Tennessee 1796

June 02, 2005

Seeing as how much of the recent History Carnival was about the use and abuse of civil religion in the 1790s, I decided to post another dissertation outtake. Having spent several hours trying to figure out how to get the following paragraphs into the narrative, I will replace them with a single sentence and move on.

I hate it when that happens. But we cut the ones we love.

Tennessee 1796 below the fold, footnotes removed. And yes, Tennessee still has both a religious test and a disavowal of all religious tests.

Tennessee wrote the most striking constitution [between 1790 and 1815], affirming the rights of conscience, denying any religious test for state office, and requiring office holders to affirm the existence of God and of future rewards and punishments. The Tennessee Constitutional Convention met in Knoxville on January 11, 1796, after the French Revolution had turned anti-American but before the Illuminatti crisis. Immediately after choosing officers and setting procedures they agreed to write a declaration of rights and then a Constitution, and proceeded to transform themselves into a committee of the whole to discuss the matter. After about a week of debate they agreed on their Bill of Rights, including an outright ban on religious tests for state office and the statement that "men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences." They then went on to meet in committee of the whole again while they wrote a frame of government. Finally, they met as a convention to ratify and modify their committee work. On February 2, during this final approval, George Doherty from Jefferson county proposed that "No person who publicly denies the being of a God, and future rewards and punishments, or the divine authority of the old and new testament, shall hold any office in the civil department in this state." Doherty's proposal passed by acclamation. Landon Carter of Washington County, who had been a floor manager during the revision process, then moved that the reference to the Testaments be struck out. This proposal led to a roll call, which Carter won 27 to 25. The convention immediately adjourned, several hours ahead of schedule, as was common after votes involving religion and the state. Later that week the test and a couple of other added statements were bundled into a new article, miscellaneous provisions, and the convention proceeded to wrap up affairs.

To the modern eye, the actions of the convention in January and February are completely antithetical. They agreed "That no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this State" with no debate. A month later, they approved a test that would have restricted office holding to Christians, a test very like the one that North Carolina maintained until the middle of the nineteenth century. The Journals of the convention are scanty, but they do suggest that most of the men in Knoxville saw no initial conflict between their February test and their January rights. The earlier liberty of conscience was a statement of inalienable rights, the later test a matter of civil religion. Carter's amendment, then, was a debate about what beliefs are necessary for good government, what gives civic faith its compelling power. Doherty looked to scripture, with the implication that revelation led to moral behavior and that the state could press the contents of the Bible into service as required. Carter moved a Deist civil religious test: even Tom Paine agreed in the being of a God and in future rewards and punishments. Carter and a bare majority of the delegates argued that the God of nature was sufficient to compel good behavior, in effect stating that the idea of a divine being was more important than the details, words, or promises made by that divine being.

Religion and government overlapped in the Tennessee Constitution, with government putting religion to work to ensure good behavior from office holders. The easy acceptance of Doherty's proposal suggests that the men in the room came from homogenous religious backgrounds. Most if not all were Protestants, at least in formal affiliation, all read the Bible as scripture. Anyone who accepted "the divine authority of the old and new testaments" must accept the common tenets of morality and must therefore be a good republican. In addition, by turning to the Bible alone Doherty attempted to avoid all denominational conflict over what teachings were best suited to teach moral behavior. His civil religion would have required the Bible, and would have trusted that the Bible would be enough. What Doherty's proposal did not address was the extent to which religious men of good will, each reading the same scriptures, could come to radically different conclusions about the best way to organize republican government. And, more to the point, men who agreed on the basic premises of republican government could accuse other Christians of holding opinions that would subvert the state.

Posted by Red Ted at June 2, 2005 09:52 AM | TrackBack