History Research Paper Sample: The Very Sperm of Atheism

Through our history curriculum, Commonwealth students learn how to be historians rather than passive absorbers of facts. They read and analyze primary sources from a variety of voices in their historical contexts. And they graduate knowing that a single textbook could never tell the whole story. Core to this discovery process is an annual research paper that hones students’ analytical and writing skills and challenges them to dig deep into a variety of sources on any topic of interest—whether it be debunking the “primitivist” myth around jazz, the impact of the breakup of the AT&T monopoly, or, as you will see in this recent example from Moe ’23, on how one seeming heretic influenced the philosophy underscoring the American Revolution and atheism as we know it today.

On the 27th day of July in the year 1656, the rabbis of Amsterdam expelled a twenty-two-year old sometimes student, sometimes failing merchant by the name of Baruch Spinoza from the Jewish people, declaring that: 

having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he prated and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and born witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they have became convinced of the truth of this matter, and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable chachamim, they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel.

After enumerating some extraordinary curses, the rabbis finished by banning all communication with him; imposing a four-cubit minimum distance; and, most importantly, forbidding anyone from reading any works that he published. The last command was purely hypothetical: Spinoza had not published anything at the time of his expulsion. The rabbis, however, had predicted correctly. Twenty two years later, in 1677, Spinoza died having published works on a diverse array of enlightenment topics. Eventually, his legacy crossed the Atlantic, and by the time the Americans formed their own nation, he was already a part of their collective consciousness whether or not they knew it. Spinoza’s religious philosophy terrified the god-fearing early Americans and served as a reminder of just how far one could stray from orthodoxy. In polemics, his name was invoked as the ultimate damning association. His political philosophy was even more insidious, creeping its way into the philosophical backdrop of the revolution. John Locke, the great political philosopher and intellectual grandfather of the American Revolution, owned every one of Spinoza’s major works. Thomas Jefferson demonstrated a keen interest in his philosophy. While the rabbis of Amsterdam had sought to hinder debate, controversy was Spinoza’s natural environment in early America.

It would be an honest mistake to think that 18th-century Americans saw Spinoza as nothing more than a raving heretic. Such a myopic view can be traced back as early as the 1773 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which provides a definition of Spinozism that fails to mention any of Spinoza’s political beliefs:

Spinozism, the doctrine of Spinoza, or atheism and pantheism proposed after the manner of Spinoza, who was born a Jew at Amsterdam.

The great principle of Spinozism, is, that there is nothing properly and absolutely existing besides matter the modifications of matter; among which are even comprehended thought, abstract and general ideas, comparisons, relations, combinations of relations, &c.

The chief articles in Spinoza's system are reducible to these. That there is but one substance in nature; and that this only substance in endued with an infinite number of attributes, among which are extension and cogitation: that all the bodies in the universe are modifications of this substance considered as it is extended; and that all the souls of men are modifications of the same substance considered as cogitative: that God is a necessary and infinitely perfect Being, and is that cause of all things that exists; but not a different being from them: that there is but one being and one nature, and that this nature produces within itself, by an immanent act, all those which we call creatures; and that this being is at the same time both agent and patient, efficient cause and subject, but that he produces nothing but modifications of matter.

Similarly, most extant texts available in Early America that mention Spinoza were polemics that focused solely on Spinoza’s unorthodox view of the divine. Copies of Samuel Clark’s "A Discourse concerning the being and attributes of God, the obligations of natural religion, and the truth and certainty of the Christian revelation: in answer to Mr. Hobbs, Spinoza, the author of the Oracles of reason, and other deniers of natural and revealed religion" appear in the Library of Congress signed by Thomas Jefferson; in Boston’s Old North Church library in 1752; and in the College of William and Mary in 1750. Another work, titled The Deist’s Manual: Or, a Rational Enquiry Into the Christian Religion. With Some Considerations on Mr Hobbs, Spinoza, the Oracles of Reason, Second Thought Etc was seemingly gifted to Harvard University in 1767 (Figure 1). The existence of these books, all written as apologetics for religious orthodoxy, suggest an appetite in the American colonies for rebuttals of deism and other heretical beliefs. The religious arguments that Spinoza made were taken seriously, and they needed serious responses.

Early American newspapers further demonstrate a focus on Spinoza’s theological beliefs with some farcically misrepresenting his philosophy. In 1772, a writer going by the name Christianus attacked a preacher with the censored name “Rev. W-st,” asserting that “for your assistance, [you] bring in Spinoza, Hobbs, Leibnitz, Collins, and Kaims, a herd of infidels, very unfit authorities, for a Christian divine.” Such assistance was not just erroneous, it was dangerous, as an article in the Federal Gazette explained. Students of a certain Priestly, it claimed, “having been led through a series of refinement by their teacher, will improve upon undulations till they are safely arrived at the materialism of the doctor, from which they have but one step more to the atheism of Spinoza, Diderot, and Condorcet.” To these authors, Spinoza was not a deist, or panentheist, but the arch-heretical atheist. In a letter to the editor published in the National Gazette and Connecticut Courant in 1793, the author described their view on the situation in France:

The French finding themselves duped by one religion, they generally imbibed a disgust against all. They took but one step from bigotry to infidelity. Few of them retained a reverence for Christianity—few of them stopped even at deism. They came generally, and now are sceptics.—They called in question the being and attributes of the Deity. They doubted the immortality of the soul, and denied a future state of rewards and punishment. This motel system of doubt and skepticism, borrowed from the atheistic tenets of Epicurus, Hobbs, and Spinoza, is at length become the prevailing creed in France, and dignified by the name of modern philosophy.

