This week marks the 230th anniversary of the day when delegates at the Constitutional Convention ended nearly four months of contentious debate and signed a proposed constitution for the United States.
On this anniversary, it is worth reflecting on a key, yet often overlooked, influence on this great charter: The Bible.
We cannot adequately appreciate the nation’s constitutional experiment in republican self-government without acknowledging the Bible’s contributions.
But the Bible was the most accessible, authoritative, and venerated text in 18th Century America. It was, by far, the most cited work in the political discourse of the age, referenced more frequently than the great political theorists John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu. The Constitution, as well as two dozen or so state constitutions framed in the wake of independence, was shaped by a legal culture and constitutional tradition influenced by Christianity and its sacred text. This includes measures separating and checking government powers in the hands of “fallen” public officials, mandating oaths of offices, and prohibiting double jeopardy.
The Bible’s influences on the Constitution were manifested in several ways:
First, general theological or doctrinal propositions regarding human nature, civil authority, political society, and the like informed conceptions and institutions of law and civil government.
Scholars have remarked, for example, that a biblical understanding of original sin and humankind’s radical depravity (Genesis 3) inspired the framers to design a constitutional system that would guard against the concentration or abuse of government powers vested in fallen human actors. The most basic, fundamental features of the American constitutional design — limited government, separation of powers, and checks and balances — are best understood in the light of this theological doctrine of human depravity and the attendant necessity to check, in the words of Federalist 37, “the infirmities and depravities of the human character.”
Second, the founding generation saw in the Bible political and legal models that they sought to incorporate into their political and legal systems.
For example, in Article IV, § 4, cl. 1, the Constitution requires every state to maintain “a Republican Form of Government.” Many in the founding generation believed that the Hebrew commonwealth described in the Old Testament provided a divinely inspired model for republican government, which was worthy of emulation in their own political experiments.
Third, the Bible may have influenced some specific provisions written into the U.S. Constitution. To be sure, it is difficult to establish definitively that a specific constitutional provision was taken from a specific biblical passage; rather, it is more plausible that constitutional principles were indirectly influenced by biblical concepts that had long before found expression in western legal tradition, especially in the English common law, and, more recently, colonial laws.
Consider, for example, Article I, § 7, cl. 2 excepting Sundays from the 10 days within which a president must veto a bill. This is an implicit recognition of the Christian Sabbath, commemorating the Creator’s sanctification of the seventh day for rest (Genesis 2:1-3), the fourth commandment that the Sabbath be kept free from secular defilement (Exodus 20:8-11), and, in the Christian tradition, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
For one final example, the Fifth Amendment, crafted by the first federal Congress, prohibits double jeopardy, or trying a defendant twice for the same offense, which Saint Jerome in a late fourth-century commentary and legal scholars ever since have said was a principle found in the book of the prophet Nahum 1:9.
Legal commentators have pointed to additional examples of the Bible’s influence on specific constitutional provisions, including provisions on cruel and unusual punishment, the number of witnesses required in cases of treason, affirmation in the alternative to an oath, and corruption of blood.
Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 readily conceded that the document they wrote was imperfect, there was a consensus that it was the best that could be framed under the circumstances. And some, such as Benjamin Rush, “believed the hand of God was employed in this work,” just as surely as “God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel.”
Even the skeptic Benjamin Franklin, while disclaiming that the Convention’s work was “divinely inspired,” remarked that he could not conceive such a momentous achievement as framing “the new federal constitution” without it “being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent and beneficent Ruler.”
Commentators today may disagree that the Constitution was a product of Divine Providence or that it contains elements informed by Christianity, but the Bible was undisputedly among the intellectual sources that influenced the founders. Acknowledging the Bible’s often-neglected contributions to the founding project enriches our understanding of the nation’s great constitutional experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.
Daniel L. Dreisbach is a scholar adviser to the Faith & Liberty Discovery Center coming to Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers” (Oxford, 2017). You can follow him on Twitter @d3bach.