The Magazine

Church, State, and John Witherspoon

Scholar, cleric, philosopher of independence.

Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic

by Jeffrey H. Morrison

Notre Dame, 220 pp., $22.50

WHO MIGHT NOT, THESE days, feel a kind of sympathy with the secessionist senator Louis T. Wigfall, who declared in 1860 that he was "tired and sick of the Fathers"?

Wigfall uttered his complaint about the presumed knockout blow that any invocation of the nation's Founders was assumed to deliver against opposing views when southerners like himself were putting distance between their states and the Union created in 1776. We can only conjecture how Wigfall would feel today amid the torrent of Founders' hagiographies, most of herniating weight, that have flooded the market. We can only imagine how he would react if asked, as so often we are today, What would Thomas Jefferson have done? How would Alexander Hamilton have handled this issue? But it's a good guess that he would sputter and protest much as he did almost 150 years ago.

Wigfall, of course, couldn't have had our present circumstances in mind, but his exasperation even then hinted at the dangers lurking in too great attention to a few secular saints. When we look to a few great men--however genuinely inspiring their lives were--lesser, but still important, figures of the nation's early years are easily overlooked. And if that's so, the ordinary Americans who built and sustained the nation are often simply ignored or dismissed as irrelevant to the main story. Traditions of thought (like utilitarianism) that haven't triumphed, or local cultures that have been overshadowed or defeated (like that of the native tribes) lose out to triumphalist historiography.

That's more or less what had happened until three or four decades ago, when historians began to excavate the lives and cultures of all sorts of people--children and the aged, women, slaves, African Americans, immigrants, and many others. The historians' case was not that these people had made signal contributions on a level with the Founders; only that the nature, agency, and integrity of their lives and achievements needed to be unearthed and understood before the nation's full history could itself be understood.

In reaction to these historians' largely successful efforts, a compensating reaction of sorts set in. Its most notable element has been the blockbuster biography--about the great white men of revolution and constitution making. This Founders Chic that didn't have a name in Wigfall's day has become a publishing phenomenon and, seeking to benefit from the fashion, publishers and complicitous historians and writers have produced biography after biography of the greatest men of 18th-century America as if they were the only figures worthy of our attention.

It's easy to become cynical about those books. Like David McCullough's skilled biography of John Adams, they're often love letters to their subjects, lacking in the critical distance that makes for enduring history. (McCullough is on record as saying that he didn't, as he first intended, write about Jefferson because he came to dislike him. As if we shouldn't write of Stalin or Hitler because they're repugnant!) Like Richard Brookhiser's shrewd study of Hamilton, they're often covert ideological tracts devoid of the balance that would make them fully credible.

Too many are a species of special pleading for their subjects, as if everyone else were somehow inferior in quality or less important. All of them play to our natural interest in the great storybook figures of the textbooks of our youth--the generals like George Washington, the presidents like Jefferson, Adams, and James Madison, and the distinctive characters like Benjamin Franklin who so marvelously peopled the nation's early years.

Nevertheless, long before this storm of overstuffed biographies of the favored few had crashed in around us, historians had been evaluating the lives and achievements of the figures just below these great men in historic estimation and rank, and doing so largely out of the eye of the reading public. Do you wish to know of, say, John Jay? There's Walter Stahr's recent fine study. Of John Marshall? Turn to Kent Newmyer's superb work. Of Gouverneur Morris? There are actually two recent biographies of him. Of Patrick Henry, George Clinton, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Rush? You can learn of them easily, too. But of John Witherspoon? There's virtually nothing about him. And, anyway, who was John Witherspoon?