The Common Review

by Susan Jacoby
(Metropolitan Books: New York, 2004)
Mark Goldblatt

winter 2005 

History is written from a point of view–inevitably. The most valuable histories are those which embrace both the ideal of objectivity and the reality of bias, which make no pretense of disinterest but which subordinate what should have happened to what in fact did happen. By that measure, Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism is a consistently valuable account of the long tradition of religious dissent in the United States.

The axe that Jacoby–an independent scholar and author of six previous non-fiction books–is grinding throughout Freethinkers is with Christian conservatism. She’s not reluctant to mix in her current political preferences with the politics of her historical narrative; jabs at President Bush and the religious right abound. If present trends continue, she seems to think, America is destined for a return to the Salem Witch Trials. This is tendentious, and slightly silly–the book’s jacket, for example, features praise from Philip Roth, who calls it “as necessary a book as could be published in the fourth year of the ministry of George W. Bush” and from Arthur Miller, who insists that “America’s precious freedom of conscience, her pride for two centuries, [is] now under threat from the political Right as never before.” But Jacoby’s approach does manage to infuse her history with the urgency of a polemic. And the juxtaposition of twenty-first century clashes over the separation of church and state with centuries old instances of the debate highlights odd but intriguing parallels. There is a sameness to such arguments; indeed, there are only so many way in which they can be drawn.

Jacoby utilizes “freethinkers” as a catch-all term which includes deists, agnostics and atheists–as well as Jews and liberal Protestants, especially Quakers and Unitarians–on the grounds that these very distinct groups are joined politically by “a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world.” [4] The book traces the struggles of freethinkers to prevent the Christian majority in the United States from installing various aspects of their religious agenda into the law of the land. This is a heroic story; the seventeenth century expulsions of Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony demonstrate that the earliest European settlers were not averse to meting out persecutions which mirrored the ones from which many of them had fled to the New World. That the colonies would eventually unite to form a single secular entity was by no means a given.

Jacoby’s story picks up with Thomas Paine, the freethinker whose January 1776 pamphlet Common Sense helped inspire the American revolution. But Paine’s reputation crashed after independence. The process began with 1791’s The Rights of Man, written in England, which defended the French Revolution at a time when word of the terror was beginning to reach America; hence, many of Paine’s former supporters, including George Washington, were put off by Paine’s linkage of the two revolutions.

The tone of The Rights of Man was so anti-monarchical that Paine was forced to flee England for his life. He settled in Paris, where in 1793 he wrote the first part of the even more heretical The Age of Reason, in which, according to Jacoby, he “put forth the astonishing idea that Christianity, like all other religions, was an invention of man rather than God.” [5] But the move to France had made Paine a witness to the horrors of the revolution, and he was soon speaking out against the execution of Louis XVI. Paine was thereafter arrested and spent nine miserable months in prison until James Monroe became minister to France and obtained his release. By the time Paine returned to the United States, at the behest of Thomas Jefferson in 1802, his reputation as an infidel was used by Jefferson’s critics to tar the president. One Philadelphia paper referred to Paine as “a drunken atheist” and a “rebel rascal”–and called Jefferson’s invitation “an insult to the moral sense of the nation.” [61]. Publicly ostracized for the remainder of his life, Paine died in 1809 and was buried on his farm in New Rochelle. By then, his reputation was negligible–due in large measure, Jacoby suggests, to his religious skepticism. His remains were actually robbed ten years later and subsequently lost. Not until the Civil War era did Paine’s contribution to America’s independence begin to receive its due. The first full length biography did not come until 1892. His biographer wrote: “As to his bones, no man knows the place of their rest to this day. His principles rest not.” [65]

The highlight of Jacoby’s book is unquestionably her account of the tumultuous hundred year period, roughly 1825-1925, which encompasses what she calls “the golden age of freethought.” Coalitions evolved among reform movements, exemplified by the presence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Conference of 1848.  Such liaisons were often tenuous; when the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted black men the right to vote, at a time when women still were denied, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton expressed her outrage in explicitly racist and nativist terms: “Think of Patrick and Sambo . . . and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for [noted feminists] Lucretia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose and Anna E. Dickinson.” [195]

