God's American Israel

As two new books show, the influence of the Hebrew Bible (and of biblical models) on the founding generations of Americans was as vast as the new country they were trying to create.

From Hudson River Waterfront, N.Y.C. by Colin Campbell Cooper, ca. 1913-21. New-York Historical Society.

From Hudson River Waterfront, N.Y.C. by Colin Campbell Cooper, ca. 1913-21. New-York Historical Society.

Observation
Oct. 30 2019
About the author

Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. His research interests include the intersection of religion, politics, and law in the American founding era. His most recent book is Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford, 2017).


The American political experiment has been shaped by diverse intellectual traditions; among them are British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical republicanism. Americans have also drawn deeply from Hebraic and Christian sources. The influence of the latter sources was especially evident in colonial New England, where Puritans sought to establish commonwealths in conformity with biblical laws and principles; but it can also be found, more generally, throughout American culture and political thought. Yet these Hebraic and Christian influences have often been discounted or ignored by leading scholars and standard histories alike, thereby undermining a faithful telling of the nation’s story.

Two books published this year are welcome correctives. First, Wilfred M. McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, a grand, sweeping chronicle of five centuries of history, gives attention to the role of religion in shaping the American character. Second, Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States brings into sharp focus religion’s contributions to the American political order. Compiled and edited by Meir Y. Soloveichik, Matthew Holbreich, Jonathan Silver, and Stuart W. Halpern, this rich sourcebook of primary documents, from the Mayflower Compact to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, shows vividly how the Hebrew Bible in particular deserves to be known as “a foundational text” in the American political tradition.

Let’s consider how each book enriches the understanding of America’s story.

 

A distinguished professor of intellectual history at the University of Oklahoma and a master storyteller, Wilfred McClay recalls being inspired to undertake his monumental project upon realizing there was no single high-school or college-level textbook on American history that he could comfortably recommend to others. The result of his efforts is a learned, elegantly written, and wholly accessible history largely devoid of the partisan axe-grinding that has diminished or tainted so many others. It not only presents American readers with a credible and coherent narrative account of their own country but also succeeds brilliantly in its stated goal to “equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.”

No ordinary history book, Land of Hope is one of the best single-volume histories of the United States available anywhere. Few pages fail to offer a new insight or excite reflection on the country’s people, places, and political and social developments, as well as, more generally, overarching ideas like the importance of stories to the human experience, the nature of national memory, the workings of the public imagination, the love of country, and other topics.

Several themes emerge from McClay’s coverage of the major events in American political history along with his occasional excursions into less familiar territory. As the book’s title suggests, this story brims with optimism. America was, indeed, a land of hope for countless immigrants drawn to its shores in pursuit of happiness and such fundamental ideals of the American experiment as liberty, equality, and self-government. The political and social forces that breathed life and content into these ideals feature prominently in McClay’s narrative. The pursuit of religious liberty, for example, that attracted many settlers to the New World and the religious culture that flourished on American soil informed the nation’s most basic values and nurtured the civic virtues that facilitated self-government.

To his credit, McClay also unflinchingly confronts the “dashed hopes” and sorrows of so many Americans, especially those brought to America’s shores in chains. “A nation that professes high ideals,” he writes, “makes itself vulnerable to searing criticism when it falls short of them—sometimes far short indeed, as America often has done.”

The land itself—a place on the map, a piece of real estate—emerges as a distinct, vibrant “character” in McClay’s narrative. It was the land, rich with resources, that drew settlers to the expansive American continent and then prodded them ever westward. It was the land that inspired them to embrace challenges and aspire to something greater than the past they had left behind. The forbidding terrain, the vast, uncharted territory, both tested and tempered the American character. Insulated by the wide-open ocean from many of the intrusions and depredations they had left behind in the Old World, the settlers had the space to develop habits of self-rule.

 

Religion, too, has been an essential “character” in America’s story. From the time of the Pilgrims, to the founding fathers, and even to later generations, many Americans saw themselves as a chosen people—as God’s new Israel—reliving the Exodus story. The precise contours of the comparison with ancient Israel differed depending on who invoked it and when, but the parallels were often quite elaborate (and sometimes more than a bit forced).

Thus, the political repression and religious persecution so many early settlers had endured in England, from which they fled, was their Egyptian bondage; the Stuart monarchs (and, later in the revolutionary era, George III) were their intransigent Pharaohs; the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which they traversed in search of a promised land, were their Red Sea (or, in some versions, their Jordan River). In the new Canaan, they had to contend, like the ancient Israelites, with a forbidding terrain and hostile inhabitants.

Not a few Americans in the founding era came to regard George Washington as their Moses, who led them out of bondage and into freedom. For these Americans, the providential history of the Hebrew people and the biblical record of Moses’ instructions for creating the political and legal infrastructure needed to govern that people held special meaning and played a key role in directing their own ambitious errand into the new promised land.

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land picks up this part of the story, assembling compelling documentary evidence of the specifically Hebraic influences on the American political experiment, especially during the period of the founding and its aftermath.

Like Land of Hope, Proclaim Liberty makes indispensable reading for anyone interested in religion’s contributions to American political thought and culture. Unlike Land of Hope, it’s less a sweeping narrative than an introduction to selected episodes and texts that cast light on its subject. It is, in short, an anthology, serving up expertly chosen and edited primary sources from American history along with brief illuminating commentaries and notes, plus, for ease of reference, the original biblical texts. A book not only for students of history but also for students of the sacred works themselves, Proclaim Liberty invites meditation on the enduring political, legal, and spiritual impact of these texts that traveled from Sinai’s deserts to America’s shores.

