Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Social justice: is it really justice?

social justiceSocial justice is a term that has been a part of American politics since the mid 1960s. Unfortunately, there is no national understanding on exactly what this term means. As an American historian that has spent considerable time studying the history of the early republic, there was a strong desire to create a nation founded on the concept of equality under the law. Men such as Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison had grown up in a society where one’s social status was dictated by birth. Each of those men, held high in regard by the American colonials, were, in the eyes of the English elite, commoners without any claim to the benefits of nobility.

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The ongoing transitioning of America


When I was stationed in Europe in the early 1990s, I spent a great deal of my leave time travelling around to various places in that I had heard about or studied.  One of the places I visited was Athens, Greece, and was amazed at the number of classical Greek ruins still visible as a testimony to the greatness of the Greek empire and later Roman domination of the region.  These buildings were (and am presuming still are) the focus of many various projects to maintain them for future generations to enjoy and to be inspired as I have.

As a historian and with an academic background in the study of sociology and psychology, I believe that one of the things that led to the collapse of both the Greek and the Roman Empires was that of a transitioning culture.  What past generations once held as dear and as being the bedrock of their society.  What had been built by the older generations was neglected by the next generations; by the time the younger generations began their rise to power, there was a disconnect from the traditions and customs that had allowed Greece, and later Rome, to rise to prominence as a Mediterranean power.  All that remains as a tribute of those empires’ greatness are ruins, legends, and other intellectual achievements.  Outside of education, most people never think of the impact of those people from so long ago have on our world.

In the twenty-first century, the United States is undergoing a transition of its own. Beginning in the 1960s, the “new” American Left, wrapped in the ideas of free speech and the rejection of “traditional” mainstream values began making its way on the college campuses across the United States.  Learning from the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left focused on delivering its message to those in society that had become disillusioned with the demands of the American capitalist system.  It is during the 1960s, specifically the Lyndon B. Johnson years, where the New Left and the Democratic Party will claim the victory for the Civil Rights Movement – something that the Democratic Party had actually been in opposition to since the late 1860s (there was absolutely no Democratic Party support for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Amendments, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1875; had it not been for Republicans and the wide base of Republican support, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 would not have passed).

There were a lot of things that the New Left claimed that needed to change in the United States; there were issues that did need to be addressed such as the racial and sexual discrimination and inequality that had become the standard. However, the assault against American society did not end there but continued to assault the things that had made America different from the rest of the nation. The free market system was one of the first things to come under attack; it was claimed that the capitalist system in America had created an unjust distribution of wealth and had left out a large percentage of the citizenry.  Also under attack was the role of the church – both as a public institution of the community and as an influence within that community. Besides the structure of the economy and religion, they also targeted the concept of the American nuclear family.  The New Left adopted a tone that not only discouraged other points of view from being expressed, they also began to craft the notion that any attempts to defend those social norms were attempts to enforce conformity of a minority to the will of a majority – and that this concept was distinctly – anti-American.

The current generation of publicly educated youth and college students have now grown up without an objective education about our nation.  Instead of teaching of how this nation was founded by a generation facing odds that many believed at the time was hopeless, they ventured out into the danger.  Through the blood and sweat of Americans of every socio-economic status and every race, they fought and won independence for a nation that the political theorists of their day deemed folly – no common people had ever governed themselves successfully.  Governance was reserved for the crown and the aristocracy, not the common man.  Anything else was deemed to be against the natural order of mankind.  Instead of focusing on the achievements of those men, the modern college history course and textbook teach that it was a group of white men who had no concern for the fates of women, free blacks, slaves, or even American Indians.  The textbooks discuss that it was a revolution that had to be sold to the common American colonist by the merchant class.  The “New Left” revisionist history of the United States not only denies the odds that generation faced, it also disregards the social norms of European society of that era (no nation allowed the common woman to take part in politics nor did any nation allow slaves or others outside the prescribed citizenry any sort of rights), but it also ignores that the American Revolution was truly unique – it was the first time that the entire strata of a society shared a common vision.

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The increasing importance of the First Amendment


It is probably the shortest of the original ten amendments that were ratified as the Bill of Rights. Although its wording is fairly plain and simple, its meanings have been debated in the nation’s courthouses, school rooms, college classrooms, political debates, congressional hearings and churches nationwide since its adoption in 1791.  It is amazing that yet again, just a decade into the 21st century, we are nationally struggling to define what was meant by those 18th century authors who wrote Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As an American historian and someone genuinely fascinated with the political and social thoughts of the Enlightenment, I have always believed that the best answer to understanding the language of the First Amendment has been to understand the mindsets of the men that helped to write it. It must be noted that if one reads the Federalist Papers, a collection of writings by Publius (John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton), it was clear why they objected to the concept of the amendments that would become the Bill of Rights.  In their minds, the natural rights of man, according to Enlightenment thoughts of John Locke, John Hobbs, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and to some extent, Montesquieu, believed they were a part of the natural law handed down by the Creator.  These liberties, it was believed, should not have been defined by the Constitution because once rights become defined, they can then be further restricted to the strictest interpretation of that definition.

With that in mind, it was understood that many of the states would not ratify the newly written Constitution unless it did contain some guarantees of rights, privileges, and protections against the tyranny that, as former subjects to the British crown, the colonists had experienced.  The authors of these amendments tried to construct a framework that would place the burdens upon the national government and not on the individual citizen or by law abiding groups of citizens.  It was determined that the Bill of Rights would be considered as a binding covenant on the citizenry, the states, and the national government; following this model, each of the amendments deals with a specific function of government or those relationships between the national government, the people, and the states.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

 From the context of the time that this was written, it seems pretty common sense.  Since about the sixteenth century, and with the formation of the nation-states, Europe found itself embroiled in a series of wars with each other, and in many cases, with themselves as more began to reject the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and formed new denominations.   The result at the time of the American Revolution is that within the nations of Europe, duty to the state, worship of God, salvation and grace, and even the sacraments of the church became tied to one’s duty to the state.  The state had replaced God as the purveyor of grace and eternal salvation; not only had this happened in Europe, but it had now begun to surface within the United States as Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware began to consider legislation to make the Anglican Church the state religion of those states.  Under the Articles of Confederation, Even as late as 1801, rumors circulated around the nation of several states petitioning the Congress to create a national church, as existed in the nations of Europe.

A group of men, known as the Danbury Baptists, sent a letter to President Thomas Jefferson on October 7, 1801, asking him to intervene or to use the powers of his office as President of the United States to protect the concept of religious liberty.  Specifically, they asked Jefferson:

Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty–that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals–that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions–that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors; But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the law made coincident therewith, were adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws and usages, and such still are; that religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men–should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dare not, assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.(1)

While Jefferson’s response is well known, many Americans have never read the entire letter that inspired Jefferson to theorize about the “separation of church and state.” At the heart of the letter sent to him by the Danbury Baptists are several crucial fears that were addressed in the first part of the First Amendment – the concept of religious liberty.  As part of Enlightenment thought, it had become widely accepted that true religious liberty was when the individual was able to worship God according to the dictates of their own heart.  While the early national government did recognize the existence of God as a Supreme Being, it purposely did not define that God to be it accordance to the Christian definition, the Jewish definition, or even as an American Indian deity.  The Danbury Baptists acknowledge that government does have the right to legislate human behavior between individuals but that government did not have the right to legislate religious “privilege” because to do so would be an intrusion into the Kingdom of Christ – the Christian religion itself.

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