The United States is Not a Miracle

10052~god-bless-america-posters1231428544One of the points that Richard Dreyfuss hammered home the other day was the idea that “America is a miracle.”  He never got around to explaining what he meant, but I suspect that most people in the room agreed.  For most Americans I assume that some version of this claim is taken as a given.  I have little patience with such references, not because I “hate my country” but because I have no way of making sense of it as both a teacher and as a working historian.  By definition a miracle constitutes an an interruption of the laws of nature that can only be explained by divine intervention. It may also be understood along secular lines as a statistically unlikely event or a unique/special or rare occasion such as birth or even a natural disaster.

The secular definition doesn’t trouble me much since it is a matter of playing loose with certain concepts.  We know what someone means when they describe the birth of a child or the size of a shark as a miracle of nature.  The issue is not one of a lack of explanation.  What does trouble me is the idea that the United States is the result of some kind of divine intervention.  I think here something has to give between the goal of teaching students civics/history and understanding this nation as a miracle.  At its root the assumption that divine intervention/God has something to do with the birth of this nation precludes any attempt to explain or understand it.  It essentially rips the period in question from the broader history of Europe and the rest of the world.  Of course, In class we trace the origins of this nation into the 16th century as well as the ideas that formed the bedrock of our founding documents.  I expect my students to be able to explain why Europeans settled in the western hemisphere and how ideas evolved throughout this period.  For a teacher to push an interpretation that explains the founding of this nation apart from this broader narrative is tantamount to simple storytelling rather than engaging in serious historical explanation.

More to the point, such an idea undercuts my ability as a history teacher to present the past in all of its complexity.  There was nothing miraculous about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 or the formulation of the Bill of Rights.  It was a process that was frought with compromise (on some pretty heavy moral issues) mistrust and a sense of urgency in the wake of the Revolution.  One of the most important things that I emphasize when I am teaching this period, especially the Constitutions Convention of 1787, is that it did not have to turn out the way it did.  At any point delegates from the various states could have decided that a closed convention with the shades drawn in temperatures above 90 degrees was simply not to their liking.  We can easily imagine alternative outcomes.  My students read the entire Constitution, but they are told to do so as a product of a contested debate over the meaning of freedom and competing memories of the Revolution.  They don’t sit there and gawk at it as having emerged out of nothing.  There is nothing miraculous at all about it.

And isn’t that the reason why we should press on with the work of making sure that each generation has a certain level of understanding of how our government works?  We should teach civics and history because this nation (like any other nation) is not a miracle.  If it were we could simply wait around for that next moment of divine intervention.  I choose not to hold my breadth and to continue with my work.

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68 comments… add one

  • jfe Nov 19, 2009

    I'm willing to say the US is a miracle in the following sense: I think it is miraculous that such a diverse and talented group of men came together to create the nation and form its government. Yes, lots of compromises had to be made, some with tragic consequences in the 1860s. For all its flaws, I think the Constitution is a miraculous document. Where I draw the line is in *teaching* about it. You don't teach to your own beliefs. That is just wrong. The people who want to teach about the United States as part of “God's plan” are engaged in bizarre theology, not history.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

      No disagreement here, but that is a relatively benign understanding of the concept in question since it doesn't preclude the possibility of explanation.

      • jfe Nov 19, 2009

        Well, I'm a generally benign sort of fellow ;-)

  • Bob_Pollock Nov 19, 2009

    Much to the chagrin of my parents and several other family members who are conservative evangelical Christians, I am not religious. I put little stock in “miracles.” Having said that, you wrote: “…it did not have to turn out the way it did.” Therein lies the “miracle.”

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

      Touche…but not so fast. I would argue that the miracle outcome is one that would have made a civil war unnecessary. Now that's a miracle scenario worth defending. :) Perhaps our standards need to be raised? I don't know…that's why the claim is merely a value statement.

      • Bob_Pollock Nov 19, 2009

        You are absolutely right. So we are back to injecting our moral values into the conversation aren't we?
        Which means we can emphasize all the tragic aspects of the history of the U.S., we can emphasize all the positive, or we face it all and see if one outweighs the other. (So far, my belief is the latter.)

  • msimons Nov 19, 2009

    I see as a Miracle as definded both ways Kevin on several points.
    1. Miltary Science – On paper and based upon previous performance the Brits should have crushed the Rebels like cockroachs.
    2. That 13 Colonies would work together in any great extent to form this new nation.
    3. That this county has survied desipite our diverse population for over 220 years.

    My belief in a God that overseas and superintends the affairs of men doesn't cause me to stand still in wait but it drives me to pray and seek guidance and by Faith to move ahead. The Recorded Prayers by the CC and others in the Revolutionary War Period shows they looked beyond themselves to found this nation.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

      If you are using 'miracle' to convey your emotional attitude re: the events in question then so be it. Who am I to challenge how you feel about the past. My problem is with the way people use it to explain the past. It was not a miracle that 13 colonies chose to work together once we look into the reasons why they did so.

