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The Federalist Papers is a classic work that too few Americans have ever heard of, let alone have read. Written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers were an important series of articles promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution. Today marks the anniversary (February 6, 1788) of one of the most well known articles, Federalist 51, which  was written by Madison to explain the necessity of checks and balances between the different branches and departments of government.

James Madison studied at Princeton under the evangelical Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon. How much of Madison’s political theory came from Witherspoon is difficult to prove, but he certainly received a strong dose of Reformed anthropology from his mentor. The Scottish parson more than once remarked rhetorically “What is the history of the world but the history of human guilt?” In lectures that Madison would have sat through, Witherspoon argued that we “certainly discover in mankind” a “disposition without restraint to commit errors of a gross nature.” And in his famous sermon leading up to independence in 1776 Witherspoon observed, “Nothing can be more absolutely necessary to true religion than a clear and full conviction of the sinfulness of our nature and state.”

Whether directly from Witherspoon or not, this understanding of the human condition was a bedrock conviction for founders like Madison. Thus Federalist 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attach. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of man must be connected with the constitutional right of the place.

It may be a reflection of human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

In other words, the best government is the one designed to check its own inherent tendencies to tyranny, just as a prudent political philosophy embraces the realities of our fallen condition and plans accordingly.

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24 thoughts on “Calvinist Convictions in Our Founding Fathers”

  1. Kevin,

    I’m not sure I understand the connection between Madison’s view of depravity and it being called a Calvinist conviction.

    For example, James Arminius writes: “In this [fallen] state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.” (Works, 2:192)

    Arminius went on to discuss that the mind of man is “dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God” (2:192); which succeeds the inherent perverseness of the affections and of the heart, “according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God”; which also corresponds to “the utter weakness of all the Powers to perform that which is truly good.” (2:193) The Remonstrants held to the same.

    The point being — Madison’s views on depravity seem no more Calvinistic than they are Arminian. We could just as well call Madison’s views as well as this post: “Arminian Convictions in Our Founding Fathers.” Are you making the connection because of his Princeton learning?

  2. Becky says:

    If church leadership is self appointed and self monitored, what is there to check “its own inherent tendencies to tyranny”??

  3. Mark B. says:

    Great post about depravity. But I also agree with William Birch above, this view of depravity is not uncommon in Arminian theology.

  4. anaquaduck says:

    Total depravity can also be expressed in those things that are done which reflect goodness. The fallen state of humanity still experiences a sense of what is good & what is bad. Ying & Yang may also recognise the dark side of humanity & be harmonious to a point.

    Checks, balances, loopholes & law changes seem to be the order of the day. The limited nature & design of government (which we are given & for our good) demonstrates that authority can achieve unity & order but also tyranny & chaos, unchecked or otherwise.

    So I recognise the importance & role of government but also realise that for my good & happiness I also require something more for my life…

  5. Dan says:

    Starting to sound like Ron Paul. But then people booed him when he quoted the golden rule in talking about foreign policy and called him a crazy guy when he talked about the need for limited government and actually obeying the Constitution. The fastest way to get labeled a crazy person is to start quoting the Bible. The second fastest may be quoting the Federalist Papers (if who you are conversing with has even heard of them). I’m a big fan of the Anti-Federalist Papers if you wanted to hear what the other side was saying around the ratification. Seems like their fears came true. Now the President can send a drone after you if he so chooses.

  6. Caleb W says:

    What are you really trying to say here, Kevin? I agree with the above that you have an incredibly weak case here. But I’m curious about your motives.

  7. JohnM says:

    I kind of feel like I’m piling on here but “a clear and full conviction of the sinfulness of our nature and state” is pretty much characteristic of Christian anthropology in general, once you discount the liberals.

  8. John Gardner says:

    The Federalist Papers are great, but read the Anti-Federalist Papers along with them to get a fuller picture of the debate surrounding the ratification of the Constitution and the addition of the Bill of Rights.

