Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-4wks4 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-04-01T06:00:06.776Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

The Bible in the Political Rhetoric of the American Founding

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 September 2011

Daniel L. Dreisbach*
American University
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Daniel L. Dreisbach, School of Public Affairs, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20016. E-mail:


The American founders frequently alluded to and quoted from the Bible in their political rhetoric. This fact alone reveals little about how and for what purposes the founding generation used the Bible and, more important, how the Bible influenced the political thought of the founding era. Drawing on some of the most familiar political rhetoric of the founding era, this article examines the founders' diverse uses of the Bible in political discourse, ranging from the strictly literary and cultural to the theological, from the stylistic to the substantive. Recognition of these distinct uses is important insofar as it is misleading to read spiritual meaning into purely political or rhetorical uses of the Bible or vice versa.

Copyright © Religion and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Abbot, Abiel. 1799. Traits of Resemblance in the People of the United States of America to Ancient Israel. In a Sermon, Delivered at Haverhill, on the Twenty-eighth of November, 1799, the Day of Anniversary Thanksgiving. Haverhill, MA: Moore and Stebbins.Google Scholar
Adams, John. 1850. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.Google Scholar
Adams, John. 1965. The Adams Papers. New York, NY: Athenium.Google Scholar
Addison, Joseph. 2004. Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
Ahlstrom, Sydney E. 1972. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Albanese, Catherine L. 1976. Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
Allen, Ethan. 1784. Reason the Only Oracle of Man, or a Compenduous [sic] System of Natural Religion. Bennington, VT: Haswell and Russell.Google Scholar
Anastaplo, George. 1989. The Constitution of 1787: A Commentary. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
Baldwin, Alice M. 1928. The New England Clergy and the American Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
Bercovitch, Sacvan. 1978. The American Jeremiad. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
Bercovitch, Sacvan. 1983. “The Biblical Basis of the American Myth.” In The Bible and American Arts and Letters, ed. Gunn, Giles. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 219229.Google Scholar
Boller, Paul F. Jr. 1963. George Washington and Religion. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press.Google Scholar
Boudinot, Elias. 1801. The Age of Revelation. Or the Age of Reason Shewn to be an Age of Infidelity. Philadelphia, PA: Hugh Maxwell for Asbury Dickens.Google Scholar
Butterfield, L. H., ed. 1951. Letters of Benjamin Rush. Princeton, NJ: American Philosophical Society; Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Cohen, Charles L. 1981. “The ‘Liberty or Death’ Speech: A Note on Religion and Revolutionary Rhetoric.” William and Mary Quarterly 38:702717.Google Scholar
Davis, Derek H. 2000. Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774–1789: Contributions to Original Intent. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Dreisbach, Daniel L. 2007. “The ‘Vine and Fig Tree’ in George Washington's Letters: Reflections on a Biblical Motif in the Literature of the American Founding Era.” Anglican and Episcopal History 76:299326.Google Scholar
Dreisbach, Daniel L., Hall, Mark D., and Morrison, Jeffry H., eds. 2009. The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.Google Scholar
Dreisbach, Daniel L., Hall, Mark D., and Morrison, Jeffry H., eds. 2004. The Founders on God and Government. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.Google Scholar
Elazar, Daniel J. 1995. The Covenant Tradition in Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
Farrand, Max, ed. 1911. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Ford, Worthington C. et al. , eds. 1904. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
Fornieri, Joseph R. 2003. Abraham Lincoln's Political Faith. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
Franklin, Benjamin. 1987. Benjamin Franklin: Writings. New York, NY: Library of America.Google Scholar
Franklin, Benjamin. 1959. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Franklin, Benjamin. 1904. The Works of Benjamin Franklin. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons.Google Scholar
Gibson, Alan. 2006. Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
Griffin, Keith L. 1994. Revolution and Religion: American Revolutionary War and the Reformed Clergy. New York, NY: Paragon House.Google Scholar
Hall, David W. 2003. The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
Hample, Judy. 1977. “The Textual and Cultural Authenticity of Patrick Henry's ‘Liberty or Death’ Speech.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 63:298310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hay, Robert P. 1969. “George Washington: American Moses.” American Quarterly 21:780791.Google Scholar
Henry, William Wirt. 1891. Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons.Google Scholar
Humphrey, Edward Frank. 1924. Nationalism and Religion in America, 1774–1789. Boston, MA: Chipman Law.Google Scholar
Hunt, Gaillard. 1909. The History of the Seal of the United States. Washington, DC: Department of State.Google Scholar
Hutson, James H. 1998. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.Google Scholar
Jefferson, Thomas. 1950. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Jefferson, Thomas. 1903. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association.Google Scholar
Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. New York, NY: The Library of America.Google Scholar
Kirk, Russell. 1991. The Roots of American Order. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway.Google Scholar
Kosmin, Barry A., and Lachman, Seymour P.. 1993. One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society. New York, NY: Harmony Books.Google Scholar
