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The Biblical Argument Against Kings (video)

May 6, 2013

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — With wit, humility and a profound grasp of history, Harvard University professor of government Eric Nelson explored the origins of America’s turn to republican government in the John Hamilton Fulton Lecture in the Liberal Arts on May 2 at Middlebury College.

It was not predestined that the United States would emerge from its struggle for independence from England as a republic, Nelson told the audience in Dana Auditorium. It was only in 1776, he said, following the publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” that the still emerging nation embraced “the claim that kingless government is absolutely necessary and is in fact the only legitimate constitutional form. That monarchy of any kind is unacceptable.”

Nelson traced the origin of this claim, in an intellectual tour from the Old Testament through the work of John Milton and to the Declaration of Independence, during a tour de force talk titled, “The Lord Alone Shall Be the King of America: Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776.”

A heralded 35-year-old political theorist, Nelson earned tenure from Harvard in 2009, just 10 years after he had graduated summa cum laude from the school. Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz noted in his introduction that Nelson has compelled scholars and students alike to reexamine long-held views about Western political values and what they mean, expressing the expectation that Nelson would deliver a fascinating and stimulating talk. The Fulton lecturer did not disappoint.

Like a playwright giving stage directions, Nelson set the scene for his lecture: “In March of 1629 when the lawyer and parliamentarian John Selden found himself in the Tower of London, without any books to keep him company, England’s greatest man of letters…chose not the Bible, Aristotle or Cicero, Homer or Virgil…[Instead] he most urgently required his copy of the Talmud, the great compendium of Jewish rabbinic law.”

How do we explain the mysterious fact that a 17th-century Protestant scholar such as Selden would have elected to spend his prison term studying the rabbis? Nelson asked.

Watch the full video of Eric Nelson's lecture below.

“To pose this question is to set out in search of a long forgotten chapter in Western political history, one in which the study of Hebrew became an obsession of the European republic of letters. The story begins with the Italian Renaissance … but it was the Protestant reformation without any question that transformed Christian Hebraism from an eccentric preoccupation of the esoterically inclined into a truly dominant cultural and intellectual phenomenon.”

In other words, students of politics in the 17th and 18th centuries were looking at the Hebrew Bible and its in-depth commentaries — the Talmud and the Midrash — to understand how best to govern their societies.

Nelson took his Middlebury audience back to Chapter 17 of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, in which Moses reminds the Israelites prior to entering the “promised land” of their need for allegiance to one God. Verses 14 through 20 of the chapter deal with the question of whether the Israelites can have a king (God says they can have one), and what limitations should be placed upon such a king (he will be chosen by God, he shall not “multiply wives for himself,” he must adhere to the commandments.)

But an apparent contradiction arises in the first Book of Samuel, Nelson pointed out,  “when the people ask for a king and both God and Samuel get very angry at them.” How do we reconcile the two? Nelson asked. Didn’t God say in Deuteronomy that the Israelites could have a king?

“Well,” he explained, “the people are not condemned for asking for a king per se. They are condemned for asking for the wrong kind of king… They want a king like all the other nations. They want a gentilizing kind of king, a king who will be tyrannical… Not the kind of king described in Deuteronomy 17. So the sin in this account is that they are asking for a king unlike the virtuous and appropriate monarch Deuteronomy specifies.”

It was to ponder the depth of these questions of governance that moved learned men such as John Selden, the prisoner in the tower, to ask for a copy of the Talmud, which contains thousands of opinions on law, ethics, philosophy and other topics.  

Nelson, the author of the acclaimed book “The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought” (Harvard/Belknap, 2010), then segued from the prophet Samuel to the poet John Milton who, in his writings, defended the regicide of Charles I. “It is a form of idolatry to ask for a king who demands that he be worshipped and granted honors like those of a God,” said Nelson paraphrasing Milton, whom, Nelson explained, had paraphrased the Midrash.  

Milton’s view “is then picked up by a whole set of English republican writers and what emerges is a very different kind of republican political theory. It’s exclusive... This view says you cannot have any kind of a king.”

A century later Thomas Paine used Milton’s biblical argument against monarchy in his pamphlet “Common Sense,” which, Nelson said, touched off “a huge debate across the colonies.” The question on the minds of colonists was: “Is monarchy reprobated (i.e., condemned) by the Bible?” Nelson related that “Common Sense” sold more than 100,000 copies. Paine’s argument that monarchy was a form of idolatry “pushed all these scripture-reading colonists into the anti-monarchy camp.”

Paine had so effectively altered the focus of the political debate “from the enslaving effects of kingly powers to the idolatrous pretensions of the office of king,” that Americans gladly accepted a republican form of government with a powerful chief executive (i.e., a president) at its head. Or as Nelson so deftly put it:

“The French political theorist Montesquieu characterized England as a republic disguised under the form of a monarchy. Thanks in large part to the Hebraising turn initiated by Paine, the new United States would become the reverse.”

The John Hamilton Fulton Lecture in the Liberal Arts was established at Middlebury College in 1966 by the late Alexander Hamilton Fulton, a former member of the board of trustees, who donated the gift that established the lectureship in honor of his father. Previous lecturers in the series include: Beverly Sills, Wynton Marsalis, James A. Baker III, Elie Wiesel, Deborah Tannen, and two sitting chief justices of the United States, William H. Rehnquist and John G. Roberts, Jr.

Reporting by Robert Keren