      • Rob Wick Nov 19, 2009

        Also, it wasn't a miracle that the British didn't defeat us militarily. It was because of incompetent generalship from Howe and others. Read Ferling's biography of Washington.

        Best
        Rob

        • toby Nov 20, 2009

          And don't forget France. There were more French military personnel (counting the Navy) at Yorktown than American. No French navy – Cornwallis would have escaped by sea. No French allies of the Americans – Britain would not have to send resources to defend her valuable Caribbean possessions, ot Gibraltar.

          Maybe the miracle was De Grasse gaining the vital months free of the Royal Navy. or that the RN did not have Howe (the brother) or Rodney in command. Maybe God wanted the Americans to win so that France would go bankrupt and cause the French revolution!

          • woodrowfan Nov 21, 2009

            That's what I was thinking. It wasn't a miracle, it was skill and intelligence on the part of men like Franklin who understood diplomacy, understood how the international system worked, and were able to use it to their benefit.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2009

              That's absolutely right and to the extent that you push this “miracle” nonsense you minimize the importance of men like Franklin who worked so hard to bring about a new government.

            • Bob_Pollock Nov 21, 2009

              Kevin,

              I can't agree that people who see the U.S. as a miracle in any way diminish the importance of Franklin. Franklin and the other Founding Fathers have all been revered throughout American history and in fact, people who believe in miracles are often the same people who decry the fact that historians like to point out all the faults in American heroes.

              • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2009

                I disagree. If by 'miracle' we mean an event that cannot be explained then I do believe we are doing a disservice to the past. We can explain quite a bit about how Franklin and others (along with broader considerations) worked to bring about a new government in 1787. Of course, we will never have a complete explanation, but that is irrelevant to my point.

                If you simply want to use the term to convey a sense of wonder and awe, so be it.

  • Rob Wick Nov 19, 2009

    I think if a person begins down this path, there are far too many twists and turns which will surprise and disappoint them. One could argue that the installation of Hitler was a miracle (a nefarious one, no doubt) because a group of ordinarily reasonable people chose irrationalism over their own best interests. One could argue that in Soviet Russia a miracle occurred because a government insisted on putting its bastardized political theory over the interests of its own citizens, with disastrous results. Most would argue that neither is a miracle because the word, with its religious connotations, only means a good end result. But if one uses the dictionary definition, it can also mean something which is exceptional or unlikely, which I think both my examples could reasonably fit.

    With all due respect to Catherine Drinker Bowen, there was no miracle at Philadelphia. As Kevin has ably pointed out, it was a battle which required compromise, some of which would prove reprehensible. Yet what evolved eventually became one of the world's best forms of government. However, it could have happened anywhere. Where is it written that other nations couldn't have had the same outcome, and in a slightly different form, didn't? The concept of freedom is not uniquely American. Magna Carta, anyone?

    I've often said that America is a wonderful place to live, raise a family and realize one's own potential, but it has nothing to do with some mystical “miracle” which happened centuries ago. I love John Adams' quote which John Ferling uses to open his wonderful biography of George Washington. “The story of those events would be 'one continued lie from one end to the other,' he [Adams] once predicted in a not uncustomarily bilious moment. 'The essence of the whole,' he went on, 'will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and thenceforth those two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war'.”

    Abraham Lincoln's birth and his ascent into the presidency was also not divine intervention. Just a few votes in another direction and we easily could have had Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge or John Bell as president in 1860. Yet, given the outcome, we often see it as some divine intervention simply because we don't want to accept the noxious truth that our historical path isn't straight or narrow and that but for the intervention of France during the Revolution or the non-intervention of Europe during the Civil War, among other intangibles, we could still be British subjects or two countries where one used to exist.

    This same so-called “miracle” could happen, with few exceptions, where any individual was determined to make it happen. Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel all made it happen outside the borders of America. Impressive? Yes. Laudable? Of course. Miraculous? Only if you believe in fantasy.

    Best
    Rob

    • Bob_Pollock Nov 19, 2009

      It is not what might have happened that makes things miraculous, it's that that they did happen.

      Kevin, you mention birth as a miracle of nature. We, of course, know far more about all the things that have to happen before a birth can occur than we ever have, but the very fact that these things do fall into place to make a birth possible only makes it more miraculous, not less. The fact that we can imagine so many alternatives to our history makes it more miraculous not less. My take on this, I suppose, falls more into your “secular definition.” Whether or not there is a God directing human affairs is whole 'nother debate which ultimately must be decided by one's own faith.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

        You said: “…but the very fact that these things do fall into place to make a birth possible only makes it more miraculous, not less.”