Lambert, Frank. 2003. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Langdon, Samuel. 1775. Government Corrupted by Vice, and Recovered by Righteousness. A Sermon Preached before the Honorable Congress of the Colony of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England, assembled at Watertown, on Wednesday the 31st Day of May, 1775. Being the Anniversary fixed by Charter for the Election of Counsellors. Watertown, MA: Benjamin Edes.Google Scholar
Langdon, Samuel. 1788. The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States, A Sermon, Preached at Concord, in the State of New-Hampshire; Before the Honorable General Court at the Annual Election. June 5, 1788. Exeter.Google Scholar
Lillback, Peter A., and Newcombe, Jerry. 2006. George Washington's Sacred Fire. Bryn Mawr, PA: Providence Forum Press.Google Scholar
Longmore, Paul K. 1988. The Invention of George Washington. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Lutz, Donald S. 1992. A Preface to American Political Theory. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
Lutz, Donald S. 1988. The Origins of American Constitutionalism. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
Lutz, Donald S. 1984. “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought.” American Political Science Review 78:189197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Marty, Martin. 1982. “America's Iconic Book.” In Humanizing America's Iconic Book: Society of Biblical Literature Centennial Addresses 1980, eds. Tucker, Gene M., and Knight, Douglas A.. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 123.Google Scholar
McCants, David A. 1990. Patrick Henry, the Orator. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
McCants, David A. 1979. “The Authenticity of William Wirt's Version of Patrick Henry's ‘Liberty or Death’ Speech.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 87:387402.Google Scholar
McWilliams, Wilson Carey. 1984. “The Bible in the American Political Tradition.” In Religion and Politics, ed. Aronoff, Myron J. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1146.Google Scholar
Morison, Samuel Eliot. 1932. The Young Man Washington. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Morris, Richard B., ed. 1980. John Jay: The Winning of the Peace: Unpublished Papers, 1780–1784. New York, NY: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
Noll, Mark. 2005. “The Bible in American Public Life, 1860–2005.” Books & Culture 11:4650.Google Scholar
Noll, Mark A. 1977. Christians in the American Revolution. Washington, DC: Christian University Press.Google Scholar
Novak, Michael. 2002. On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books.Google Scholar
Paine, Thomas. 1995a. “Common Sense.” In Collected Writings, ed. Foner, Eric. New York, NY: Library of America.Google Scholar
Paine, Thomas. 1995b. “The Age of Reason Part the Second (1795).” In Collected Writings, ed. Foner, Eric. New York, NY: Library of America.Google Scholar
Paine, Thomas. 1995c. “The American Crisis V (21 March 1778).” In Collected Writings, ed. Foner, Eric. New York, NY: Library of America.Google Scholar
Paine, Thomas. 1995d. “The Crisis VI (20 October 1778).” In Collected Writings, ed. Foner, Eric. New York, NY: Library of America.Google Scholar
Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan R. 2009. “The ‘divine right of republics’: Hebraic Republicanism and the Debate over Kingless Government in Revolutionary America.” William and Mary Quarterly 66:535564.Google Scholar
Pierard, Richard V., and Linder, Robert D.. 1988. Civil Religion and the Presidency. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books.Google Scholar
Publius [Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay]. 1961. The Federalist Papers. New York, NY: Mentor Books.Google Scholar
Ramsay, David. 1790. The History of the American Revolution. London.Google Scholar
Rush, Benjamin. 1786. A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to Which are Added Thoughts upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic. Philadelphia, PA: Thomas Dobson.Google Scholar
Sandoz, Ellis. 1990. A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
Shain, Barry Alan. 1994. The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Shalev, Eran. 2009. “‘A Perfect Republic’: The Mosaic Constitution in Revolutionary New England, 1775–1788.” New England Quarterly 82:253263.Google Scholar
Stiles, Ezra. 1783. The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor. A Sermon, Preached before His Excellency Jonathan Trumbull, Esq. L.L.D., Governor and Commander in Chief, and the Honorable the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut, Convened at Hartford, at the Anniversary Election, May 8th, 1783. New Haven, CT: Thomas and Samuel Green.Google Scholar
Straus, Oscar. 1887. The Origin of Republican Form of Government in the United States of America. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons.Google Scholar
Tyler, Moses Coit. 1887. Patrick Henry. New York, NY: Houghton, Mifflin.Google Scholar
Waldman, Steven. 2008. Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. New York, NY: Random House.Google Scholar
Washington, George. 1987. The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.Google Scholar
Washington, George. 1931. The Writings of George Washington. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
Wills, Garry. 1984. Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.Google Scholar
Wirt, William. 1817. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Philadelphia, PA: James Webster.Google Scholar
Witherspoon, John. 1776. The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men: A Sermon preached at Princeton, on the 17th of May, 1776, Being the General Fast appointed by the Congress through the United Colonies. Philadelphia, PA: R. Aitken.Google Scholar
Wood, Gordon S. 1977. “The Democratization of Mind in the American Revolution.” In The Moral Foundations of the American Republic, ed. Horwitz, Robert H. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 102128.Google Scholar
Woodward, Kenneth L., and Gates, David. 1982. “How the Bible Made America.” Newsweek, December 27, 4451.Google Scholar