13 November 2011

The Indissoluble Bond Revisited

The highest, the transcendent glory of the American Revolution was this—it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the precepts of Christianity. If it has never been considered in that light, it is because its compass has not been perceived.—John Quincy Adams, 27 April 1837
All right, I’m going to skip the obvious question—are you nuts? Didn’t you just say the other day that this quotation (or something close to it) was a fake, the words of John Wingate Thornton? Well, yes I did, and as it turns out, I was wrong.

This quotation, in the form “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this—that it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity”, has been very popular in Christian Nation circles, and has circulated widely on the internet. It can be traced back fairly readily. We find it, for instance, in Daniel Dorchester’s Christianity in the United States from the First Settlement Down to the Present Time (Hunt & Eaton, 1888), pp. 262-3, and on the title page of B. F. Morris’s Christian Life and Character of the Institutions of the United States (Philadelphia, 1864), and ultimately in the introduction to John Wingate Thornton’s 1860 The Pulpit of the American Revolution, p. xxix. Thornton, however, does not present it as a quotation, but rather as a paraphrase or summary of John Quincy Adams’ views. The obvious question then is, what was the original that Thornton had in mind?

Evangelist David Barton thought he’d found the answer in an 1837 oration in honor of Independence Day, in which Adams drew extensive parallels between Independence Day and Christmas. On this one I agreed with him, and as it turns out, he was on the right track. Wrong, but on the right track nonetheless. Because earlier that year, on 27 April, Adams had written the words quoted above to an autograph hunter in a cover-letter for a couple of notes, one from his father and the other from Thomas Jefferson. Comparing the genuine version to the Thornton version we find (omitted words in bold, added words struck out)
The highest, the transcendent glory of the American Revolution was this—it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the precepts principles of Christianity. If it has never been considered in that light, it is because its compass has not been perceived.
So where did Thornton get the letter? Well, he could have found it (and probably did find it) in the July 1860 issue of The Historical Magazine (pp. 193-194), where the letter in question was published in full. As far as I can tell none of the other crack researchers who quoted this (Morris, Dorchester et. al.) ever looked at it, as shown by their version being lightly mangled the same way as Thornton’s (omission of transcendent sans ellipsis, principles for precepts). I would have thought Thornton’s lack of quotation marks might have given them pause—but apparently not.

In any case, here is the original quotation, in context, in all its transcendent glory.

1 comment:

Jim51 said...

Dear R. Rant,
Can you tell me where the magazine from 1860 got the JQ Adams quotes? Is there actually a verifiable original? I don't know this particular history, nor do I know JQ well enough to infer whether or not this is legit.
Jim51

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