        I don't dispute that the parents of a newborn view their child as a “miracle”, but as far as I am concerned that is nothing more than their attitude about the process and outcome. We are still able to explain what happened.

        Like I said earlier, I have no problem with a secular definition that places the weight of the concept on how one chooses to view/interpret an event[s]. The fact that we can imagine alternatives seems to me to steer us in the direction of explanation. If we can explain it then we have some understanding of why it occurred. My problem with the religious notion is that it rips it out of the broader narrative. It implies that it can't be explained.

        • Bob_Pollock Nov 19, 2009

          I'm no biologist, but I don't think we have figured out yet the “mystery of life.” Similarly, despite all the work of historians, there is no definitive “explanation” of history. I actually think the religious interpretations of history are an attempt explain what can't be explained.

  • Craig Nov 19, 2009

    I figure you are judging this the wrong way. I mean, it could be that God stopped the British, or He changed the words of Jefferson to say “all men are created equal,” or he helped Washington to find the Delaware. You don't judge stuff like this based on merit. Now, whether or not America is an “according to Hoyle” miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that we all feel the touch of some higher propose…. Now if you will excuse me, I have to give Marcellus his case….

  • cpwehner Nov 19, 2009

    I agree that if what someone means by our country as a “miracle” that there was some kind of divine intervention, that we only have to “simply wait around for that next moment of divine intervention.”

    Are we splitting hairs here? You stated that “. It may also be understood along secular lines as a statistically unlikely event or a unique/special or rare occasion such as birth or even a natural disaster.” Unique, Unlikely, a Miracle…

    Also, can a religious person who believes in God's intervention still believe in our role in that and not have to stop and wait around. I don't believe the Puritans simply waited around for God to take over.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

      I don't think I am splitting hairs at all. If an event can only be explained via divine intervention then human choice is ancillary at best. In a sense we end up behaving in a way that conforms to the particular shape of the intervention. I've always believed that a God that is all-knowing and all-powerful poses a fundamental problem for our naive ideas concerning free will. In short, to the extent that God intervenes our assumptions about free will take a back seat. After all, if God is the ultimate film director then we must behave according to a set script. I don't teach American history this way. My job is to teach my students how to think critically about the conditions that led to and shaped, for example, the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

      Whether an event is statistically unlikely in principle it can still be explained. Consider histories of Hurricane Katrina. That was clearly an unlikely event, but it has been explained in a great amount of detail. If you want to call that a miracle go ahead.

      • Bob_Pollock Nov 19, 2009

        I agree with your quandry over God and free will, which is one reason I'm not the Christian my parents would like me to be.
        The problem is that history is not a science in the sense that it can be brought into a laboratory and repeated under controlled circumstances. And humans can't be counted on to react to the same set of circumstances the same way every time. No matter how well we think we have figured out the character of a person, they can still surprise us and act out of character. In addition, how can you ever explain why, for example, Abraham Lincoln was born in the nineteenth century instead of the sixteenth? And if he had been, wouldn't that have changed the course of history? Some things are unexplainable, unless you believe there is someone up there calling the shots. It seems to me it's either that, or things happen randomly. I still think we can and should do our best to understand cause and effect, but ultimately we're just making educated guesses.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

          I certainly agree that history is not a science; however, we do attempt to explain what happened (even if our explanations are necessarily incomplete) as in science. In addition, I agree that our subjects (i.e., people) are very difficult targets, but again, we do our best.

          I'm not sure why I have to be able to explain why Abraham Lincoln was born in the nineteenth century instead of the sixteenth century. The fact is that he was. That said, we can explain why Lincoln was born on a biological level. I assume it has something to do with his parents and their ability to reproduce. Finally, I fail to see why there has to be “someone up there” to be able to explain an event. I certainly did not want to get into a discussion about the ultimate nature of things or prime mover. I am happy to go there if necessary. :)

          • Bob_Pollock Nov 19, 2009

            I'm only saying that no matter how much we think we know, things do happen that are beyond the ability of man to control and beyond our ability to explain. The biological reasons for Lincoln's birth are not the point. His parents could well have had a child that was not “Abraham Lincoln.” Wouldn't you agree that the course of history would have been different if Abraham Lincoln had not been born? A whole series of inter-related events had to occur in order for the Civil War to unfold the way it did. A whole series of events had to occur in order for the nation to be born. Some of them, perhaps many, were random, unless you believe God is directing human history. I happen to think things probably happen randomly (S*%t happens!). That is why I think it is miraculous that this country was formed and has survived. And since I think the positive aspects of American history outwiegh the negative, I believe it's a good miracle.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

              You said: “Some of them, perhaps many, were random, unless you believe God is directing human history. I happen to think things probably happen randomly (S*%t happens!).”

