William Findley was an important, if lesser-known, politician during
the early national period of American history. He was a captain in the Revolutionary army, an Anti-Federalist, and a forty-year veteran
politician of both state and national office. In the Pennsylvania ratifying
convention he had vigorously opposed the approval of the proposed
Constitution because he felt that it did not guarantee the protection of
some basic liberties such as jury trial; religious freedom; and freedom of
speech, assembly, press, etc. After the Bill of Rights was adopted, Findley
became a strong supporter of the Constitution.
Observations on “The Two Sons of Oil” was written in 1811 in response to the Reverend Samuel B. Wylie’s work, The Two Sons of Oil,
which was published in 1803. In this work of radical Presbyterian
theology, Wylie pointed out what he considered to be deficiencies in the
constitutions of both Pennsylvania and the United States and declared
them to be immoral.
Findley’s response to Wylie’s criticisms in Observations showed that
it was neither the purpose nor the design of the United States government
to have a federal religion and a federal creed. In a broader sense the book
is also a passionate defense of a civil government guided by moral
principles that allow for essential freedoms. Findley’s defense of religious
liberty and the American constitutions affords a grand window through
which to view early American understanding about the relationship
between politics and faith and why it is essential for both liberty and piety
to resist any attempt to unite government and Church.
This new Liberty Fund edition will make this work available once
again; Observations on “The Two Sons of Oil” has not been republished
since its original publication in 1812. Scholars of American history,
government, and religion will appreciate the new availability of this book,
which provides critical insight into Americans’ conception of liberty in the
nation’s formative years. In addition, readers concerned with renewed
debates around the world on the separation of church and state will
appreciate the timelessness of Findley’s arguments for secular government
and its compatibility with religious beliefs.
William Findley was born in Ireland and emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1763. He served in the Second through the Fifth Congresses, and again in the Eighth through the Fourteenth Congresses, earning the designation
“Father of the House” before he retired from Congress in 1817. He died in 1821.
John Caldwell is retired from Augustana College, where he was Director
of the Library and Professor of History. Himself a native of western
Pennsylvania, Professor Caldwell is the author of George R. Stewart (1981)
and William Findley from West of the Mountains: A Politician in Pennsylvania,