As is amply illustrated in the state papers, political debates, pamphlets, sermons, and private correspondence gathered in this anthology, America’s founding generation appealed frequently to the Hebrew experience for principles, precedents, normative standards, and cultural motifs with which to define a community-in-formation and to order its political experiments. The discourse of the age was replete with quotations from and allusions to the sacred text. Indeed, the Bible—and the Hebrew Bible in particular—was the single most cited work in the political literature of the founding era, with the book of Deuteronomy, which recapitulates Mosaic law and recounts the providential progress of God’s “chosen nation,” taking special pride of place, referred to more frequently than the works of influential thinkers like John Locke or Baron de Montesquieu.

The notion that America was God’s new Israel was embraced by both pious and skeptical citizens, woven into the national mythology, and manifested in diverse national expressions and symbols. In the summer of 1776, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, two sons of the Enlightenment who were otherwise skeptical of the miracles recorded in Hebrew Scripture, drew on the familiar biblical story of the Israelite people’s miraculous liberation from Egyptian bondage for their proposed design of “a seal for the United States of America.” Israel’s providential deliverance through the parted waters of the Red Sea, they thought, was a fitting portrayal of the new nation’s plight at its moment of greatest peril.

Americans continued to see comparisons between ancient Israel and America in the years that followed. In 1783, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, delivered a sermon before Connecticut’s highest public officials based on Deuteronomy 26:19: a passage describing God’s promise to exalt the nation Israel on the condition that it remain a “holy people.” This, Stiles declared, was “allusively prophetic of the future prosperity and splendor of the United States”—of “God’s American Israel.”

The ancient “Republic of the Israelites,” declared Samuel Langdon, the Congregationalist minister and politically active president of Harvard College, in 1788, was “an Example to the American States.” (To underscore the point in a way with which his audience could relate, he added: “instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union.”) Indeed, for Langdon, “the Israelites may be considered as a pattern to the world in all ages; and from them we may learn what will exalt our character, and what will depress and bring us to ruin.”

Some Americans also saw in Hebrew Scripture certain political models that, having enjoyed divine favor, were worthy of emulation. Langdon opined in 1775: “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic” and “an excellent general model” for the nation now aborning.

In his wildly popular revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine also turned to the Hebraic republican tradition—in his case, in order to denounce monarchy and hereditary succession. Monarchy, he asserted, had been “first introduced into the world by the Heathens” and could not “be defended on the authority of Scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings.”

For “[n]ear three-thousand years,” Paine continued, the Jewish form of civil government “was a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts.” But, in their folly, the Israelites then rejected God’s designs and insisted on having a king to reign over them—which, Paine concluded, is exactly why “[m]onarchy is ranked in Scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them.”

Americans of the founding generation were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions other than those recorded in the Bible, and they studied those traditions both ancient and modern. But in a way that classical models could not do, the republic described in the Hebrew Bible reassured all Americans that republicanism was a political system favored by God.

 

What, then, of the early American commoner? Ordinary citizens, like intellectual elites, looked to the Bible for insights into human nature, social order, public authority, the rights and duties of citizens, and other concepts essential to establishing a stable polity. The common man would have agreed, for example, that biblical morality, as expressed in the Ten Commandments, was vital for nurturing the civic virtues that gave citizens like himself the capacity for self-government.

Indeed, as the editors of Proclaim Liberty point out, the Hebrew Bible, far from being an influence limited to the American elite, was “a source for, and an element of, collective identity and self-identification.” This was especially true of the 17th-century New England Puritans, but it has also been true of those Americans, across the broad sweep of the nation’s history, who have “endowed the people of the United States with an identity set apart from that of the other nations.”

Early Americans also took from Scripture, and especially from the story of man’s fall in the Garden of Eden, a view of humankind as radically sinful—a view that informed the country’s governing design as developed in the national Constitution. The separation of powers and the system of checks and balances embodied in that document reflect an awareness of this fallen, inherently sinful nature and, consequently, the need to guard against the concentration of power vested in human actors.

Over the course of many generations, Americans also wove into their constitutional traditions specific principles and measures said to have been derived from the Hebrew Bible and transmitted to the colonies by way of English common law and customs. Among them eventually would be constitutional provisions ranging from the need for multiple witnesses of malfeasance for purposes of conviction and punishment, to the concepts of double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment, to national standards for weights and measures.

Indeed, according to James Madison’s notes, the understanding of human nature contained in Hebrew Scripture contributed substantively to the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In the Convention’s waning days, for example, during a debate on the qualifications for public office, the venerable Benjamin Franklin spoke in opposition to any proposal that, in his words, “tended to debase the spirit of the common people.” “We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in rulers,” Franklin said, invoking Jethro’s advice to Moses regarding qualifications for prospective Israelite rulers, “that they should be men hating covetousness.”

 

These episodes and many others serve to remind us of the extent to which Hebrew Scripture informed the American political imagination. In doing so, they challenge the popular narrative that the American founding, sandwiched between two great spiritual awakenings, was the product of an enlightened age when rationalism was in the ascendancy and the Bible was, if not rejected outright, relegated to the sidelines.

For that reminder, and relatedly for edifying us toward a more capacious understanding of the American experiment in general, we owe a special debt of gratitude to Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope and to the compilers, editors, and expositors of Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land.

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More about: American founding, American Revolution, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas