Freethinkers A History of American Secularism

Susan Jacoby

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

448 Pages


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A Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2004

At a time when the separation of church and state is under attack as never before, Freethinkers offers a powerful defense of the secularist heritage that gave Americans the first government in the world founded not on the authority of religion but on the bedrock of human reason.

In impassioned, elegant prose, Susan Jacoby offers a powerful defense of more than two hundred years of secularist activism, beginning with the fierce debate over the omission of God from the Constitution. Moving from nineteenth-century abolitionism and suffragism through the twentieth-century's civil liberties, civil rights, and feminist movements, Freethinkers illuminates the neglected accomplishments of secularists who, allied with tolerant and liberal religious believers, have stood at the forefront of the battle for social reforms opposed by reactionaries in the past and today.

Rich with such iconic figures as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Clarence Darrow—as well as once-famous secularists such as Robert Green Ingersoll, "the Great Agnostic"—Freethinkers restores to history generations of dedicated humanist champions. It is they, Jacoby shows, who have led the struggle to uphold the unique combination of secular government and religious liberty that is and always has been the glory of the American system.


Praise for Freethinkers

"Ardent and insightful, Ms. Jacoby seeks to rescue a proud tradition [of secularism in America] from the indifference of posterity. Her title was shrewdly chosen. 'Freethinker' is what rebels against spiritual authority once called themselves, and it ennobles the breed with, if she'll excuse the term, the holiest adjective in the lexicon of American politics. Her pantheon of skeptics includes names like Jefferson, Paine, Darrow, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of The Woman's Bible that ridiculed the sexism of the apostles. And she rediscovers such figures as Robert Ingersoll, the Gilded Age orator who drew huge audiences with calls for 'a religion of humanity' that would venerate only 'inquiry, investigation, and thought' . . . Ms. Jacoby is no polemicist. She appreciates the pull of religion—as community and creed—while criticizing her own side for taking refuge in rational disdain. Beliefs, she knows, cannot promote themselves."—Michael Kazin, The New York Times

"A gutsy, passionate, intelligent book . . . [Jacoby's] discussion of Abraham Lincoln's . . . confusion over religious belief is a forceful, unexpectedly poignant one. She reminds us that now largely forgotten heroes such as the agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll, more passionate and persevering in his beliefs than most, show us how to maintain a mutual respect for opponents . . . Invaluable . . . A must read for those interested in the ways our nation's most cherished traditions of freedom evolved—and as a reminder of what is at stake in protecting that legacy."—Laura Claridge, The Boston Globe

"[Tells] us much that we need to know about the history of religion and politics in the United States."—David A. Hollinger, Harper's

"In lucid and witty prose, Jacoby has uncovered the hidden history of secular America."—Christopher Hitchens, The Washington Post Book World

"Lively . . . A readable chronicle of the ebb and flow of American commitment to the divorce between political and religious authority."—Scott McLemee, Newsday

"[Jacoby] accomplishes her task with clarity, thoroughness, and an engaging passion."—Edward Lazarus, The Los Angeles Times

"In view of the tide of religiosity engulfing a once secular republic, it is refreshing to be reminded by Freethinkers that free thought and skepticism are robustly in the American tradition. After all, the Founding Fathers began by omitting God from the American Constitution."—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"In the best of all possible Americas every college freshman would be required to take a course called 'The History of American Secularism.' The text would be Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers, as necessary a book as could be published in the fourth year of the ministry of George W. Bush."—Philip Roth

"This book is fresh air for those who defend the separation of church and state. Here, clearly written and without apologetics, is the noble record of the struggle to retain America's precious freedom of conscience, her pride for two centuries, now under threat from the political Right as never before."—Arthur Miller

"Freethinkers is not only a good book, it is also a necessary one. This dramatic study offers a welcome reminder that the Founding Fathers were intent on keeping church and state firmly separated. Lively, impassioned, and impartial, Susan Jacoby's argument deserves more than respect; it deserves support."—Peter Gay, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University

"At a time when a U.S. president divides the world into good and evil and claims God's approval for his foreign adventures, we need Susan Jacoby's lively history of the remarkable tradition of American freethought more than ever."—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

"This thoroughly informed and gripping narrative reveals the moral and political importance of the secular tradition to a free people. In light of recent events, the book arrives at an opportune time for humanists and the religious alike."—Norman Dorsen, president, American Civil Liberties Union (1976-1991)

"Susan Jacoby reminds us of one of our finest American traditions. With this striking and meticulous work, she has rescued the historic force of freethinking from political oblivion. Let us hope that this book points to a more rational future."—Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape

"[This book] reclaims a key facet of American culture . . . Veteran author Jacoby feels that now is the perfect time for a thorough reexamination of America's secular tradition because, as she documents, it is being severely eroded by the politics of the Christian Right. Her cogent and engaging narrative presents myriad neglected yet significant historical episodes and compelling profiles of such clarion freethinkers as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Walt Whitman, and John F. Kennedy. Jacoby reveals how the abolitionist and women's rights movements, archetypal freethinking efforts, challenged orthodox religious institutions as obstacles to social reform, and she dissects the church's role in organized censorship and negative impact on public education, especially its opposition to the teaching of evolution. As Jacoby critiques the rise of religious correctness and tracks President Bush's assault on the line between church and state, she reminds readers that humanist values are the bedrock of democracy. Enlightening, invigorating, and responsibly yet passionately argued, Jacoby's unparalleled history of American secularism offers a much needed perspective on today's most urgent social issues."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

"An impressive literary achievement filled with an array of both major and minor figures from American history, like revolutionary propagandist Thomas Paine, presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Green Ingersoll. Her historical work is further flanked by current examples—the Bush White House in an introduction and the views of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia in the final chapter—that crystallize her concern over secularism's waning influence . . . Jacoby has done yeoman's work in crafting her message that the values of America's freethinkers belong 'at the center, not the margins' of American life."—Publishers Weekly

"A lively history of American antispiritualism . . . a welcome addition to American cultural history."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Susan Jacoby is the author of five books including Wild Justice, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. A contributor to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, and Vogue, she lives in New York City.
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  • Susan Jacoby

  • Susan Jacoby is the author of several other books, including Wild Justice, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. A contributor to The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, and Vogue, she lives in New York City.
  • Susan Jacoby © Marion Ettlinger