A Rhetorical Analysis of the American Bible Society Founding Address of May 11, 1816

Ann von Mehren (Arcadia University/University of Houston)

Presented at the 20ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, June, 2015.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

When accepting my paper proposal about the Americanization of the Bible, Roger Hecht wrote, “I like the way it connects Cooper to a larger nationalist/religious project, not at all unlike other efforts to create an American national literature to brace against imported English novels” (Hecht, email, February 27, 2015). I’d like to make my point of departure Dr. Hecht’s reference to “imported English” texts.

In Cooper’s first novel, Precaution, he stuck to views of English life, but each successive work extended his line of American literature about American life. As Sam Haynes describes this trajectory, “more than just a writer of historical romances, Cooper was a public intellectual in the fullest sense of the term, a figure who spoke for the entire nation in its ongoing process of separation from Great Britain” (20).

First, a brief overview of the Bible as a book published in the early republic. Washington took his oath of office in 1789 on a family Bible printed around 1767 by Mark Baskett, the King’s printer, and sold at “Rich.d Ware at the Bible and Sun on Ludgate Hill,” a bookseller in the area of London now home to the London Stock Exchange (Manifoldgreatness.org). During the Revolution, Washington supported the efforts of the Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken, who had sought government funding on the grounds that the war’s embargo prevented the importation of both printed Bibles and stereotype plates from England. Aitken went bankrupt before Congress could authorize funds to pay him back for his efforts. Matthew Carey, an Irish-Catholic Philadelphia publisher, printed Catholic Bibles beginning in 1790, using the Rheims-Douai Bible as his Catholic source, then adding the King James Version in order to supply the Protestant market beginning in 1801, printing sixty editions and stating on most of his title pages, “By the official command of His Majesty King James I of England,” as late as 1818 (Ferrell 114) [Figure 1]. The American printer Isaiah Thomas also continued to acknowledge the authority of King James I in the period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 [Figure 2]. The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) credited the “Authority of His Majesty” in Bibles exported to America that were purchased by American missionaries for distribution on the frontier, even during the War of 1812 [Figure 3]. American reliance on imports from the BFBS is revealed in the travelogues and letters of the Presbyterian Minister Samuel J. Mills, which were influential in persuading the founders of the American Bible Society of the need to supply an American Bible (Mills).

Hostility toward Kings was a commonplace in America in this era, but in the introduction to the 1807 Collins’ edition of the Bible, printed in New York, the antipathy in relation to the King James Bible is made clear in a “To the Reader,” which states:

As the Dedication of the English translation of the BIBLE to king James the first of England seems to be wholly unnecessary for the purposes of edification, and perhaps on some accounts improper to be continued in an American edition, the Editor has been advised by some judicious friends to omit it. (Isaac Collins Bible, Figure 4)

I conclude that the first appearance of the word “American” on the title page of Bibles printed in the United States was on those published by the American Bible Society beginning in 1816 (Figures 5 and 6).

The inaugural convention of the American Bible Society occurred at the Dutch Reformed Church on Garden Street, now Exchange Street, in Manhattan from May 8 to 11, 1816 (Haselby 243). The ABS is frequently described in recent scholarship as founded by a group of wealthy powerbrokers seeking to spread Protestantism. For a representative sampling, Paul Gutjahr describes the ABS as seeking “preeminence for the Bible through a brute force approach” (4). Kathleen McCarthy says the ABS was composed of “the wealthy, well-placed male elite,” whose “desire for social control” caused them to seek “monopolies on information, authority, and doctrinal interpretation” (50). To Sam Haselby the ABS drew “America’s establishment Protestants” who “shared a broad consensus that print was a way to God, and reaching out to the masses was holy work” (261). David Paul Nord concludes that while the members wished to be profitable in their publishing efforts, the Society was founded “not because it would generate profit but because it would save souls” (62). In such scholarship the presumption is that the American Bible Society was composed of elitists who dove into the market economy to print inexpensive Bibles and thereby profit spiritually. I suggest that, in general, the scholarly tone in works that characterize the founding of the American Bible Society as an elitist means to continue cultural power frequently disparages using charitable funds for a religious activity like distributing Bibles. Furthermore, I think the founding members were already fundraising for charities and hard at work in the competitive market economy, or already educated ministers publishing sermons and leading churches. So to me these scholars are writing normative critical descriptions of the era, rather than offering evidence about what drove these specific people to form this Society.

