Nature’s God: A book review by Bob Morris

Nature's GodNature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
Matthew Stewart
W.W., Norton & Company (2014)

A brilliant analysis of “the power and impact of America’s original philosophical radicalism”

This was an especially challenging read because the issues that Matthew Stewart addresses are very complicated. For example, what does it mean when suggesting that the origins of the American Republic were “heretical”? How to explain the explicit separation of church and state in the Constitution? To what extent were Benedict de Espinoza, John Locke, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz “Founding Grandfathers” of the new nation? Why has Thomas Young become a “Forgotten Founding Father”? What in fact is true of Young and Allen’s significance prior to and then during the American Revolution?

Stewart addresses these and other issues, at times telling me much more than I really want to know about the thinkers and their ideas that had the greatest influence on events prior to, during, and then following the War for Independence. However, that seems a small price to pay for a much better understanding how and why “the radical philosophy of America’s founders remains the best way to explain the persistence, power, and the prosperity of the modern liberal order around the world to this day.”

Stewart goes on to say, “Ever since Plato conceived of his republic, people have speculated about what might happen if philosophers should rule the world. We no longer need to wonder. ‘The present is an age of philosophy; and America, the empire of reason,’ said American revolutionary Joel Barlow. I aim to show that he was mostly right about that.”

Thomas P. Slaughter takes a similar approach in Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution. He cites a question posed by John Adams in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815: “What do we mean by revolution?” Adams then suggests, “The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” As Thomas Slaughter suggests, its roots were indeed “tangled.” And in fact, as Stewart suggests, the tangled roots extended back in time to the early seventeenth century, if not to ancient Greece.

These are among the other subjects of greatest interest to me, listed in no particular order:

o The significance of Ethan Allen’s book, Oracles of Reason
o Forerunners of the Declaration of Independence
o Allen’s vision of a free nation, a vision shared with Young
o Why Timothy Dwight referred to Allen as “The great Clodhopping oracle of man”
o Why Nathan Perkins called him “An awful infidel, one of ye wickedest men yet ever walked this guilty globe”
o Nature and extent of deism’s influence and impact
o Various “pathologies of freedom” that attracted interest and support throughout the colonies
o Slaughter’s take on Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, Benedict Arnold, and Jonathan Edwards
o Historical impact of Epicureanism
o The character and personality of Benjamin Franklin
o Whether or not there ever was a “religion of America”

It is (no pun intended) noteworthy that Stewart provides 94 pages of Notes (Pages 439-534) that include extensive bibliographic annotations. This is indeed a research-driven book but also one throughout whose narrative Stewart’s voice is clearly heard and his assumptions and conclusions soundly supported.

Here are his concluding remarks: “The theological policemen who hounded Allen after his death have now faded into the forgotten precincts of history, while the philosopher of the Green Mountains seems ready at last for his second coming. If we could see just a little further into the future, where the reputations of the prophets are always made, maybe we would catch a glimpse of what Ethan Allen and his friend Thomas Young thought they saw in the first place: a nation that will have liberated itself from all forms of tyranny over the human mind. Call it the land of the free.”

Congratulations to Matthew Stewart on a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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