainly amusing and the scholarship is quite thorough and, I suppose, respectable. North accurately cites an array of leading authorities—historians and political scientists such as Gordon Wood, Gary Wills, Forrest McDonald, Thomas Pangle, Edwin Gaustad, Jack Rakove, Bernard Bailyn, just to name a few—in making his case.
And, from what I have read so far, I’ve been taken aback by how North’s book anticipates much of what I have written on this site over the past half-year on religion and the political philosophy of our Founding. I could literally go paragraph through paragraph of his book and compare it to blog post after post of mine for the similarities between us. Maybe this is because North’s book is incredibly thorough in its analysis; he practically leaves no stone unturned in attempting to demonstrate that our framers—on the whole—were the furthest thing from Christian fundamentalists, and that they founded a secular government that would eventually put an end to the theocracy that North desires (what many of the states at the time had).
However, despite its merits, I ultimately give the book a thumbs down, because—leaving aside the whole technical issue as to whether our Constitution was “legally ratified” or not (I’ll defer to Ed Brayton’s analysis of this), North’s thesis ultimately goes off the deep end into crackpot paranoia that sees the United States as one big occultist/ alchemist/ Newtonian/ Enlightenment/ Freemason/ pagan conspiracy (I’ve skimmed through about ½ of the book—I haven’t yet seen if North mentions the Illuminati).
Still the book deserves praise for accurately challenging the notion put forth by today’s religious right that our government was built on a “wholly Biblical foundation.”
The book is quite simply a “deconstruction” or a “debunking” of the Framers from the view of the Christian fundamentalist right. Deconstruction of the framers is common these days; but what’s obviously novel about North’s book is that, previously, the Left has had a monopoly on debunking our framers (as a racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, bunch of Neanderthals).
The dedication sets the stage for the entire book: “This book is dedicated to the members, living and dead, of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters), who for over two hundred years have smelled a rat in Philadelphia.”
North starts off the book noting how (small u) unitarianism (what I have called deistic-unitarianism)—a philosophy that is not orthodox Christian—was dominant among our most influential framers.
In this book, I argue that the United States Constitution is the product of eighteenth-century unitarianism, though not Unitarianism, which was a nineteenth century movement. The supposed Founding Fathers (Framers) of repute were trinitarians in much the same way that Sir Isaac Newton had been: members of publicly confessing churches, but not personally believing in the confession. [This is notable because some scholars, after M.E. Bradford, argue that only a few of the framers—for instance, Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine—were avowed deists, the rest professed some type of orthodox Christianity. The problem with this assertion is that many of these “Christian” framers, like Jefferson, Washington, and Adams, were Christians in a nominal sense]. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were self-conscious about their rejection of trinitarianism, as their later correspondence reveals. George Washington was less identifiably unitarian, but he refused as an adult to take the Lord’s Supper, and he avoided the use of the word “Christ” as systematically as Abraham Lincoln did, four score and seven years later. Benjamin Franklin’s religion was a religion of practical gentility, devoid of the disturbing concept of hell. Madison, to the extent that he wrote about religion, was self-conscious in his attempt to reduce the impact of confessions of faith and theology on politics, which he regarded as religiously neutral.
[All of this is accurate. Tweak a few words and that paragraph reads like it could have been written by me.]
Like the Straussians (and relying on the work of Thomas Pangle), North argues that by following Newton, Hobbes, & Locke, America represented the vanguard of modernity, founding itself on man’s reason (thus secular humanism), as opposed to Christianity. But wait? Weren’t Newton & Locke Christians? They might have professed Christianity, but they put their faith in, and wanted to found political orders on, science & reason. More importantly—and this is one thing North wants to beat into the skull of the “Christian Nation” apologists—belonging to a Church and professing Christianity—as Newton might have done—does not a true Christian make.