Throughout the period, the common foe of religious (read: Protestant) conservatism made strange bedfellows of, at various times, abolitionists, feminists, immigrants, anarchists, socialists, communists, Jews and Catholics. With the possible exception of the abolitionists–and even here, Jacoby argues, the Bible was used as often to justify slavery as to condemn it–each group had a clear stake in the separation of church and state; thus, every effort by conservatives to breach the church-state wall was met by an equal and opposite forging of liberal alliances. The wall teetered but held–through the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which was blamed on anarchists and immigrants, through the Palmer Raids of 1919-1921, which targeted communists (and out of which was born the American Civil Liberties Union), and, most famously, through the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which pitted the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, against the freethinker Clarence Darrow. Two points are worth noting in the latter case: First, Darrow lost the case; even though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality, Scopes was actually convicted of breaking the Tennessee state law which forbade mentioning evolution in public schools. Second, Bryan himself was a populist, a vocal supporter of woman’s suffrage and the rights of the common man, whose objection to Darwin’s theory was grounded in the belief that God’s role in the creation of all human beings demanded they be treated with dignity.

Jacoby provides a lively intellectual panorama of the era, replete with brief but incisive portraits of William Lloyd Garrison, Lincoln (of course), Mott, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Robert Ingersoll and Darrow–along with cameos by Douglass, the Grimké sisters, Rose, Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman. Of the group, Ingersoll emerges in Jacoby’s telling as the most underrated by posterity; she makes a compelling case for him as a major figure.

Though Ingersoll never held elected office–he lost his only bid for Congress from Illinois in 1860 because of his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law–he acquired, in the years following the Civil War, a national reputation as a public speaker, known especially for his stirring lectures on the perils of mixing religion and government. On the subject of the Founding Fathers, he remarked, “They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. . . . They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone.” [184] He also earned the nickname the Great Agnostic, lampooning religious certitudes wherever he encountered them: “The Catholics will give you a through ticket to heaven, and they will attend to your baggage, and keep it too. The Protestants, on the other hand, won’t even tell you what train to get on.” [170] Along with his relentless personal decency, it was the elegance of Ingersoll’s rhetoric–in sharp contrast with the ad hominem invective swirling around him–which stands as his noblest legacy; he eulogized a friend’s child in 1882 thusly: “Every cradle asks us ‘Whence?’ and every coffin ‘Whither?’ The poor barbarian, weeping above his dead, can answer these questions just as well as the robed priest of the most authentic creed. . . . The larger and nobler the faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only the perfect rest.” [148]

The spirit of Ingersoll hovers over the freethought movements of the early twentieth century, with Darrow eventually emerging as his and Paine’s natural heir, fighting the forces of religious orthodoxy until his death in 1938. Jacoby also provides a useful account of the evolution of Pledge of Allegiance–written in 1892, at the urging of the National Education Association, by a Christian Socialist named Francis Bellamy and intended as “a straightforward statement of the American public school system’s commitment to assimilation of all immigrants.” [287] Congress crow-barred the phrase “under God” into the pledge in 1954, during the McCarthy era, bowing to pressure from a movement led by the Knights of Columbus; the insertion would surely have appalled Bellamy, a devout proponent of church-state separation.

On the whole, however, Jacoby falters as she turns to the latter half of the twentieth century. Her insistence that the role of secularists in the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s has been intentionally underplayed by the forces of “religious correctness” only serves as a reminder of just how critical organized religion–especially the black church–was in the effort. A discussion of the women’s movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s begins promisingly, but the abortion issue occasions a disquisition on moral relativism, “an honorable concept that has been poisoned by cultural conservatives and insufficiently defended by secularists.” [344] Maybe so, but then she asserts, a scant 13 lines later, “all decent societies do indeed prohibit murder.” Her reasoning here is, to say the least, myopic.

Indeed, Jacoby’s embrace of moral relativism in this instance highlights the perennial dilemma encountered by all those who would insist on an absolute separation of church and state: To what degree is the self-evident truth that all men are created equal–which is the actuating premise of the Constitution–a religious principle? Jefferson’s truth is certainly not “self-evident” in the sense, say, that “a whole is equal to the sum of its parts” is self-evident; indeed, if he’s asserting a purely secular truth, then he’s manifestly wrong since all men are manifestly not created equal physically or intellectually. (The fact that Jefferson himself would not have included dark-skinned men in the equation underscores the point.) History is strewn with the corpses of religious and ethnic minorities whose created equality was by no means self-evident. But if their created equality consists, as Jefferson claims, of a spiritual endowment by a Creator–even in a limited, deistic sense–then the self-evident truth effectively becomes an article of faith, and the wall of separation between church and state was breached from the moment the state came into existence.

It’s unfair to expect Jacoby to resolve this Jeffersonian paradox; it’s a circle that cannot be squared. That predicament should not detract from what she has managed to produce, which is an impassioned, eminently readable history of the secularist tradition in the United States.