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Alexander Hamilton and the Evidence of Christianity

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 29 August 2010

Did Alexander Hamilton say

I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man

to a long-time acquaintance?

Well, maybe, sort of. This is another one of those sayings attributed to someone after his death, in which the vagaries of memory and the passage of time may well have taken their toll. There’s also a transmission problem with this one—what we have are actually two attributed quotations run together into one.

The ultimate source for these attributed quotations is a lengthy book by John Church Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s son), entitled History of the republic of the United States of America: as traced in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and of his cotemporaries. In volume seven, on page 790, we find the following passage:

It was the tendency to infidelity he saw so rife that led him often to declare in the social circle his estimate of Christian truth. “I have examined carefully,” he said to a friend from his boyhood, “the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor.” To another person, he observed, “I have studied it, and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.

John Church Hamilton attributes the first of these to the “Reminiscences of General Morton” (presumably Jacob Morton, 1761-1836) and leaves the second without attribution. Lacking context for either makes it difficult to judge the reliability of the attributions; we can’t tell for example if either General Morton or the unnamed “another person” were the alleged auditors of these words or whether they were passing on stories they’d heard from others. We also have no way of knowing what he meant (assuming he actually said these things) by “evidence of the Christian religion”, “authenticity”, or “its truth”. Are we talking theological authenticity, historical authenticity, or perhaps some sort of higher truth? We can’t tell.

In favor of these fragments is the fact that they are brought to us under the aegis of Hamilton’s son. We may assume, at the very least, that these are things he would have liked his father to have said, and most likely that they are things that it was in his character to say, at least as his son understood his character. This is far short of being able to say that the elder Hamilton actually said them; Hamilton the younger does not profess to have actually heard them. Despite the imprimatur of the son we are still at least at one remove from the original, and possibly more.

Now at this point we note that the quotation as usually given on the internet differs from the original in having had the context stripped away, the word “evidences” substituted for “evidence”, and the two separate sayings joined together as one. Obviously the material has been slightly mangled somehow in transmission—and most of the time I’d have to stop there, noting the fact of the change, but without being able to say at what point in the chain it happened. This information is often hard to run down, links may have been lost, or they may be in manuscript form not accessible to the community at large.

In this case, however, we actually can trace the steps of the mangling, thanks to the fact that the transmitters left a paper trail, as it were. They recorded the source of their information, making it possible to backtrack. And while it’s not actually necessary to trace the path of error, it may be instructive in showing the sorts of things that can happen in the course of transmission.

Hamilton’s history appeared in 1864, and a good two decades passed before Sarah Knowles Bolton, temperance reformer and writer of children’s books, came out with Famous American Statesmen. In a chapter on Alexander Hamilton the following passage occurs:

His chief relaxation from work was at “The Grange,” his summer home at Harlem Heights, not far from the spot, it is said, where he first attracted the eye of Washington. Beeches, maples, and many evergreens abounded. The Hudson River added its beauty to the picturesque place. Here he read the classics for pleasure, and the Bible. To a friend he said: “I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. … I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.” [p. 126]

Here the context has been stripped away, and Bolton has used an ellipsis to indicate that words are missing between the two sentences. This is not actually quite correct; these are two separate quotations, and the ellipsis means that they belong together as part of the same text. Still, as she was writing a book for children, she probably didn’t feel that she had to adhere to the standards used in writing serious works.

The next stage comes only a few years later when Baptist minister Stephen Abbott Northrup assembled a book of Christian quotations entitled A Cloud of Witnesses. For Alexander Hamilton he has:

I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.—Page 126, “Famous American Statesmen” by Sarah K. Bolton. [p. 208]

We see here that Northrup has completed the transformation by eliminating the ellipsis and changing the word “evidence” to “evidences”. From this we may easily infer that the common internet version goes back ultimately to Northrup—not surprisingly, really, given that those who quote this are looking for Christian-sounding sayings, and where better to look than a collection like A Cloud of Witnesses?

But in the end these quotations are an unreliable guide to Hamilton’s opinions; they are too far removed from the man himself. His own voluminous writings are a better window to his mind than a couple of unsourced context-free sayings that may—or may not—reflect his ideas. It would be better to avoid them in favor of more reliable material.

Links

History of the Republic of the United States of America (John Church Hamilton)

Famous American Statesmen (Sarah Knowles Bolton)

A Cloud of Witnesses (Stephen Abbott Northrup)

Posing in the Moonlight (sbh)

Dubious Quotation Appearances

Wisdom on Demand

Founding Fathers Quotes (Eades Home Ministry)

The Faith of Our Fathers Part 4 (Jim Bramlett)

What Early Manuscripts of the Bible Exist Today? (Prove the Bible; this author gives Northrup’s version while citing Bolton as his source)

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Questionable Quotes: Jefferson and the Sacred Volume

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 5 July 2009

Did Thomas Jefferson say

I have always said, and will always say, that studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens.