Indeed, many Christian Nation apologists make a big deal out of Sir Isaac Newton’s faith. North regards Newton’s influence as pure evil. Newton in fact, is the father of the deistic-unitarian philosophy that founds this nation! Indeed, North argues, that for a deist like Newton to “profess Christianity” makes him all the more dangerous; real Christians won’t listen to a man outrightly professing heresy. What made Newton and our framers so dangerous is that they belonged to Christian churches, but posited deistic-unitarian doctrines nonetheless.
Here is North from his Chapter entitled, “Isaac Newton: The Trojan Horse”:
The central figure in Enlightenment thought was Isaac Newton….There is little question that Newton was a touchstone for philosophy in the United States in the eighteenth century….
Isaac Newton was a secret unitarian [which North describes as a worldview "in which the doctrine of the trinity is superfluous scientifically"]. Had he admitted this fact in public, he would have lost his job at Cambridge University, as his friend and associate William Whiston did, just as Newton had warned him, advising that he continue to deceive the public [Let me note that, unlike North, I don’t fault Newton for his secrecy; as North notes, Newton would have been ruined, perhaps executed, if he wore his unitarianism on his sleeve. Thus it was necessity, not duplicity, that spurred Newton’s concealment]. Newton was the dominant intellectual influence in the eighteenth century, and he remained so until the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). His mechanical model of a not-quite autonomous cosmos was stripped of its few traces of deity by his successors. His ideal, so stripped, was unitarian: a world that can be understood by its effects in terms of reason rather than traditional theological confessions. It is in this sense that I discuss the world of the Framers as Newtonian. [Note compare this with what I have quoted from Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers].
Next North quotes Russell Kirk on the deistic-unitiarian philosophy (which Kirk refers to as simply “deism”). Although I have never read Kirk’s view, I came to the same conclusion in this post. As you will read, Kirk’s quote refutes two objections offered to the notion that our framers were “deists”: One, that only a few framers publicly confessed Deism; and two, what Dennis Teti (and others) have argued—that deism posits a strict non-interventionists God, but some of our most deistic framers, for instance Thomas Jefferson, alluded to a God that intervenes:
"Deism was neither a Christian schism nor a systematic philosophy, but rather a way of looking at the human condition; the men called Deists differed among themselves on many points….Deism was an outgrowth of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific speculation. The Deist professed belief in a single Supreme Being, but rejected a large part of Christian doctrine. Follow Nature, said the Deists (as the Stoics had said before them), not Revelation: all things must be tested by private rational judgment….”
The Declaration of Independence:
North calls the Declaration of Independence a “deistic document”:
Three of the five-man committee that was responsible for writing it were theological unitarians: Jefferson, Franklin, and John Adams. Three were Masons: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Franklin. As David Hawke writes of Adams: “He verged on deism in religion and found it no easier than Jefferson to admit his waywardness publicly. He respected the findings of natural philosophy and was inclined to extend those findings into the social and political world. He believed that natural law resembled the axioms of mathematics—‘Self-evident principles, that every man must assent to as soon as proposed.’”
In their old age, Adams and Jefferson renewed their friendship in a long correspondence, and their letters reveal that they were almost totally agreed on religion. They hated Christianity, especially Calvinism. In Jefferson’s April 11, 1823, letter to Adams, he announced that if anyone ever worshipped a false God, Calvin did. Calvin’s religion, he said, was “Daemonianism,” meaning blasphemy. He knows that Adams was already in basic agreement with him in these opinions. After surveying their letters, Cushing Strout concludes: “Whatever their political differences, Jefferson and Adams were virtually at one in their religion.” Strout identifies the creed of this religion: unitarianism. Jefferson was systematic in his hatred of Trinitarian Christianity. In his old age, he sent a letter to James Smith, which he stressed was confidential, in which he expressed confidence that “the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.” In a letter to Benjamin Watterhouse that same year, he wrote: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” The Bible is just another history book, he wrote to Peter Carr: “Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus.” As for Adams, he was buried in a crypt at the United First Parish Church (Unitarian) in Quincy, Massachusetts.
[Note: I have blogged about this here and here and Alan Dershowitz writes about this in his study of Jefferson: America Declares Independence.]
