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American Freethinker

In this first biography of Elihu Palmer, Kirsten Fischer depicts a once notorious freethinker who countered Christianity with the idea of an interconnected universe infused with a divine life force. Denounced as "heretical," Palmer's speeches and writings shaped the contest over freedom of religion and of speech in the new United States.

American Freethinker
Elihu Palmer and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the New Nation

Kirsten Fischer

2020 | 304 pages | Cloth $39.95
American History / Biography
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Table of Contents

Prologue. "A Religious Tornado"

Part I. Expansive Christianity
Chapter 1. Steady Habits Upended
Chapter 2. A Liberal Education
Chapter 3. "All is Alive"
Chapter 4. Freelance Universalist

Part II. The Making of an "Infidel"
Chapter 5. Palmer's Rubicon
Chapter 6. Hard Fate
Chapter 7. Fellowship
Chapter 8. Sensitive Atoms

Part III. Lightning Rod
Chapter 9. Specter of Infidelity
Chapter 10. Controversy Among Freethinkers
Chapter 11. Weaponizing Freethought
Chapter 12. The Best Kind of Revolution

Epilogue. Into the Future


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

"A Religious Tornado"

The news spread in September 1802 that members of a secretive cult gathered regularly in New York City to mock Christianity and promote the irreligious and "wild philosophy" of the group's leader, a man named Elihu Palmer. According to a pamphlet then making the rounds, the "Columbian Illuminati" under "President Palmer" planned to remove Christians from leadership positions and "get all the public offices of the United States, filled with deists." The American republic would never survive such rule, the pamphlet implied. Freethinking deists revered a Creator-God, but they doubted or dismissed the saving sacrifice of a divine Jesus. Without a firm Christian foundation, morality must surely falter, jeopardizing the nation's political experiment in self-governance. Newspapers in several of the sixteen United States picked up the story and passed it along: Palmer the "infidel" posed a danger to the country.

Maligned as a dangerous freethinker, Elihu Palmer might have reflected on how improbable such fame would have seemed just a decade ago. A simple newspaper advertisement ten years before had started him down his path toward unexpected infamy. In March 1792, the Philadelphia National Gazette had carried a brief notice of his upcoming lecture "against the divinity of Jesus Christ." Palmer, then twenty-seven, had given up his plan to become a minister, but he still loved to think and talk about theology. He considered himself an enlightened Christian with a rational faith that recognized Jesus as the fully human teacher of a sublime morality. This version of Christianity represented a vast improvement, he thought, over the gullible belief in a supernatural being who performed miracles and rose from the dead. Palmer had assumed his right to express his opinions freely, but ministers saw his open refutation of the Holy Trinity as the worst kind of blasphemy. Clergy from several Philadelphia churches conspired to shut him down, publishing anonymous attacks on his character. The verbal drubbing silenced Palmer for a while, but the humiliation also strengthened his resolve. He returned to public life determined to share his freethought—the skeptical and unorthodox ideas about religion he found so fascinating. In the years that followed, he came to reject Christianity outright and said as much in his lectures and publications. His religious convictions continued to evolve, but his passion for public speaking never waned. He traveled and lectured even after he lost his eyesight to yellow fever in 1793. Once an avid reader who explored the world by reading books, Palmer adjusted to blindness by relying on conversation partners. He created discussion groups everywhere he went and continued to lecture, aided by a strong memory and his fine speaking voice. Eventually, he dictated a book of some three hundred pages and edited a weekly newspaper that ran to sixty-five issues. Resilience and grit got him this far, as did the pursuit of meaningful work.

Palmer was driven by the belief that he held the solution to the world's most tenacious problems of inequity and violence. His attacks on established religion were not his main point; they marked only the first step in a larger project. His ultimate aim was to share insights about the natural world that he thought could lead to human happiness everywhere. True morality, he insisted, did not rest on divine revelation but resided in the facts of nature. In speaking tours throughout the nation, from upstate New York to Augusta, Georgia, he explained that an accurate understanding of the physical make-up of the universe and of humanity's relationship to all living things would do more to develop ethical conduct than anything heard in houses of worship. These natural facts could be observed and agreed upon everywhere in the world, he said, and so end religious superstition and strife once and for all. His opponents called him an atheist, a description he firmly rejected. But what insights, exactly, did Palmer wish to share, and why is this once-famous freethinker virtually unknown to us today?

