The Drama of American History

An Interview with Professor Jonathan Den Hartog

JMC Resident Historian Elliott Drago sat down with JMC Faculty Partner Jonathan Den Hartog  to discuss his work on the founding era and the intellectual sparks that inspired him to become a historian. Dr. Den Hartog is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Samford University.

ED:Why did you become an American historian?

JDH: I knew growing up that I enjoyed history. I was particularly fascinated by depictions of early America—Mayflower colonists, Puritan settlers in New England, and, of course, the Founding generation. I realized the importance of that American past for our present—both in its connections and in its differences.

As an undergraduate, I double-majored in History and Political Science, and I had an interest in economics, so I could have gone in several directions. Looking at those fields, though, I became convinced that history allowed me to discuss the widest range of topics. It was easiest to fold politics and economics and philosophy and literature into historical study, rather than concentrating on another field. I’m glad to say I’ve found that to be the case.

My passion for teaching American history came as the fruit of a course and its readings. Prof. Mark Kalthoff offered a course on the interaction of science and religion as a historical problem that could inform contemporary debates. In passing, Prof. Kalthoff mentioned the work of another historian, George Marsden. The next summer, I read Marsden’s work, and I was hooked. As a scholar of American religion, Marsden captured important trends that I had observed in my community. He literally gave me a vocabulary for describing my world. Not only did that experience launch me into working with Prof. Marsden at the University of Notre Dame, but it provided such an intellectual spark that I want to share it with my students.

ED: What led you to write your book?

JDH: Although I could talk about the collection of essays I co-edited with Carl Esbeck—Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States—I’m going to focus my remarks on the book I authored. That work is Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (University of Virginia Press).

The book grew out of my Ph.D. dissertation at Notre Dame, so it was a long process of thinking and research.



I wanted to examine attitudes toward religion in public life during the founding era, but to take a longer view than simply the years 1776-1787. Instead, I wanted to watch how people’s views grew over time from the Revolution to the years of Constitution-making to the early republic. I wanted to see how figures with bona fide revolutionary credentials thought about questions of religion in public life when they got down to constructing a new national government. As it turns out, Americans disagreed at the time, and those disagreements were part of the political ferment of the 1790s-1800s.


Along the way, I wanted to pay greater attention to the Federalist party. Not just supporters of ratifying the Constitution, they coalesced as a party supporting the Washington and Adams administrations. Because the party didn’t survive much past the War of 1812, it often gets less attention than it deserves. I wanted to understand the policies, the ideas, and the cultural commitments of the Federalists, the better to recover their view of the world.

ED: Why do we need to read your book?

JDH: If the questions I posed previously seem interesting to readers, they should definitely pick up the book!

Readers can find out how the Federalists thought about the place of religion in American life and then took steps to realize that vision. They can also see how Federalist engagement shifted through three stages, which I label as “Republican,” “Contested,” and “Voluntarist.” These three different approaches each carried their own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, the Federalist concern for religion in public life shaped the developing American culture, even as the party itself faded away.

Prominent federalists Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay

Readers will be able to trace the experience of individuals wrestling with political, religious, and cultural questions. I organized my investigation around specific people—leaders from South Carolina in the south to New England in the north, with several representatives from the Mid-Atlantic present, too. These individuals came from a variety of denominational traditions, yet shared common concerns. They thought and acted both on the state and the national level, so we can see their concerns playing out on multiple fronts.

The book also offers the opportunity to explore the Federalists as a political party. In addition to policies like the National Bank or the encouragement of manufacturing, Federalists embodied a political culture that elaborated on themes from the struggle for independence. Part of that concern was their interest in religious questions.

Finally, readers will discover the connection between the Federalists and the emerging culture of voluntary societies in the new nation. Why is it, for example, that early presidents of the American Bible Society were national Federalist political figures? This volume traces how Federalist thinking shaped a culture that would impress Alexis de Tocqueville just a few decades later.

