Constitution Sunday: Isaac Backus on Religion and the State, Slavery, and Nobility

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

February 4, 1788

Some governmental systems are engines of tyranny. They may be dressed up as virtuous systems, ones that account for all members of society, but the consequences flowing from the system always speak louder than the rhetoric its leaders spout. At the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, in February 1788, Isaac Backus arose and spoke in favor of the draft Constitution as it accounted for and did not contain many features of a system that leads to tyranny.

For Backus, the absence of a religious test in the Constitution was one piece of evidence demonstrating the Constitution’s merit. Backus said, “And let the history of all nations be searched, from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world.” Further, another advantage of the Constitution was its “excluding all titles of nobility, or heredity succession of power; which hath been a main engine of tyranny in foreign countries.”

Many of the draft Constitution’s supporters must have recognized that, in a country that was steeped in European culture and Christianity, a religious test was not only unnecessary but would only serve to increase the chance of tyranny prevailing if and when the country became more diverse. Then, one of the most egalitarian ideas of all: an absence of stratification of society; there would be no noble class, no royal blood, no family or families who were above all others. While classes existed and will always exist—so long as the country is a democratic, capitalist society—the Constitution was setting the stage for a rotation of leaders and a rotation of who has influence and political power in the country without regard for lineage or birthright. Consequently, there is a mitigation, or at least a delay, of the chance for tyranny. Even though there is no system that can entirely seal itself off from tyranny, the drafters of the Constitution, recognizing the failures of past societies and their falling into a tyranny from which they struggled to free themselves, accounted for those past failings in creating the Constitution’s system.

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