This book tells the story of Palmer's unusual path from his Calvinist upbringing in Connecticut, through his training as a minister, to his increasingly unconventional religious freethought—all in the context of a new nation brimming with ideas about how best to ensure its future. Everyone understood that a self-governing republic depended on the virtuous conduct of its people. Without an authoritarian ruler to strong-arm them into compliance, citizens of a representative democracy must choose to observe the law and norms of civility. To that end, the nation needed a revolution in social conscience. The Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush expressed this clearly. "It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government," Rush wrote in 1787, "and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government." Only a virtuous people would prioritize proper conduct over lawless striving for personal gain. As a newspaper put it in 1801, "Without morality no free government can long be sustained, and without religion there can be no security to morals." This much was clear: the health of the republic rested on the moral character of its constituents.

But there was a catch. The nation was conducting an experiment in religious freedom. The Bill of Rights and several state constitutions articulated freedom of conscience as a right that merited protection, leaving many to wonder about the effects of such liberty. Would virtue weaken without the supporting brace of a required religion? Would public expressions of religious skepticism prove contagious, corroding citizens' faith and with it their rectitude? John Adams thought so. He saw selfishness as endemic to the human condition and a constant threat to morality. In 1805, the former president complained to Dr. Rush that self-serving ambition marked even those charged with governing the nation. "Is virtue the principle of our Government?" Adams asked Rush. "Is honor?" Or is it rather "ambition and avarice[,] adulation, baseness, covetousness, the thirst of riches, indifference concerning the means of rising and enriching, contempt of principle, [and] the Spirit of party and of faction" that govern in America? These were "serious and dangerous questions," Adams wrote. With immorality prevalent even among the nation's leaders, the rule of law was not guaranteed. On the contrary, it was under attack.

Concerns about the social order were pressing in the 1790s, when the experiment of representative democracy faced threats to its very existence. Americans disagreed, however, about the greatest source of danger. Some feared most of all the anarchy of revolutionary violence. The Terror in France had taken tens of thousands of lives, and gory accounts of executions, massacres, rapes, and amputations filled American newspapers, sermons, public orations, plays, and broadsides. Meanwhile, news from the West Indies described how former slaves on the French colony of Saint Domingue (renamed Haiti in 1804) had risen up in a bid for their freedom, struggling to end slavery's reign of terror in the face of slaveholder opposition that caused terrible bloodshed on all sides. Americans who feared that their republic might also experience social revolution on a grand scale viewed political stability as an imperative of the highest order. Others, however, saw a greater menace to American freedom in the slide toward repressive oligarchy. The mechanics of self-governance in the United States were decidedly partial, the promise of democracy not yet realized. Most states limited the vote to property-owning white men and required religious tests for public office, while the Constitution of 1787 protected the institution of slavery into the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the wealthiest families consolidated their political influence. The real danger, many Americans believed, lay not in too much democracy but in a postwar retrenchment of elite power. The heated political partisanship of the 1790s, arguably the nation's first "culture war," reflected the high-stakes disagreement over whether the nation had gone too far or not yet far enough in establishing a democratic society.

In the years between Rush's musings in 1787 about the need for a moral citizenry and Adams's complaint in 1805 about widespread corruption, Palmer developed his own understanding of the source of virtue. Ethical conduct, he said, grew from a better understanding of the natural world. More specifically, he believed everything in the universe is made of the same eternal substance. By "everything," Palmer meant not only human beings of whatever culture, religion, gender, or race, but other living organisms—animals and plants—as well as all matter, including rocks, water, and even light. A mysterious life force infuses this singular matter and keeps it eternally in motion, creating all things that exist. Nothing is inert, Palmer said. "All is alive, all is active and energetic."

Not stopping there, Palmer believed that the smallest particles of matter—he used the word "atoms"—are sensate, meaning they experience and retain sensations like pleasure and pain. This idea changed everything, he thought, for accepting that all matter registers sensation means recognizing that one's own actions constantly impact the whole. All individuals exist in a vast web of life, and each individual action affects the substance of which all things are made. Pain inflicted on another being never disappears but persists in the endless reformulation of matter. Grasp the fact of a universal connection, Palmer told his audiences, and "sympathy or universal benevolence" will form the basis of all "subsequent conduct." A natural empathy for other beings will lead people to end wars, slavery, and oppression of all kinds. In this way, fundamental social change could occur without the violence that so often marked revolutions. Human society could be transformed for the better. Required was only clear-eyed, unprejudiced thinking about the facts of the eternal, sensate material world. Christianity could not help in this regard, because it concerned itself with things that do not exist: immaterial souls in an immaterial afterlife. For that reason, Palmer said, true morality, the kind a democracy required, flourishes best alongside freedom of religion and even freedom from religion.