              What must our working assumption be that either God directs human history or things happen randomly? More importantly, if events are random then it is impossible to explain the past. So, what is this enterprise called history?

            • Bob_Pollock Nov 19, 2009

              “What must our working assumption be that either God directs human history or things happen randomly?”

              Tell me your alternative.

              “More importantly, if events are random then it is impossible to explain the past.”

              This is what I've been saying, although “the past” is a broad term. More specifically, certain events in history can't be explained.

              “So, what is this enterprise called history?”

              It is the recording of events that occured in the past even if we can't explain them. Given what we know, we try to explain why certain things happened, but our knowledge is limited. We can never know all there is to know. Even if we have something approximating the truth, we will never be able to completely control the future by applying this knowledge because the exact same sequence of events never occurs twice. This doesn't mean we should stop trying, only that we shouldn't be surprised if things don't turn out the way we thought they would.

              BTW, Thanks for the discussion.

              • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

                1. If you are a materialist then in principle all events that can be reduced to the physical can in principle be explained.

                2. What kind of events can't be explained and why? What is the distinction based on?

                3. First, no one is talking about controlling the future. I think we need to distinguish between the metaphysical claim of what constitutes the past and our ability (epistemology) to accurately interpret it. As I said earlier, while the past may be limited as a finite series of events our knowledge will always fall short. I don't see how the epistemological question has to do with how we conceive of the past.

                Any time. :)

      • Anonymous Nov 19, 2009

        How can this be splitting hairs? Chris, you claim to teach history. This should teach you that you need to be humble because how many faiths have claimed to know God's will and been proven wrong (by the standard that their faith went extinct)? The Sumerians/Egyptians/Greeks/Romans/&c thought they knew God's plan, but oh how wrong they were. I forgot, you know what the true will of God is, and can thus proclaim with authority what is a miracle and what is not. But the obvious point remains, that a “miracle” is only whatever a religious authority proclaims it to be (a fringe radical Islamic cleric might proclaim 9/11 a miracle because against overwhelming odds the will of God prevailed against the Jew-Christian infidels to strike that nest of vipers in its very bastion). But, if dispute remains, and religious groups dispute what constitutes a miracle, does this not rely upon a value judgment? Is there any other justification beyond “My faith is right because I believe and yours is wrong because I don't believe?”

  • Michaela Nov 19, 2009

    I would be interested what causes the confusion of this kind of positivism saying the US is founded on a “miracle”, particularly when ample evidence shows that many groups of the American people would disagree (native Americans, descendants of slaves, etc). Along the same lines, is R. Dreyfuss' claim not a typical statement of a white (privileged, I may add) man? Also, how many other nations that chose Christianity or any one world religion as their main religion believe that they are a country founded on a miracle or that they are chosen by God? As there are a couple of constitutions around that are quite “miraculous” in comparison to the US it would be interesting if one did a comparative study and looked at constitutions of different countries and examined the religious believes and attitude of the people toward their countries. Common features of different constitutions may, of course, originate in similar sources, such as prominent philosophical ideas from that time, etc.

    On Mr. Dreyfuss' web site he emphasizes how one should welcome dissent in the classroom. That notion is automatically crushed by defining the founding of the United States as a miracle. And as a teacher I might add that you do not set a horrible stage for a dialogue with your students if this is meant in either, a sacred or secular way.

    As a biologist I might add that there is nothing miraculous about the birth of a baby, even if we haven't explained “life” yet. In fact, nature is not miraculous. That is, again, a very uninteresting and unhelpful claim to understand mechanisms, organisms and pathways. But I would hope that every parent still maintains that their child's birth was a miracle in the sense of parental love ; )

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2009

      I completely agree with you. This is why I conclude that references to the US as a “miracle” must be understood as value statements. They are not statements of fact, but a reflection of the individual's attitude. If they mean something more than that then we have to deal with a host of other questions/problems.

  • cpwehner Nov 20, 2009

    “How can this be splitting hairs? Chris, you claim to teach history. This should teach you that you need to be humble because how many faiths have claimed to know God's will and been proven wrong (by the standard that their faith went extinct)? “

    I don't claim to I do, WHOEVER YOU ARE. (BTW- I don't allow Anonymous comments on my site, so.)

    Humble? Hmmm… Ican think of a few on this site that would want to consider that as well.

    Anyway, my only point was did Dreyfuss literally mean that by a miracle God intervened in America? If so than that is a poor use of wordage. Were we splitting hairs with his word usage simply becuase we don't care for the potential meaning of it.

    Whatever…

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2009

      Chris,

      I think you are overreacting here. The writer responded to your comment and did not insult you. You may not allow anonymous comments on your own site, but you seem to have no problem if they choose to insult me. Funny that you don't see such a blatant double-standard.

