Saturday, 1 September 2012

America's Founding Fathers

For the past several days I have been reading books on America's founding fathers. In the spring of 2013, I will be teaching a new course at UTC that I have entitled, "The Faiths of Our Founding Fathers." Anyone who teaches a new course is soon faced with the depressing reality that there is rarely a perfect textbook available for such a specialized course.

I was hopeful that David Holmes's aptly titled book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, would be a suitable text. But after reading it, I walked away feeling dissatisfied with his introductory chapter and some of his interpretations of the Founding Fathers. He calls Washington, for instance, a deist (pp. 65-66). Maybe Washington was a deist, but I wondered why his beliefs and practices couldn't be explained as a typical southern planter's adherence to Anglicanism at that time. I then read Alf Mapp's The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America's Founders Really Believed, which I generally liked, and was leaning towards using, until I read Brooke Allen's Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. This is the book I am now penciling in as one of the books for my course.

Initially, I was turned off by the title and the introductory chapter by Allen, in which she unabashedly tells her audience of her intent to show that the founding fathers held mostly unorthodox views. After reading the opening chapter, I put the book aside to look at other potential texts, but after reading several other books I came back to Allen to give it a more thorough examination. I was pleasantly surprised with what I read. Despite the definitive title of the book, Allen offers a relatively balanced view of our nation's Founding Fathers, supporting her assertions with several (sometimes lengthy) primary-source quotations. There is no doubt that Allen sees even the mysterious George Washington as a skeptic, but she at least admits that he could have been a lukewarm Latitudinarian. Her chapter on John Adams also came across as a sensible and accurate portrayal of America's second president.

My plan (as of now) is to have students read Frank Lambert's excellent book, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (to supply the religious context of America up until the end of the eighteenth century), followed by Allen's Moral Minority. Lambert's book is just short of spectacular in its comprehensive treatment and insightful thesis on how America shifted from a nation founded by people intent on integrating religion within the colonial governments to the later push by many of the Founding Fathers to separate church and state. I had hoped to have students read some primary-source documents by the Founding Fathers. Here, I had designated Thomas Kidd's and Matthew Harris's The Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion in Revolutionary America to be used alongside Lambert's book, but since The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America only mentions a few of the sources in the edited volume by Kidd and Harris, I don't see how I can reconcile the two books as companion pieces.

If I have the students read Lambert first, followed by Allen, how should I structure the rest of the course? One option I am considering is to design the course as a seminar, requiring students to select a founding father of their choice and writing a research paper on him. In this scenario, I would put together a list of people, including John Adam, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps Patrick Henry, John Jay, and John Witherspoon, designate a specific biography that students must read and write a book review on, and then require a final research paper and presentation on their findings. Option 2 is to have the whole class read biographies on Thomas Jefferson (I'm thinking of Edwin Gaustad's Sworn on the Alter of God) and the shadowy George Washington (perhaps Peter Lillback's George Washington's Sacred Fire to balance the skeptical perception of the nation's first president) and then proceed to write a short paper on another Founding Father of interest. Since I am not convinced which is the best option, I would welcome anyone's opinion on other texts to consider and/or how to structure such a course.

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