Ministers and laypeople saw Palmer's ideas as a dangerous thought experiment. The majority of Americans assumed that morality rested on one kind of Protestantism or another. In their view, the belief in a judging God who sent souls to an eternal afterlife in either heaven or hell was the only thing that could reign in the human tendency toward selfishness and sin. If, as so many believed, the religious faith as taught in the churches formed a necessary foundation for moral conduct, then Palmer's irreverent speeches against organized religion threatened the republic and constituted a form of sedition. Palmer in turn accused his detractors of religious overreach and defended freedom of speech as essential to a free nation. With that, the battle lines were drawn, the only agreement being that the fate of the country hung in the balance.

Free speech had not yet been extensively legislated, and the First Amendment, which pertained only to the federal government and not to state legislatures, certainly could not guarantee it. Yet Americans who saw the First Amendment as aspirational in a broader sense expanded the bounds of public speech in everyday practice. In lectures, orations, and sociable conversation, as well as in the booming and relatively open print culture of inexpensive pamphlets, tracts, and newspapers, more and more people shared their opinions. Publishers even printed Thomas Paine's Age of Reason and other skeptical works without penalty. But full freedom of speech was not guaranteed either. Blasphemy laws remained on the books in many states and were sometimes put into practice. As late as 1811, a New Yorker named John Ruggles spent time behind bars for declaring in a tavern that Jesus was a bastard and his mother a whore. For those who dared openly to discredit Christian doctrine, charges of blasphemy hovered as a potential threat. Palmer was spared legal persecution; he suffered neither jail time nor fines for his open hostility toward Christianity. Yet it always lurked as a threat, making him one more test case in the nation's experiment in free speech.

Although Palmer was not prohibited from preaching his unpopular ideas, his freethinking lectures came at the cost of his reputation. He wished to be regarded as a public intellectual among educated men, not seen as part of a lunatic fringe, and for that reason the road to freethought proved personally challenging. He had to choose between the social respectability he yearned for and the intellectual candor he also desired. His iconoclastic ideas displeased both the defenders of religious orthodoxy and the religious liberals who preferred milder versions of Protestant doctrine. His open condemnation of Christianity breached the etiquette of gentility that confined expressions of freethought to closed company.

Yet in another way he had plenty of conversation partners—the nation was full of freethinkers. Palmer's speaking tours introduced him to a whole range of freethinking people, some located within and others outside of Christian frameworks, who challenged received wisdom and probed the protections and limits of freedom of speech. Telling Palmer's story brings to light new characters and unfamiliar contests in the struggle to define the moral foundations of the new United States. An intrepid bookseller in New York City; a skeptical steamboat inventor in Philadelphia; a freethinking physician on Long Island; an irreverent newspaper editor in Newburgh, New York; a frustrated minister in Augusta, Georgia; an eccentric world-traveling English philosopher; an Irish-born radical printer in Philadelphia; a mystic Swedenborgian minister in Baltimore—these are just some of the people Palmer encountered, engaged, and sometimes enraged. In describing Palmer's conversation partners, those sympathetic to him and not, the terms "conservative" and "radical" are seldom useful. Individuals might promote continuity in some things and fundamental change in others. In general, the intellectual landscape of the early republic resembled more an unruly collage of overlapping ideas than a neat spectrum with conservative on one end and radical on the other. Palmer encountered complex positions rather than blocs of opinion. What comes into focus through Palmer's conversations is a field of public debate more expansive than we knew yet heatedly contested nonetheless, even among freethinkers.

Palmer's career as a public freethinker unfolded in the tension created by divergent impulses in the new United States: the growth of religious pluralism alongside immense anxiety about the public expression of that diversity. In the concern over whether the national experiment in self-governance would endure, freedom of religion and of speech became stakes in the nation's first culture war, which was waged between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, both of whom had different visions for the country's future. In this volatile context, Palmer's lectures and publications took on a symbolic valence. His orations, first spoken and then printed, had the effect of expanding the public tolerance for religious freethought, because every time he expressed his ideas without incurring punishment, his supporters took heart, and his opponents gained practice in enduring speech they deplored. Yet it was not without friction, and Palmer produced a whirlwind of opposition. A friend of his once put it this way: a "religious tornado," he said, "has shaken the country, on account of Mr. Palmer."