In contrast to historical explanations that describe the dynamics of the era in terms of the emergence of mercantile capitalism, early republic literary scholars such as Michael Warner, Trish Loughan and Russ Castronovo are engaged in understanding the print culture of the 18ᵗʰ and early 19ᵗʰ centuries. Their print-focused approach is distinct from early republic histories that describe the market-driven elite motive for entering into the publishing trade. Instead, those literary scholars emphasize the history of the book and other print circulation in the culture, concluding that “the propagation of a message is as significant as the message” (Castronovo 9).

The Americanization project that became the goal of the ABS already had momentum in other cultural spaces. For example, James Fenimore Cooper was at the ABS founding convention, although he had not yet begun to write professionally. Cooper was one of three delegates, and the only Episcopalian, representing the Otsego Bible Society; the other two, Andrew Oliver and Eli Cooley, were Presbyterian ministers (Presbyterian Church). He still used the name, “James Cooper,” adding “Fenimore,” his mother’s family name, to his nom de plume in 1826 (Franklin 511-512). As a representative from his church’s vestry, he joined the other delegates who were also representing their churches and local and regional Bible Societies from all the states (Griffin 28).

Imagine a scenario, as Cooper does in his first novel Precaution, of families in the parlor or around the table, parsing quotes from their traditional Bible, an Anglican Bible. Giving up the old family Bible, their English, King James Version Bible, for a new American Bible Society version, couldn’t have been easy to do. They had decided to publish Bibles, but how and why were the delegates to the convention willing to give up their beloved family Bibles, British King James Version Bibles, and replace them on the tables and shelves in their own homes with brand new Bibles? I’d like to suggest why the members of the American Bible Society gave up their old Bibles, not just why they successfully ventured into Bible publishing.

Expanding on the idea of competing for print-culture space, I argue that the delegates individually subscribed to beginning the ABS publishing program in order to set in type and promote the word “American” on Bible title pages and thereby replace competing foreign or state sources of authority, especially the British and Foreign Bible Society, to counter the lingering political allegations of their Federalist-leaning, excessive loyalty to their British antecedents in the wake of the War of 1812. The propaganda value of disseminating American Bibles thus can be seen as a competition for cultural space within the print culture, which was an arena in which the realization occurred that if American civic leaders did not act to supply Bibles that said “American,” then Bibles with credit given to the British monarchy would be supplied by competitive publishers. The urgent need to stave off any future wars against the country of their heritage propelled these civic-minded men to stop being identified in the culture at large as too pro-British.

The War of 1812 to 1815 or the Anglo-American War is sometimes described as the first North American civil war because it occurred between English-speaking British and English-speaking North Americans. Some also explain it as a civil war because it occurred on North American territory between American nationalists and Americans, Native American Indians, and Canadians who preserved ties with England after the Revolutionary War. As Zabdiel Adams said, in January 1775, Great Britain was “the nurse of our infancy, the guardian of our youth” (Byrd 107), so how to split from that English nurturing of American culture became a cultural challenge for post-Revolutionary American society. The Jay Treaty of 1795 was seen as too deferential, too accommodating toward Britain, increasing public demands, such as those of Noah Webster, for American political and cultural nationalism (Ellis 161). When John Adams lost the presidency in 1800, many Jeffersonian Democrats saw how to succeed electorally by blaming the Federalists for their accommodationist politics. The general view today about the decline of the party is that a faction of New England Federalists, who met at the Hartford Convention in late December 1814 and early January 1815, showed the entire party’s traitorous stripes by going so far as to entertain a resolution to secede from the United States if the war against the United Kingdom continued. Some recent scholars, such as Haselby, reduce the Federalist Party’s failure to the Hartford Convention’s insistence on continuing politics through “the New England way” (116).