North accurately describes Freemasonry’s influence on our framers and that Freemasonry is incompatible with orthodox Christianity. But this is also where North goes off the conspiratorial deep end. Here is North quoting Harold O.J. Brown on the founders’ Freemasonry “problem”:
“America’s symbolism is not really theism at all, even of an Old Testament variety. The Seeing Eye is sometimes found in Christian art, but on the Great Seal of the United States it, like the pyramid, reflects the vague ‘Great Architect’ deism of American Freemasonry rather than faith in the personal God of Christianity.”
That Brown should appeal to the reverse of the Great Seal, the all-seeing eye and the pyramid, is significant, though even Brown is unaware of just how significant. The Congress on July 4 appointed a committee to recommend designs for a seal of the United States. The committee was made up of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. The obverse (front) of the Great Seal is the eagle. The reverse of the Great Seal is the all-seeing eye above a pyramid, a familiar Masonic symbol.
George Washington’s religion and his involvement in Freemasonry:
North notes that, although Washington was a member of the Anglican Church, he never took communion in Church. Here is North analysis of Washington’s Trinitarianism [very similar to mine here]:
There is very little evidence in Washington’s public communication that he accepted the doctrine of the Trinity. [Author Paul F.] Boller insists that not once in his voluminous letters does he actually mention the name of Jesus Christ, although announcing universal negatives is always risky. Washington refused to commit to public pronouncements any statement of his personal faith besides a commitment to divine Providence. Except during wartime, he attended Church once a month. Thus concludes, Boller [Note: I have cited this exact quote previously], “if to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence of which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian except in the most nominal sense.”
North cites a book entitled The Facts About George Washington as a Freemason, where we find a “1794 painting of Washington in the regalia of Grand Master of a Masonic lodge. It was an official painting; his lodge at Alexandria paid $50 to the painted.” Washington was first initiated into the Masons on November 4, 1752. “Washington had served as Grant Master of the Alexandria lodge in 1788 and 1789. When he was inaugurated as President of the U.S., he was therefore a Grand Master, the only Mason ever to be inaugurated President while serving as a Grand Master.”
North delves hard into Masonic conspiracy with Washington:
You will not read in the textbooks that 33 of Washington’s generals were Masons. You will also not read that LaFayette was not given command over any troops until after he agreed to be initiated into Union Lodge No. 1, at which ceremony Washington officiated as Master Mason. But such was the case. Washington presided over a procession in Philadelphia on December 27, 1778, after evacuation of the British. Dressed in full Masonic attire, he marched through the city with three hundred other Masons, and then held a Masonic service at Christ Church, which became his congregation of preference during his Presidency.
In addition, North cites some letters by Washington to his fellow Masons:
In a letter written to King David’s Lodge No. 1 of Newport Rhode Island, written on Sunday, August 22, 1790, Washington wrote: “Being persuaded that a just application of the principles, on which the Masonic Fraternity is founded, must be promotive of private virtue and public prosperity, I shall always be happy to advance the interests of the Society, and to be considered by them as a deserving brother.” In several letters, he referred to God as the Supreme Architect. A representative example is his letter to Pennsylvania Masons (Dec. 27, 1791): “…I request you will be assured of my best wishes and earnest prayers for your happiness while you remain in this terrestrial Mansion, and that we may thereafter meet as brethren in the Eternal Temple of the Supreme Architect.”
Now, previously, I was told by Elizabeth (Mrs. Joe) Farah, that Washington was only nominally involved with the Masons. North informs me of the source of this contention: Washington’s letter to G.W. Snyder in 1798, where he claimed to have not been in a Masonic lodge “more than once or twice in the last thirty years.” North claims that Washington “outright lied” in this letter. “One does not become a Grand Master of a lodge by attending services once or twice over thirty years, but one can certainly fool two centuries of Christian critics by lying through one’s wooden teeth about it.” LOL. I think I’ll end there. If that last line of North’s doesn’t make you laugh out loud, I don’t know what will.