  9. John Gardner says:

    Also, while the case from Witherspoon’s influence of Madison may not be sufficient to claim that the Founders had “Calvinist convictions,” it is undeniable that the structure of America’s republican government owes plenty to Calvin’s political reforms in Geneva. King George did refer to the Revolution as the “Presbyterian rebellion,” after all.

  10. KG says:

    Tough crowd!

    I did not see where Kevin insinuated that total depravity was an exclusively Calvinistic position. I assume the influence of Calvinism on Madison is assumed not because of that but rather because he was exposed to this teaching by John Witherspoon who was clearly a Calvinist teaching at an institution committed to Calvinistic doctrine.

    I assume the “agenda” was simply to point out that Madison offered a corrective to unfettered Jeffersonian liberalism and this corrective was undoubtedly helped in its development through the teaching of a Reformed minister.

  11. KG,

    I assume the influence of Calvinism on Madison is assumed not because of that [total depravity] but rather because he was exposed to this teaching by John Witherspoon who was clearly a Calvinist teaching at an institution committed to Calvinistic doctrine.

    So, if Madison had received this teaching by a Remonstrant leader, we could then title this post “Arminian Convictions in Our Founding Fathers”?

    Even given your final comment, I still see no warrant for insisting such “convictions” as inherently Calvinistic in nature. I’m not trying to give Kevin a difficult time — only wondering the origins or intent of the post, naming such “Calvinistic convictions.” And we received no reply, either.

  12. KG says:

    Though it may be a conviction shared by certain others, it seems clear to me that it is indeed a Calvinistic conviction. Is it not?

  13. KG,

    As well as an Arminian conviction.

  14. KG says:

    Yes, but in this case Madison was being instructed by a Calvinist. It was a Reformed influence to whatever extent it contributed. Not, for example, mitigated by prevenient grace etc.

    I do not disagree with your general observation. I would say, however, that today there are very few “classic” Arminians and total depravity tends to be much more closely associated with Calvinist soteriology. If it caught your attention and got you to read the article then it did the job a headline is supposed to do :-)

  15. If it caught your attention and got you to read the article then it did the job a headline is supposed to do.

    And under a false pretense, at that.

    As one blogger rightly noted above, total depravity is a Christian conviction — no more Calvinistic than Arminian. If the content of Kevin’s post had addressed any subject regarding Christology, it would have still been no more Calvinistic than Arminian than that of total depravity.

    I would say, however, that today there are very few “classic” Arminians and total depravity tends to be much more closely associated with Calvinist soteriology.

    Perhaps from your limited, isolated Calvinistic context ;)

  16. KG says:

    I suppose we just see this differently. I do not think that it was deceptive. I do see your point, and I agree that it is not technically accurate but given the fact that the instruction came from a Calvinist sharing his convictions I think it is a fair title.

    My comment about there not being many “classic” Arminians comes from many years of conversations with people who identify as Arminian. I think that the popular form of what passes for Arminianism would have made Arminius himself rather uncomfortable. Of course, the view from my isolated Calvinistic context is somewhat skewed :-)

  17. I think what irked me about the title is the general perception that readers could adopt: i.e., that the founders were Calvinistic theologically. History would insist otherwise.

    Now, I by no means think the majority of the founders were classically Arminian, either. Good Lord, no! But I no more want readers of Kevin or the Gospel Coalition to be deceived into thinking that the founders were Calvinistic any more than I want them to think like David Barton — that the founders were evangelical Christians.

    Your second paragraph is spot on, in my opinion, as far as “popular Arminianism” is concerned: semi-Pelagianism and Finneyism is popular, southern, American-folk-holiness “Arminianism” (I just cringed).

  18. I forgot to add to my final comment: I’m grateful for the Society of Evangelical Arminians, an increasingly growing number of Classical Arminians, in their attempt to right this tragic state.

  19. KG says:

    If you ever choose to come the rest of the way over we would love to have you. There is plenty of room for you in our isolated Calvinistic context!

  20. Funny … ’cause I’ve been there, done that. But I do thank you.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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