ED: What does your book’s subject matter reveal about America’s founding principles and history?

JDH: The book underscores how religious concerns were present through the long founding era.

For many Federalists, public religious expression was acceptable and desirable. They saw this as a continuation of practices formed during the Revolution itself and did not view it as violating the First Amendment. As long as there was no official, established church, both the President and Congress were free to encourage religious observation. Among Federalists, there was no recognition of a “wall of separation” as Thomas Jefferson argued.


One key reason that Federalists advocated for public religiosity was the way it could help inculcate virtue. Virtue was a necessary, because it shaped the citizens of a self-governing republic. Whereas Madison may have hoped that the mechanisms of the Constitution would be enough to secure good government, the Federalists insisted that both individual citizens and the officials they elected needed to possess a certain quality of character. That character would make sure that liberty was practiced with a concern for others and did not degenerate into selfish libertinism.

At the same time, the Federalists’ experience reveals that their concerns were contested in the new nation. They weren’t simply endorsed, but argued over vigorously. From this I take the observation that arguing about religion in public life is also part of the American experience. I think that creates an invitation to continue wrestling with the subject, rather than to shut down discussion.

ED: What is your next project?

JDH: I am currently writing a biography of John Jay. Jay was an eminent founder, and his political career stretched from the First Continental Congress of 1774 to a retirement in the next century in 1801. In between, he filled a wide variety of offices; in fact, at different times, he led from the legislative branch (First and Second Continental Congresses), the executive branch (President of Congress and as the Secretary for Foreign Affairs), and the judicial branch (First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court). He was one of America’s first diplomats, leading the way in securing the Paris Peace Treaty that guaranteed American independence and later negotiating the Jay Treaty with Great Britain.

People will sometimes recognize him for contributing to the Federalist Papers, but he also wrote his own defense of the proposed Constitution and was critical for securing ratification in New York. Jay worked alongside the other founders who get much of the attention—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison—but they viewed Jay as their equal, and often it was his work that made their accomplishments possible.

In the biography, I am working to give due attention both to Jay’s ideas and how he practically applied them. Jay was a critic of utopian thinking. He worked to view the world realistically and to accept its imperfections, even as he labored for reforms that could actually be accomplished, such as the ending of slavery in New York. He pursued what he believed was the common good from a position of leadership. His life thus has a lot to say about both the era of the Revolution and American political life today.  

ED: What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about American history?

JDH: The drama of it.

Too often students get inoculated to the excitement of American history by only being taught with a diet of textbooks. These massive tomes provide lots of accurate facts and information, derived from numerous scholarly investigations. In the process, however, they mislead readers about the past. They present the past as dull, reduced to names, dates, and facts. Rather than seeing history as the process of detective work and discovery, the information is presented as pre-digested and the outcomes as fore-ordained.

The actual past was anything but that. Historians like to use the term “contingency” to capture the openness of the past. Studying any moment in depth helps us realize that events could have turned out very differently. Individual people and groups of people reflected and chose to act in certain ways in response to the conditions they faced. Both unexpected, chance realities and the intentional choices of real human beings helped forge events that we now look back upon and evaluate, sometimes with deep regard and sometimes with reproach.

Dorothea Lange, Pledge of Allegiance, 1940s San Francisco

Because American history is open, there’s a responsibility for us, as citizens, in the present. We have a responsibility to think clearly and respond well. We each need to develop the virtues necessary to participate actively in self-government. If we do that well, we can contribute another positive chapter to the American story—but there’s no guarantee. So, we find ourselves still living out the undetermined course of American history.



ED: Thank you so much for your time and hard work! We look forward to reading your fascinating biography of John Jay!

Elliott Drago serves as the JMC’s Resident Historian and Editorial Manager. He is a historian of American history and the author of Street Diplomacy: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom in Philadelphia, 1820-1850 (Johns-Hopkins University Press, 2022).

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