The Original Intent of America's Founders
Family North Carolina MagazineNovember/December 2008
by Brittany Farrell
It seems that every holiday season in America brings a renewed debate on the role of religion in public life. In the past, this magazine has provided information and resources on the legalities of the issue of religious expression in the arenas of schools, government buildings, and churches. While the technicalities of the law in this area are important to be aware of and to understand, it is equally important to have a knowledge of the framework under which the government responsible for establishing such laws came to be. In recent history, many people have attempted to separate the intent of the Founders from the documents they wrote, giving way to the notion that the meaning of these documents can change over time. This practice is not only historically inaccurate; it is bad public policy. After the “plain meaning” of the words, authorial intent is one of the most critical aspects of understanding the meaning, scope, and result of a law or court decision. If the meaning of laws can change, the entire purpose of law is in danger of becoming obsolete. No one wants to play a game with “living” rules.
Regardless of the personally held religious beliefs of those men who met in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Fayetteville, and Hillsborough, the governments they formed and wholeheartedly endorsed were not just religious, but based on Christian ideals. While the thoughts, words, and actions of some of the more well-known framers like George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson have been meticulously and thoroughly preserved, the vast majority of the men involved in the foundation of the great American experiment were husbands, fathers, businessmen, and patriots, whose opinions were not preserved, mostly because they were more concerned with the work at hand than preserving their legacy for future generations. This is not to say that those about whom much is known were arrogant. Often, the greatness of a person does not become apparent for generations. This is the case for many of these lesser known men. They are also precisely the men whose support for the Constitution is so interesting. They decided, ultimately, to support the Constitution after months and years of debate and discussion about the roles of representation, federalism, and yes, religion in government. Most of these men lived good lives in various states with established local governments. They were only willing to cede a limited amount of that local authority to a centralized overarching power that reflected and protected the freedoms they held most dear personal liberty, commerce, wealth, representation, and religion.
A Christian Focus
The Continental Congresses, Constitutional Convention, and state ratification conventions were filled with Christian men Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Catholics, among others.1 There is well-founded debate surrounding the personal leanings of some of these men, and some were undoubtedly Deists. However, in reading first-hand accounts and minutes of the debates of these gatherings, it is abundantly clear that regardless of disagreement over the scope of national authority or states’ rights or form of representation in government, the primary focus of all these decisions came directly from a commitment to the non-negotiable importance of a Christian worldview. One early example of this focus on the Christian worldview involved the Congress of the Confederation’s oversight and approval of a project to print the Bible within the United States.2 The overtly Christian Fathers as well as the Deist Fathers strove equally to formulate a new system of government that not only passively allowed for religious freedom, but encouraged Christianity itself because of its benefits to society.
Joseph Story, who became the youngest Supreme Court Justice in 1811 at the age of thirty-two, stated in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States that:
We are not to attribute this [First Amendment] prohibition of a national religious establishment to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence, than the framers of the Constitution)3 …at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the Amendment to it now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State.4
Later, in the 1824 Supreme Court case Updegraph v. Commonwealth, the Court stated that “Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law.”5 If the Court made rulings based on Christianity as part of the common law, it follows that the law drawn up by the Founders also based on common law would, in turn, be based on Christianity.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This Amendment contains two important clauses that relate to religion and the state. The Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion.” Today, many misinterpret this clause as requiring a constitutional separation of church and state. However, the next phrase, the Free Exercise Clause, protects citizens from government action that “prohibit[s] the free exercise thereof,” meaning not only can the government not establish a particular denomination of religion, it also cannot prohibit citizens from freely practicing the religion of their choosing. Much of today’s debate involving the relation of church and state arises from a debate over which clause should have priority. The clause with priority determines how the other clause is understood. James Madison of Virginia, the original author of the Bill of Rights, stated in the Annals of Congress, that he “apprehended the meaning of the [First Amendment] to be, that ‘Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law.’”6 Clearly, the Founders saw an establishment of religion as coercion of belief by the government, not simple acceptance and tolerance. They had just come from England where the Church of England was intolerant of other church worship. They did not want to be told where to worship. Still, the 18531854 House Judiciary Committee set out to determine exactly what was necessary for government action to be considered an establishment of religion. The Committee found very specific requirements that allowed for a surprising amount of government action of a religious nature before stepping outside its bounds. Their conclusion read:
[For an activity to constitute an establishment of religion:] It must have a creed defining what a man must believe; it must have rites and ordinances which believers must observe; it must have ministers of defined qualifications to teach the doctrines and administer the rites; it must have tests for the submissive and penalties for the nonconformist … In this age there can be no substitute for Christianity; that, in its general principles, is the great conservative element on which we must rely for the purity and permanence of free institutions. That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendents.7
The 12th Colony
Eventually, all 13 colonies signed onto the Constitution, Christian foundation and all. Hesitant to cede control to a national government, North Carolina was the twelfth state to ratify the Constitution of the United States. However, it did send delegates to both the Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. By and large, these men had the same hesitation as their State about breaking ties with Britain and ceding authority to a national government. But their hesitations did not stem from concern over the influence of the Christian worldview in the establishment of the new government. In fact, North Carolina’s ratifying conventions included more discussion about religion than any other part of the ratifying process.8 These delegates wanted nothing less than an openly Christian nation. They argued that rightful political authority is inseparable from the acknowledgment of the Supreme Creator.9 The general consensus was that the Establishment Clause was mostly unnecessary because the religious make up of all but a very few colonies was so diverse that no particular sect or denomination would be able to establish itself as the exclusive religion.
North Carolina’s Constitution included a variation of the Establishment Clause similar to that of the federal Constitution and most of the other states. However, North Carolina included Article XXXII, stating “that no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.” In 1835 “Protestant” was changed to “Christian” and remained that way until well into the twentieth century. By 1971, this language had been removed in the wave of secularism under the guise of “separation of church and state.” The intent of North Carolina’s Founding Fathers, though, is undeniable. North Carolina, as a part of the United States of America, was intended to be a decidedly Christian state with a decidedly Christian government in a nation founded on Christian principles.
In the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Conventions, North Carolina’s Founding Father’s tended by and large to be more reserved in their support and vocal participation in the various gatherings. There is little first-hand evidence of their personal perspective, opinions, and beliefs. However, their support for the Constitution of the United States and the North Carolina Constitution signals acceptance of both documents. While they did not agree with the amount of power being given to the federal government, the preservation of federalism within the Constitution put them at ease enough that, ultimately, they did support it. What follows is a brief glimpse at some of these men and their roles in the formation and ratification of various founding documents.
- Bradford, M.E., Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1993. 89.
- Barton, David, Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion, 3d ed. (Aledo, Tx: WallBuilder, 2000), 107108.
- Snow, Joseph, A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States: Containing a Brief Commentary on Every Clause, Explaining the True Nature, Reasons, and Objects Thereof; Designed for the Use of School Libraries and General Readers. Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon, and Webb, 1840. 259 (§441).
- Snow, A Familiar Exposition, 261 (§444).
- Updegraph v Commonwealth, 11 Serg. & Rawle, 394 Penn. 1824
- 1 Annals of Congress 730 (August 15, 1789)
- U.S. House of Representatives Report No. 124, 33rd Congress, 1st Session, Chaplains in Congress and in the Army and Navy, March 27, 1854.
- Bradford, Original Intentions. 80.
- Bradford, Original Intentions. 92.
Brittany Farrell is a research associate with the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
Copyright © 2008. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.