I quote Professor [Geoffrey] Stone in full.
The Christian establishment responded with a vengeance [to the spread of Deism]. As early as 1759, Ezra Stiles warned that “Deism has got such a Head” that it is necessary to “conquer and demolish it.” Thirty years later, Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, published a biting antideist work, The Triumph of Infidelity, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was literally put to the torch at Harvard because of “its uncomplimentary interpretation of early Christianity.” In 1784, Ethan Allen, the leader of the Green Mountain Boys and the hero of the Battle of Ticonderoga, published a book-length argument for deism. This work, Reason the Only Oracle of Man, was furiously condemned by the clergy. Timothy Dwight accused Allen of championing “Satan’s cause,” Ezra Stiles charged that Allen was “profane and impious,” and the Reverend Nathan Perkins called him “one of the wickedest men that ever walked this guilty globe.”
Stone’s consistent use of terms like “with a vengeance,” “warn,” “biting,” “accused,” and “charged” is puzzling. Is it really true the clergy not only “condemned” Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man, but that they did so “furiously”? How does one fairly distinguish a furious condemnation from a plain condemnation from a mere emphatic disagreement or an honest debate over strongly held beliefs and principles? The choice of such terms is, in most (albeit, not in all) cases, indicative of a lack balance, of a lack of perspective. Much of what Stone describes above was nothing more than writings and speeches in private letters, sermons, and books. In law review articles, traditionally, such speech is usually characterized in less judgmental and more neutral terms, i.e., as core First Amendment protected activity (although there was, of course, no First Amendment at this time).
Indeed, if such speech is fairly characterized as “respond[ing] with a vengeance,” merely because it opposes other speech and comes next-in- time, then this Article and every other academic disagreement will fall under the orbit of that expression. At that point the phrase itself ceases to be meaningful. Admittedly, not all of the statements quoted by Stone were vanilla, even-handed, and unthreatening: Stiles’ “conquer and demolish” statement does seem a touch strong. But Stiles looks much better in fuller context.
It is true with this Liberty [of accepting deistical books into religiously-affiliated university libraries] Error may be introduced; but turn the Tables [and see that] the propagation of Truth may be extinguished [if you do otherwise]. Deism has got such Head in this Age of Licentious Liberty, that it would be in vain to try to stop it by hiding the Deistical Writings: and the only Way left to conquer & demolish it, is to come forth into the open Field & Dispute this matter on even Footing—the Evidences of Revelation in my opinion are nearly as demonstrative as Newton’s Principia, & these are the Weapons to be used . . . . Truth & this alone being our Aim in fact, open, frank & generous we shall avoid the very appearance of Evil.
How is this an example of the “establishment respond[ing] with a vengeance” to the spread of Deism? If anything Stiles overflows with a very boring, almost trite excess of Brandeisian toleration, although he clearly is attached to his own parochial theological views. To me at least, Stone’s “conquer and demolish” snippet misses much more than it explains.
As to Stone’s fantastic claim that circa 1789 Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was “literally put to the torch at Harvard,” I see no evidence that any such event ever happened. To make his case, Stone wholly relies on Professor Kerry Walters’ 1992 publication: Rational Infidels: The American Deists. Walters does not actually say “torched,” he says “burned.” Walters, in turn, relies on William Henry Channing’s The Life of William Ellery Channing, D.D. and G. Adolf Koch’s Republican Religion. But neither work supports Walters’ position. Channing merely records that “[t]he patrons and governors of the college made efforts to counteract the effect of the [principles of the French Revolution] by exhortation, and preaching, and prayer, as well as by the publication of and distribution of good books and pamphlets.” I see no indication of any book-burning. By contrast, Koch writes that in 1791 “Gibbon’s famous work was publicly banned . . . by the President of Harvard College from that institution.” Again, no book-burning, no torching, no auto-da-fé.
Nevertheless book-banning at a university is pretty terrible behaviour (or, at least, it is when adjudged under contemporary standards). But it seems there was no book banning either! Koch’s only source is John Quincy Adams’ Life in a New England Town: 1787, 1788. Adams does not indicate that Gibbon was banned; rather, Adams indicates that in setting the curriculum the President preferred Millot’s Elements of History to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. To sum up, in 1791 Harvard made a mundane curriculum decision; it was recorded in a 1903 publication; in 1933 it became a book-banning; in 1992 it became a book-burning, and in 2008 Professor Stone tells us Gibbon was “literally put to the torch” at Harvard. Literally.
The constellation of facts, misunderstandings, misstatements, exaggeration, and error hardly seems believable. Still, there is no reason to judge Stone harshly: such mistakes do happen.** His mistake, such as it was, was to rely on a single source, Walters, who, apparently misquoted Koch, who expanded on Adams’ initial statement.
. . . Here we come to an awkward and difficult point. Leave aside Professors Stone, and Walters, and Koch—what about you, the reasonable and well-informed reader. When you read Stone’s claim in regard to a book burning at Harvard, circa 1789, did you believe it? Try to remember your reaction, if any. Did it seem shockingly wrong, or did you just read past his claim as a matter of no real consequence, or did it seem reasonably tenable to you? And if you thought the latter, what other historical fictions (or unsupported factual claims) might you believe in error (or absent sufficient evidence), and what does that say about the prejudices you may harbor in relation to people different from yourself? Did you blush when you read Stone’s claim, or are you blushing now?
The above is from my 10-year-old publication: Seth Barrett Tillman, Blushing Our Way Past Historical Fact And Fiction: A Response to Professor Geoffrey R. Stone’s Melville B. Nimmer Memorial Lecture and Essay, 114 Penn St. L. Rev. 391, 402–09 (2009) (footnotes omitted) (asterisked footnote added), <https://ssrn.com/abstract=1333576>.
**My comment here was prescient.
Seth Barrett Tillman, Tillman on Toleration and Prejudice in Academia, New Reform Club (May 14, 2019, 10:53 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2019/05/tillman-on-toleration-and-prejudice-in.html>.
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Have a look around New Reform Club—my co-bloggers do good work!