Response to Critique by Brent AucoinHistorians/History
I appreciate Brent Aucoin’s critique of my Religion News Service article titled “Why the Founding Fathers Wanted to Keep Ministers from Public Office.” I think he is correct to point out some of the dangers involved when historians write for the public, especially when they write 800-word op-ed pieces.
Aucoin criticized my piece because my definition of the “founding fathers” is too expansive. More specifically, he does not believe that the framers of the revolutionary-era state constitutions should be considered “founding fathers.” Fair enough. I understand Aucoin’s point here, but let’s not forget that any definition of the so-called “founding fathers” is open to interpretation. Perhaps Aucoin could provide a bit more evidence for why he chooses to define the phrase so narrowly. I am sure Aucoin is aware that the phrase “founding fathers” was not part of the American vernacular until Warren G. Harding used it at the Republican National Convention in 1916. Harding mentioned the “founding fathers” again in his 1921 inaugural address. And even if we accept the twenty-ninth president’s definition of the term, Harding was never very specific about who was a “founding father” and who was not. I am thus not sure why Aucoin is so astonished that I would include the framers of state constitutions in this category.
Aucoin asks: “Are there any scholars of early America who would assert that the framers of these [state] constitutions constitute ‘the Founding Fathers of America’?” The short answer is yes. Here I would point Aucoin and the readers of HNN to an article at the Journal of the American Revolution in which several leading historians of the American Revolution weigh-in on this topic. (I blogged about this piece in relation to my Religion News Service piece here).
Aucoin also criticizes me for failing to qualify my conclusions and adequately addressing evidence that is contrary to my argument. On this point I accept his criticism. My article is deceiving because it suggests that all of the “founding fathers” wanted to keep ministers from public office when in reality only some of them—in this case some of the framers of the state constitutions—opposed the idea of clergy holding political office. Though I think today’s political activists who use the founding era to justify clergy running for office still need to reckon with some of these state constitutions, my argument was sloppy on this point. I wrongly assumed that readers would understand the limitations of my argument based on the evidence I referenced. I will try to frame my arguments more carefully in future posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.
Brent Aucoin’s Reply
I appreciate John Fea’s gracious response to my critique, but wish to reassure him that my view of the founders is as expansive as is his. For the record, I believe that at the very least those who served in the Continental, Confederation, and the first US Congresses, and as delegates to the Constitutional and state ratifying conventions, and as framers of the state constitutions written before 1799 all deserve in some sense to be called “founding fathers.” I certainly did not intend to imply that the framers of the early state constitutions were not founders. In fact, in my conclusion I referred to such framers as “some of the men who founded this country.” All I meant to communicate in regards to the framers of the state constitutions written before 1799 is that I don’t believe it is accurate to assert that the views of those who framed 8 of the 16 state constitutions represents what all of the founders believed about ministers holding public office. In retrospect, I could have made this point clearer in my critique. I thank Fea for bringing this to my attention and for the tenor of his response.
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