      Here is the comment: “I wonder if this were Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Jodie Foster, Meg Ryan, Drew Barrymore, Danny DeVito, Ellen DeGeneres, Matthew Perry, Billy Crystal, Sharon Stone, Bill Maher, Martin Sheen and many others is Levin or his elite Liberal students would have had such an issue… what if they had been ask to recite Karl Marx, “Capital”, would those brain washed students stood and applauded!!! Would Levin be even making a big deal of this….

      But true, What and the hell was Dreyfuss thinking to go to that Liberal elitest school!!?”

      • cpwehner Nov 20, 2009

        Kevin where did I say this person “insulted” me, where? Also, the comment you quote above I clearly responded and defended you. I wrote in response, ” I sincerely doubt Levin would support them any more than Dreyfuss, I think you’re wrong.”

        http://www.blog4history.com/2009/11/772/

        You have now twice put words in my mouth that were not there in the last 24 hours, once on my blog and now here. I did not say “Anonymous” insulted me. Please review and tell me if this is the case or not?

        • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2009

          You didn't say that, but you were clearly defensive.

          Yes, you did respond, but why would you allow the comment through and at the same time inquire as to why I allow an anonymous comment that is not insulting in any way? Of course, you are now going to respond that you didn't say that, but your comment certainly implies it.

          • cpwehner Nov 20, 2009

            O.K. Kevin, if you want to play the “implied” game, I can do that. I'd rather not.

            If someone stated about you, “you claim to teach history.” You would, of course, take the high road, I get it.

            I guess I can't get defensive, you never are… Gee, what am I implying here!?

            C'mon. Can we stop with this.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2009

              Apparently I am not the only person who perceives your continuous poking. I am not being defensive. Just don't get upset with an anonymous post that was respectful when you allow people to trash me on your own site. Anyone who has read your blog over the past few weeks knows that you have used every opportunity to mangle my own commentary.

              Best,
              “The Enemy of American Exceptionalism”

  • cpwehner Nov 20, 2009

    O.K., you win…. I was defensive!!! Ugh!

    “Anyone who has read your blog over the past few weeks knows that you have used every opportunity to mangle my own commentary.”

    I have pointed out things that I do not agree with. I have poked fun at you, just as you have with me. So what is your point? Are you saying you're “victim” of something?

    And finally, this can go on and on…

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2009

      No you haven't. You completely missed my points about teaching the concept of American Exceptionalism and made some wild assumptions about me that couldn't be further from the truth. You allow people to post absolute trash about me and then wonder why you don't get the warmest reception here. No one has ever challenged your teaching or you as a person on this site. It's not about being defensive. I just don't have much to say to you.

  • cpwehner Nov 20, 2009

    No, Kevin you have had plenty to say about me. And you have, just as I have. And I have not misunderstood you anymore than you misunderstand me. You want to play the good guy all the time, fine. You leave me along on this blog and I'll leave you alone, if not this will continue.

    Chris

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2009

      Thank you for going away. This little thread is hereby is closed.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2009

    Just a note to everyone that this thread remains open. I only meant to close the exchange with Chris Wehner. Feel free to fire away.

    • Anonymous Nov 22, 2009

      Kevin,

      If anything this post shows why it is necessary for people (elites, academics, interested persons, call them whatever you want to call them) to be interested in history enough to devote serious consideration to what history actually is. And I don't think there is necessarily an answer to that question but that we can learn a lot from considering it. Or to put things slightly differently, what constitutes “historical fact?” To reduce things further, what is a “fact?” To some this may seem like something beside the point, or inane egghead gibberish, but to be sincere one should at least attempt to tease out the implications of what they claim to practice. I think this post has revealed that those who speak about history need to at least consider what the axioms of history are, or at least the epistemology that is behind history. And, it may also be worth pointing out that if we even utter the word “epistemology” we have moved to someplace other than faith (because faith can never be learned or taught, only experienced firsthand). This is also to say, that if one claims to practice history, then when one employs the word “miracle” it can only pertain as an analogy. If one uses the word “miracle” in any other sense, then one has moved beyond the practice of history into faith. This, of course, is not to say that one cannot talk of a historical event as a “miracle,” only that when you have done so, you are no longer speaking as a historian, and thus should not claim that.

      And I will admit to Chris that I was overly abrasive in the last post I made. What I meant by the last post was not to assault Chris, but to pose the question “Can you ever speak with the language of faith as a historian.” Because if a historian trades in the empirical (and epistemological), then can a historian ever trade in faith?

      A last point, to be entirely clear about this, is that my point is not that a believer cannot practice history, only that history cannot admit certain language/propositions, because if it does, it is no longer history.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2009

        I'm not sure it's necessary for historians to become philosophers of history, but I agree that we do need to distinguish between history and religion. History has a certain ontology that allows us to engage in explanation through the collection of evidence and interpretation. How someone feels about a past event/individual is to engage in an endeavor that must be located outside of the epistemology of historical studies..