Yet, historians, when lumping all Federalists together as one party, need to keep in mind that not a single delegate to the Hartford Convention attended the initial convention of the American Bible Society, which took place in May 1816 in New York City. The leadership and founding members of the American Bible Society in fact had completely opposite strategies from the Hartford Convention Federalists. New York Federalists, such as John Jay and Rufus King, and New Jersey Federalists, dove into what is called the united front or the benevolent empire of charitable works, finding a national way in which to distance themselves from the public charges that they as Federalists had been too pro-British and thus had caused, or at least not prevented, the War of 1812.

It seems to me that a disconnect is currently festering between two other schools of scholarship in the early republic period, one that focuses on the political and historical ramifications of the War of 1812 and the other that is dedicated to explaining the emergence of American literature and the popularization of print in the post-war culture. Those applying the former explain the demise of the Federalists by describing how their classically trained leadership was taken down by the strong pull of the uneducated voters or collapsed under their British-style aristocratic disdain for the so-called commoners. The other sees too much success by Federalist powerbrokers in the literary marketplace, who muscled in to compete for patriarchal domination, propaganda share, and cultural power.

Because of what I perceive to be another lack of congruity between two approaches, I’ve gone back into the original documents of the ABS and done a rhetorical analysis of the founding Address given in May 1816, seeking insights into just what Elias E. Boudinot, John Jay and their fellows in actually stated in the ABS’s founding document to convince themselves why they needed to start up a Bible publishing house. I think the Address shows that the founders’ civil commitment to being American citizens shaped how they changed their former allegiance to their beloved King James Version Bibles, which likely resembled Washington’s family Bible.

Therefore, I argue that these smart, strategic-planning Bible-thumpers were reconstituting themselves in civic society. They were, in fact and deed, accepting the public accusations that their affinity for all things English had exacerbated the plunge toward the war of 1812. To stave off the rampant accusations that their loyalty to their English heritage could give Britain potential toeholds in the country, or that they wanted to curtsy to Britain rather than resist its cultural imperialism, they appropriated “American” to show their patriotism. They put the word American on their Bible’s title page and they dropped any mention of King James from it. Furthermore, they did not even mention the King James Version in their founding materials. This pivotal change is evident in Article I of the ABS Constitution, which asserts that the society’s,

sole object shall be, to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment. The only copies in the English language to be circulated by the Society shall be of the version now in common use. (ABS 2)

Beyond their determination not to speak the King’s name but to refer to “the version now in common use,” I suggest the delegates’ educated knowledge of Cicero gave them ideas on how to explain their shift from their former proud English proclivities to the common American identity. Sandra Gustafson has noted that the majority of civic leaders in early America had “English training in gentility,” which “stressed Ciceronian humanist ideals of moral action embodied in the figure of the orator” (13). Kimberly K. Smith points out that in Charles Brockden Brown’s 1789 novel Wieland, a bust of “Cicero represented the dominance of the spoken word and argument, rather than force and blind obedience, in a republican regime” (87). By using Ciceronian rhetoric to explain why they were delving into Bible publishing, these American politicians and cultural leaders became less identifiable as the originally English elite of the early republic.

We know those in attendance at the ABS founding convention read Cicero through many historical records, such as those offered by James Fenimore Cooper, who along with his best friend, William Jay, the son of John Jay and also a delegate to the ABS convention. As young men, Cooper and Jay prepared to enter Yale under the tutelage of the Rev. Thomas Ellison, who as rector of St. Peter’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Albany taught in his home (Franklin 44). In his 1837 travelogue, Gleanings in Europe: England, Cooper writes William Jay about how Ellison “compelled you and me to begin Virgil with the Eclogues, and Cicero with the knotty phrase that opens the oration” of Pro Archia“ (Franklin 46).