?

Maybe.  The words are not Thomas Jefferson’s directly; they are words recalled by someone else many years later.

It’s always chancy to rely on the recollection of a witness for the words of another person, and it’s even chancier to rely on them after the passage of some time.  This saying falls into both these categories.  On the other hand, as such things go, this one is better than most.  It’s not the recollection of some anonymous person at an unknown time; in this instance we know the path this recollection traveled, and can form some estimate of its reliability.

On 15 June 1852 Daniel Webster—statesman, former Senator, and then Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore—wrote a letter to “Professor Pease” (possibly Professor Calvin Pease, D.D. (1813-1863), who was active in the sabbath-school movement and later became a New York minister), to thank him for a report on the condition of New York sabbath schools.  In the course of his letter he recalled a sabbath spent with Thomas Jefferson more than a quarter of a century earlier and reported some of Jefferson’s views as he remembered them (paragraphing mine):

Many years ago I spent a Sabbath with Thomas Jefferson, at his residence in Virginia. It was in the month of June, and the weather was delightful. While engaged in discussing the beauties of the Bible, the sound of the bell broke upon our ears, when, turning to the sage of Monticello, I remarked, “How sweetly, how very sweetly sounds that Sabbath bell!”

The distinguished statesman for a moment seemed lost in thought, and then replied: “Yes, my dear Webster; yes, it melts the heart, it calms the passions, and makes us boys again.

Here I observed that man was only an animal formed for a religious worship, and that notwithstanding all the sophistry of Epicurus, Lucretius and Voltaire, the Scriptures stood upon a rock as firm, as unmovable as truth itself; that man, in his purer, loftier breathings, turned the mental eyes towards immortality, and that the poet only echoed the general sentiment of our nature in saying that,—

The soul secure in her existence, smiles
At the drawn dagger, and defies its point.

Mr. Jefferson fully concurred in this opinion, and observed that the tendency of the American mind was in a different direction; and that Sunday Schools—(he did not use our more correct term, Sabbath)—presented the only legitimate means, under the constitution, of avoiding the rock on which the French republic was wrecked. “Burke,” said he, “never uttered a more important truth than when he exclaimed that a ‘religious education was the cheap defence of nations.’ Raikes,” said Mr. Jefferson, “has done more for our country than the present generation will acknowledge; perhaps when I am cold he will obtain his reward; I hope so, earnestly hope so; I am considered by many, Mr. Webster, to have little religion, but now is not the time to correct errors of this sort. I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands. Of the distinguished Raikes, he was clarum et venerabile nomen.

I took the liberty of saying that I found more pleasure in Hebrew poetry than in the best productions of Greece and Rome. That the “harp upon the willows by Babylon” had charms for me beyond anything in the numbers of the blind man of Smyrna. I then turned to Jeremiah (there was a fine folio of the Scriptures before me of 1458) and read aloud some of those sublime passages that used to delight me on my father’s knee.

First, a couple of notes.  Edmund Burke said that “chivalry,” not “religious education” was the cheap defense of nations (Reflections on the Revolution in France). Robert Raikes (1735-1811) was the founder of the Sunday School Movement. With these minor clarifications out of the way, let us continue.

As I noted above there are at least two strikes against the authenticity of this statement—the passage of time, and the fact that we are at one remove from the original. On the other hand Daniel Webster may be considered a credible witness, and the circumstances are such as to fix events in his memory. Spending an afternoon with one of the most revered figures of your time is the sort of thing that is not easy to forget, and certainly Daniel Webster is likely to have recalled and treasured the memory.

The statement that “the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens” is often cited in present-day controversial literature by those who wish to insert government-mandated Bible-reading in public schools.  As Chris Rodda points out, “…Webster’s recollection of Jefferson saying that Sunday schools were “the only legitimate means, under the constitution” for teaching religion, and Webster’s failure to disagree with this opinion, mak[e] this letter, whether the other quotes in it were accurately recalled by Webster or not, a much better argument against the public school Bible curriculum than for it.”

This letter had appeared in print by 1858 (see The National Magazine for August 1858), and was circulated originally to counteract emerging evidence of Jefferson’s “infidel” opinions. The National Magazine’s editorial comment read:

Some there have been who have labored hard to prove that the sage of Monticello was an infidel, and that he ignored all religion but that of nature, and lived in the atmosphere of a blank and cheerless atheism. The testimony above given by so eminent a witness must be received as conclusive on this point.

Of course Jefferson’s own writings easily trump anything written by anybody else, no matter how eminent. And his work does show that he was far from being an orthodox Christian by the standards of his time.

Links

Historical Revisionism from the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools (Chris Rodda)

The Bible is the Source of Liberty (Jefferson Encyclopedia)

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