  • Sherree Tannen Nov 22, 2009

    Kevin,

    One thing that is curious about conversations on this topic is the absence of discussion of the influence of Deism on the ideas of the Enlightenment, and on the Founding Fathers. As always–and as it should be–there are swirling debates about this topic in the historical community, so there is no definitive answer. There is the possibility, however, that Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and other of the Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by Deism, and not by the Judeo Christian tradition. There is also the very strong likelihood (and in my mind, no doubt) that the interaction of the Founding Fathers with indigenous nations helped to form their worldview, and that the intermingling of the best of European ideas and of those of indigenous societies, went into the early creation of this nation. (For those interested in pursuing this topic, History News Network offers opinions from a broad range of perspectives. Just Google “Iroquois” once you are on the site.)

    The problem comes in when the parameters of the debate are put into an either/or framework, when the answer is both, neither, or none of the available options. For instance, on the question of whether or not the Iroquois influenced the writing of the constitution, one argument goes: prove that with primary source documents. Well, that is almost impossible to do when it comes to written documents, since the Iroquois did not keep written records and relied upon (and still rely upon to some extent) a complex system of oral history, laws, and customs. Nevertheless, to the strictest adherents to this standard, the conclusion must, therefore, be that, thus, the Iroquois did not influence the Founding Fathers. The next argument goes, the Founders did keep written documents and they do not mention the influence of the Iroquois except in fleeting observations, thus, the Iroquois did not influence the writing of the constitution. That is a fair observation. My next question would be, however, how do you quantify the elements and influences that create a worldview? Also, maybe we just don't have the evidence yet.

    The point that many are missing is that the potential influence that the Iroquois had on the writing of the constitution merits the study that it has, and is, receiving.

    This does not present a threat to democracy. It is not a denial of the genius of the Founding Fathers. It is not a “feel good” piece of false history for “Native Americans”. It is not a “politically correct” ploy to undermine the American narrative (are the Iroquois not Americans, too, or just when we need them to be?) It is, instead, the continued study of an invaluable part of American history that illustrates the vast richness of our heritage, and that speaks to the contributions made to that history by the Iroquois.

    As long as we do not recognize in our historical narrative, the equal power, legitimacy, and role that each group who created our history holds, and view those narratives as integral parts of the one narrative that is America’s history, then we will continue to engage in what cannot but be, in the end, a zero sum game of self destruction, each group matching the other group’s bad dream for bad dream. (For example, on HNN, one scholar pointed out in a lengthy essay that it is an historical fact that the Iroquois practiced cannibalism. As far as evidence suggests to date, yes, they did. What is this man’s point? Shall we go into a litany of abuses that America’s European descended founding ancestors engaged in? as in, for instance, that model of civilized activity in the land of the Puritans–the Salem witch trials under Cotton Mather? Or, the Sullivan-Clinton expedition against the Iroquois that George Washington ordered, antedating the “scorched earth“ policy attributed to Sherman? When, and where, does this stop? When no one is left standing?)

    Those are a lot of questions that may not have any answers, Kevin. Thanks for hearing me out, though. Just some thoughts to ponder this Thanksgiving.

    My hat is off to the courageous young students of Ole Miss who backed the klan down! Bravo! That is certainly America at its best.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 22, 2009

      Let me just say that I believe the Founders would be horrified by the extent to which we attribute religious motives behind what they accomplished in Philadelphia in 1787. They had every opportunity to create a theocracy and they chose not to. They chose not to in order to protect religion and it worked beyond anyone's imagination. These men were children of the Enlightenment and many of them were indeed deists. Actually, I believe that some of them were atheists, but chose not to reveal their positions for the obvious reasons. I would love to know how many congressmen are atheists who profess a belief in God.

      “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;” — Treaty with Tripoli (1796)

      • Sherree Tannen Nov 22, 2009

        I agree fully with what you have said, Kevin.

      • margaretdblough Nov 22, 2009

        Kevin,

        I wish the book, “Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison,” was assigned reading in schools. It is noteworthy that there was no real debate on the section barring religious tests for public office and no indication of opposition. (That, BTW, is the ONLY mention of religion in the original text of the Constitution as ratified. In addition, there is also the section on religion in Jefferson's “Notes on the State of Virginia” (the sections dealing with race and slavery are awful, though) in which he memorably states, ” But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only<<

  • John Stoudt Nov 22, 2009

    Well, this horse might not be dead, but it certainly has been beaten.

    At one level, I think that there is simply too great a divide between the opinion held by many social and/or Christian conservatives that American history is part of God's plan and those who disagree with that worldview. One either believes it or not.

    At a different level, I think that American Exceptionalism can be taught in the classroom if it is specific to a people and a time. That research would require a great deal of quantification, primary sources, time, and work.