While Cooper attended only as a delegate of his hometown church in Otsego, New York, William Jay attended both AS a delegate from Westchester and served on the Drafting Committee for the Address. He was one of eleven writers on the committee, which included Elias Boudinot, famed for his 1790 book The Age of Revelation, his answer to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason; Lyman Beecher, who had just written his sermons against intemperance in 1814; Eliphalet Nott, whose 1804 essay On the Death of General Alexander Hamilton helped end dueling; and Jedidiah Morse, who had founded the New England Tract Society in 1814 (ABS 3-7).

In the Address that the Drafting Committee prepared, the rhetorical oration style advocated by Cicero in De Inventore and De Oratore are obvious. In addition to the structural form of the Address, Cicero’s dissimulation strategy is present in the speech. To quote Cicero: “The beginning is an address, in plain words, immediately rendering the hearer well disposed towards one, or inclined to receive information, or attentive. The language calculated to enable the orator to work his way into the good graces of his hearers, is an address which employs a certain dissimulation, and which by a circuitous route as it were obscurely creeps into the affections of the hearer” (Book I, Chapter XV).

Cicero elaborates on how to work “into the good graces” of an audience: “Goodwill will be procured, derived from the character of the hearers themselves, if exploits are mentioned which have been performed by them with bravery, or wisdom, or humanity” (Book I, Chapter XVI). In the Address, the opening appeals to the wisdom of the audience as follows: “Every person of observation has remarked that the times are pregnant with great events.” The Address goes on to assert that humanity is vulnerable, because “the imposing names of reason and liberality were attempting to seduce mankind from all which can bless the life that is, or shed a cheering radiance on the life that is to come” (ABS 14). Beyond laying bare the fact that the ABS convention is a religious, rather than a political, gathering, this initial critique of liberal political philosophy may also be part reference to the fight underway in 1816 against the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in the state of Connecticut, Lyman Beecher’s cause, which he lost in 1818. Then the Address goes on to state that the time has come “to help on the work of Christian charity — to claim our place in the age of Bibles.” The Christian purpose of the ABS is openly stated. The rhetoric of “dissimulation” is found by understanding the significance of these lines of the Address:

We have, indeed, the secondary praise, but still the praise, of treading in the footsteps of those who have set an example without a parallel — an example of the most unbounded benevolence and beneficence: and it cannot be to us a source of any pain, that it has been set by those who are of one blood with the most of ourselves; and has been embodied in a form so noble and so Catholick, as ‘ The British and Foreign Bible Society“ (ABS 14).

To be plain, the ABS was going to replace the BFBS as their main source of Bibles. Consulting Cicero gave the Address’s writers the language with which to express this rejection appropriately, for Cicero states in De Inventione: “it is requisite to promise that you will speak first of all on that point which the opposite party consider their especial stronghold (Book I, Chapter XVII). Statements of evidence are offered that purport to claim that, rather than compete or replace the efforts of the BFBS, the ABS will merely join in. “Concentrated action is powerful action,” the Address proclaims, making the Christian goals of the two societies seem identical. However, at this point, a question is placed in the speech about whether to support local or national action. No surprise, these former and current Federalists are convinced, “A national object unites national feeling and concurrence.” National citizen action is conflated with the Christian “sphere of action,” which means funding, printing and distributing Bibles throughout the “great districts of the American continent,” which are the “prepared field[s] for the reception of revealed truth.” The Address ends in a Peroration that stirs patriotism and faith in solely American terms, however, with the BFBS left out of any future planning (ABS 16-20). The BFBS, with its expressed authority, His Majesty of the United Kingdom, given credit on its King James Version Bible’s title page, will no longer be the main source for Bibles read by Americans or distributed by American missionaries.

In conclusion, the attendees at the founding convention, most of them Federalist politicians and/or English-educated ministers, businessmen, and public intellectuals, came to Manhattan in May 1816 in order to launch the American Bible Society imprint. But they were also there, as individuals and citizens, to assert, beyond criticism, their American identity.

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