Prolific in the printed and spoken word and infamous in his own day, Elihu Palmer did not survive in public memory. His book, Principles of Nature; or, A Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery Among the Human Species, which first appeared in 1801, was published in an expanded second edition in 1802 and 1806, was reprinted a few more times after that, then remained out of print for more than a century. In the 1930s, when historians rediscovered his writings, Palmer's ideas about the vital matter that comprised all the universe's creations had been forgotten. That crucial aspect of Palmer's thought, the one he cherished most, had disappeared from view. If historians noticed him at all, they described him as a popularizer of deism, the Enlightenment-era belief in a Creator-God who does not intervene in the world with miracles or revelations. In a common description, the deist's "watchmaker God" abides at a great distance from the universe that operates according to the immutable laws of nature. Deism had a profound impact in certain educated circles in America, influencing several political leaders, notably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Palmer certainly supported deism as a rational improvement on Christianity, yet it served as a platform from which to pursue an idea he cared about even more: the notion of a divine life force residing within shared, sensate matter. This was the concept he thought capable of evoking a truly transformative compassion for other beings.

The view of Palmer as primarily invested in popularizing deism, narrowly defined and without reference to vital matter, carried over from the 1930s. In 1976, the historian Henry May described Palmer as "a deist of the militant, post-French Revolution variety." In his history of American deists, Kerry S. Walters noted in 1992 the "sad obscurity into which Palmer has fallen" and suggested that a "full-length treatment of Palmer's thought and his pivotal role in the deist movement is sorely needed." Even most recent work on religious freethought in the early United States portrays Palmer as the main force behind an effort to institutionalize deism, a movement that supposedly flared up briefly then disappeared.

Palmer was not simply or only a deist, at least not as conventionally understood. To be sure, my initial assessment of him followed those of previous historians in assuming that his advocacy of deism both exemplified and exhausted his religious beliefs. But parts of Palmer's writings remained baffling, even incoherent, until I read the works of obscure authors he quoted at length. Texts by the New York physician Isaac Ledyard and the enigmatic English traveler John "Walking" Stewart revealed the universe of eternal, sensate matter in which Palmer so firmly believed. Palmer appreciated deism's stance of religious skepticism, and he supported it as the next, best replacement for revealed religion. More important to him, however, was the vital cosmology that dispensed altogether with a divine judge of immortal human souls. What set Palmer apart from so many of his freethinking peers was his belief in sensate matter and the immediate and constant exchange of atoms among all of Earth's creations. How to label this set of ideas did not seem to matter to him at all. He simply considered them the true "principles of nature."

Like his ideas, Palmer's life has been shrouded in mystery. He left behind a handful of printed speeches, a book, and a newspaper but no cache of personal documents and only a few letters scattered in other people's collected papers. Without much information about Palmer's upbringing, his education, and his encounters with a wide variety of freethought, first within Christianity and eventually outside it, historians have known him only as he appeared later in print: as a strident, hostile, outspoken critic of Christianity in the way of Thomas Paine. In these histories, Palmer appears invested only in deism. But buried in disparate manuscript collections, newspapers, church records, and old town chronicles are the archival discoveries that have enabled this reconstruction of Palmer's more surprising, halting, even inadvertent journey toward a life of freethinking infamy. Perusing runs of newspapers for his advertised lectures helped me track Palmer's movements across state lines. Reading widely in the personal letters and diaries of people who might have known Palmer brought the occasional and invaluable find. Old town chronicles told of Palmer's influence in various cities, while works authored by his (now) obscure friends opened up the world of conversation that inspired Palmer. A list of names on headstones in Connecticut graveyards led me to his hometown, after which church and property records, family genealogies, and—what extraordinary luck—a diary from his hometown minister helped reconstruct the world of Palmer's childhood.

Putting all these pieces together, what emerges is Palmer's gradual evolution as a freethinker, first within and then eventually beyond a Christian framework. His opposition to Christianity developed only in fits and starts, and it wasn't deism he was after so much as a new understanding of the natural wellspring of morality. Palmer combined his vital universe with a lenient Christianity until the churches closed their doors to him. Only when clergy rejected his version of the faith while insisting that Protestantism, patriotism, and morality required one another, did Palmer find himself pushed out of even the most permissive Christian fold and in need of a new platform from which to speak. He eventually embraced his role as a lightning rod for his critics; the negative attention affirmed the unsettling impact of his message. His main interest was not scandal, however, but the path to a better future. He trusted that full freedom of religion and of speech would enable people to reexamine supernatural religion and replace it with the insight that true morality can be found in the interconnected system of all life.

Palmer was a man of his era, a strong proponent of eighteenth-century convictions about the potential for human progress and even future perfectibility. Yet his ideas still have resonance. The ongoing challenge of establishing shared ethical guidelines in a religiously and culturally diverse world, the difficulty of creating social and economic justice on scales both local and global, and the question of how to preserve the interconnected system of life on planet Earth call for creative solutions. Palmer engaged with these questions deeply and on his own terms, and his unconventional answers can still spark our imagination.

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