    Earlier I posted a question about a version of American Exceptionalism based on a Biblical defense of slavery. Well, here is a different question: how many Confederate chaplains served in the Army of Northern Virginia during the war? What was their background, their theology, their worldview? Did any write in agreement or in opposition to the Biblical justification of slavery?

    Instead of focusing on the famous generals, what did the chaplains believe, regarding slavery, states' rights, the tariff, etc? I assume that they believed that the Confederacy was “Exceptional,” but what were their justifications?

    Lastly, and I mean this as a positive criticism, I think that you and Mr. Wehner do not necessarily bring out the best in each other. Your exchanges might draw attention and attract visitors to your blogs, but the testiness and emotion by each of you is a drawback.

    Thanks for the thought provoking pieces.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2009

      You may want to read the introduction to “Chaplain Davis and Hood's Texas Brigade.” This is one area where we still need significant research. Much of what is available falls far short of scholarly research. http://www.amazon.com/Chaplain-Davis-Hoods-Texa

      Thanks for the “positive criticism”. I tend to agree with you. Luckily it doesn't happen very often though Chris seems to be much more interested in me in recent weeks. Honestly, I don't know why, but after a while it becomes very difficult not to respond especially after your own words are so mangled.

  • acwresearcher Nov 23, 2009

    Kevin:
    As someone who teaches both history and religion (I teach US History, Constitution and Civil War, and the Bible in History and Literature) and who is a person of faith, this is the quandry I face on a daily basis. My analysis of the world tells me we can and do explain things in human terms, but there are a few things that can only be explained by one's faith. Those few things are far outweighed by the multitude of things which are explained and demand an explanation — history being one of the multitude. Yes, you can explain a miracle in secular terms: an event that occurs outside the realm of probability; and that could apply to events in history. You cannot, however, apply the religious definition of a miracle to historical events — that being an event that occurs outside the realm of possibility. It is possible that this country and its Consitution came into being outside the realm of probability, but it was well within the realm of possibility. Yes, history is a series of seemingly random events, but these are all based on a set of choices made by human beings. There is nothing either miraculous or random about that. In most cases, these choices were documented through diaries, journals, letters, newspapers, actual laws passed, records of debate in Congress or conventions or any other primary source, and, while we may not ever be able to fully explain these events, we are more likely to explain them and understand them when we apply human reason rather than any concept of the miraculous.

    Sherree:
    You are correct in the assessment theat a great deal has been bandied about regarding the influence of Deism on the Founders. One of the better works I have seen on the subject, which takes a very objective approach to the matter, is Steven Waldman's _Founding Faith_ (Random House, 2008) Waldman is editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com, but he takes a very balanced approach to the subject and outlines that much of the Founders' resistance to an established religion is based on what they saw as failed experiments to institute one in certain individual colonies, as well as the actual religious influences on their lives. (Massachusetts is the most glaring example, but others also tried.) It is a good read and a very informative look at some of the more prominent founders' (Adams, Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, specifically) views on religion and religious freedom.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 23, 2009

      Thanks for the comment, which I pretty much agree with, as well as the book reference.

    • Bob_Pollock Nov 23, 2009

      Ok, after arguing for the idea that there is something miraculous about the U.S. this is going to sound like I'm jumping the fence, but, Christianity is based on what Christians believe to be an actual historic event – the resurrection of Jesus. No resurrection means no Christianity. If we can explain everything else about the past why should we accept that there is no explanation for that? I assume that this is the kind of “religous miracle” you refer to.

      • toby Nov 24, 2009

        Miracle has two meanings – a “high” meaning of supernatural event without other explanation. A “lower” meaning is that of an object of wonder, as in “the mobile phone is a miracle of miniaturized design”.

        When we say something is a miracle, do we mean? Two people may say that “The USA is a miracle” with either a high or low meaning. To me, my baby grandson is a “miracle”, but only in the sense that I think he is wonderful. However, I believe he is the product of completely natural events.

        I think the Founding Fathers (mainly, but I am straying outside my knowledge) went with David Hume on the subject of “high” miracles. They believed that it was more likely someone got duped or mistaken than that a supernatural being intervened. Didn't Jefferson write a Life of Jesus for the Indians, with all the miracles left out? On the Resurrection, I am not sure, but I think they (Jefferson & Franklin, probably Washington) would have regarded Jesus as a great teacher, and that to follow Christian precepts, it was not necessary to believe he was the son of God.

        • acwresearcher Nov 24, 2009

          Jefferson did indeed write his own copy of the Gospels with all of the miracles removed. In addition, most of what I have read about Jefferson does not lead me to believe that he accepted Christ's divinity and did not believe He had developed as a philosopher when He was crucified. Washington attended church regularly, but did not attend when Communion was taken — the sacrament that represents Christ's body and blood. My take based on the reading I have done is that he did not believe that about the sacrament, therefore did not partake in it. That would lend itself to his disbelief in what you call a “high” miracle.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2009

        “If we can explain everything else about the past why should we accept that there is no explanation for that?” I don't know why anyone should accept it. Seems to me an individual has as much of a reason to accept it as another does to reject it. Resurrection is definitely one of those miracles with a capital M.

        • acwresearcher Nov 24, 2009

          I agree with you when you say “I don't know why anyone should accept it. Seems to me an individual has as much of a reason to accept it as another does to reject it.” No one has to accept it. Therin lies the concept of free will.

      • acwresearcher Nov 24, 2009

        You are correct in that the resurrection of Christ is a “religious miracle,” however, there is some historical basis to the event. Christ did live; Jewish historian Flavius Josephus outlined his life. Did he rise from the dead? Well, while that is a matter of faith and would qualify as a “religious miracle.” I did, however, state that most things in this world are able to be explained through the application of human reason rather than any concept of the miraculous, including most things in history. I'll be happy to defend the resurrection of Christ as a “religious miracle” — one you may not choose to believe in, but even I, a person of faith, do not equate the resurrection of Christ with the founding of the US.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2009

          There is some historical basis to what event? If you mean that Jesus existed I certainly agree, but the question of his resurrection is an entirely different matter and one that I am not going to get into here for the obvious reasons. Thanks as always.

          • Anonymous Nov 24, 2009

            I think you draw a good distinction here Kevin. Jesus existed, but whether or not he was the Christ is a matter for faith.

          • acwresearcher Nov 24, 2009

            Thanks for calling that one. Most historians do not deny that Christ lived. The question, one that you are absolutely right in implying would be better debated elsewhere, is where this whole miracle thing, as related to this specific event, lies.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2009

              Let me just add for clarity that I believe the religious life of the Founding generation to be very important as is religious history as a whole. That said, nothing about how I judge them in a moral context one way or the other hinges on whether they believed in God, attended church, etc.

    • Sherree Nov 24, 2009

      Hi Greg, Nice to hear from you. Thanks for the book reference, and have a happy Thanksgiving.

  • boydharris Nov 24, 2009

    Getting past the myth of “inevitability” is one of the main goals in teaching history. One of our professors, here at UNC-Charlotte, is teaching a freshman history class and using alternative history books. They study the Revolution, Civil War, and WWII and then read alternative histories about these events. Beyond the initial confusion of some of the students, I believe this approach could be very effective in teaching critical analysis. “What Ifs?” can help illustrate to students the other options that were available, and hopefully, provide insight into our nation's development.

    On a personal note, I have been reading this blog for only about a month. I study Civil War commemoration, specifically the commemoration of the Battle of Fort Pillow, so I really enjoy reading about the current trends and events in Civil War memory. Keep up the good work, Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2009

      I do a couple of lessons that utilize counterfactuals. They can be very effective when done right. Thanks for the kind words re: the blog. Hope to hear more from you.

  • boydharris Nov 24, 2009

    Getting past the myth of “inevitability” is one of the main goals in teaching history. One of our professors, here at UNC-Charlotte, is teaching a freshman history class and using alternative history books. They study the Revolution, Civil War, and WWII and then read alternative histories about these events. Beyond the initial confusion of some of the students, I believe this approach could be very effective in teaching critical analysis. “What Ifs?” can help illustrate to students the other options that were available, and hopefully, provide insight into our nation's development.

    On a personal note, I have been reading this blog for only about a month. I study Civil War commemoration, specifically the commemoration of the Battle of Fort Pillow, so I really enjoy reading about the current trends and events in Civil War memory. Keep up the good work, Kevin.

  • acwresearcher Nov 24, 2009

    You are correct in that the resurrection of Christ is a “religious miracle,” however, there is some historical basis to the event. Christ did live; Jewish historian Flavius Josephus outlined his life. Did he rise from the dead? Well, while that is a matter of faith and would qualify as a “religious miracle.” I did, however, state that most things in this world are able to be explained through the application of human reason rather than any concept of the miraculous, including most things in history. I'll be happy to defend the resurrection of Christ as a “religious miracle” — one you may not choose to believe in, but even I, a person of faith, do not equate the resurrection of Christ with the founding of the US.

    I would further argue that thaose who accept the resurrection as both a fact and a miracle believe they have an explanation for it. A natural explanation? No. A phenomenal one? Yes.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2009

    There is some historical basis to what event? If you mean that Jesus existed I certainly agree, but the question of his resurrection is an entirely different matter and one that I am not going to get into here for the obvious reasons. Thanks as always.

  • Anonymous Nov 24, 2009

    I think you draw a good distinction here Kevin. Jesus existed, but whether or not he was the Christ is a matter for faith.

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