Once again, Spinoza was presented as the ultimate radical, the god-denying atheist who was even more extreme than the deists. Another critical public response asserts that “Spinoza was a man of your turn, and Paine, it is plain to see, culls the dregs of Hobbs, Chubb, Bolingbroek and others, to ridicule all divine authority.’ Spinoza also appeared as a punchline in a satirical column about writing:

As to the decorations of your book be certain to frame a very pompous title; for I can assure you there is much virtue in a title page, and I have often known it when duly managed contain in miniature all the wit and argument of the book. If you chose to answer some former writer, it may not be amiss to advertise him in the New-Papers, after this manner;

"Now in the Press and will speedily be published,
A Vindication of true Religion,
Being an answer to the remarks of
The Rev'd Dunscotus;

Wherein is shewn, that the remarker hath wholly mistaken the nature of the subject, and that he had been guilty of the most palpable blunders and absurdities: Concluding with a catalogue of his contradictions, and an appendix proving the coincidence of his opinions with those of Hobbs, Spinoza and the Atheists and Deists of all ages.

More conspiratorial writers also took interest in Spinoza and in associating his work with secret societies spreading Atheism. It didn't particularly matter  to these writers whether Spinoza actually was an atheist. It mattered that the readers, the American People, thought he was, so they could use this impression as a strawman in their arguments. There is, however, evidence that some Americans paid closer attention to the specifics of Spinoza’s world view. While many newspaper articles uncritically referenced the philosopher, others mentioned finer points of his work. Although the author of The Moralist, a column in the Oracle of the Day, misidentified Spinoza as an atheist, he nonetheless was able to explain that “Spinoza himself, a distinguished atheistical philosopher of the last century, declared to his friends, that ‘if he could be convinced of the resurrection of Lazarus, he would break his whole system in pieces.’” Another author, using the name Irenaeus commented that “ Spinoza, and most of the elder deists, held that two substances existed from eternity, God and Matter—that God formed this matter into worlds, and there was no such thing as creation in this case.” Both Iranaeus and the Moralist genuinely engaged with Spinoza’s philosophy and demonstrated interest in Spinoza beyond using him as a strawman. Perhaps the most detailed representation of Spinoza’s philosophy appeared in a satirical creed in ten articles sent by one John Carter to the Providence Gazette, who introduced them as “A Creed, for the Use and Benefit of those who have not an Opportunity to read Spinoza or Relly, or deal with any of their modern Retailers; warranted to be the genuine Quintessence of these renowned Authors, and the very Sperm of Atheism.” The texts included such statements as “I Believe that there is but one universal eternal substance, and that all the race of mankind were from all eternity not only united to Christ Jesus, who is very God, but one with him,” and “ I believe that all mankind being thus included in Christ Jesus, as the woman in the man, as the sap in the vine, as the stream in the fountain, &c. were in time born out of eternity; and are only emanations, modalities, hypostasis, personalities, &c. or natura naturata of God, who is natura naturans.” These statements, and the rest, show a nuanced understanding of Spinoza’s philosophy. The most telling statement however, may be the last article of the creed: “Finally, I believe that my faith in these, or any other articles, answers me or any one else no valuable purpose” To the early Americans who were mainly Christian, Spinoza’s worldview gave no meaning to existence, no end to life and no purpose in rebellion. That is not to say Spinoza would have disapproved of the rebellion: in fact, it is possible that he even inspired it.

By the time Locke wrote his magnum opus, Two Treatises, he was familiar with and likely influenced by the work of Spinoza. Many members of Locke’s philosophical circle were versed in Spinozism. At one point, Locke acquired a set of Spinoza’s works for Lord Shaftesbury, his patron. Although Locke may not have read them immediately, it is hard to imagine that such a purchase would not have piqued Locke’s interest in Spinoza. As a result, it is unsurprising that along with every one of Spinoza’s major works, Locke also owned responses that refuted the claims of the Dutch philosopher. That is not to say that Locke copied Spinoza uncritically, or even agreed with him most of the time. While the former extensively focused on the family and the role of property, Spinoza touched very little on either. The two men also differed on religious matters. Spinoza was a panthiest who summarized his conception of the divine in his bold statement that “the reason, therefore, or cause that god or nature act and the reason they exist is one and the same.” Locke wrote from a Christian perspective. These differences, however, should not overshadow or be construed to dismiss the influence of Spinoza on Locke. It is also unreasonable to attribute all of the multitude of similarities to shared context and background. Rather, the simplest explanation of the similarities, and account of the differences is that Locke was a critical reader who took interest in the works of Spinoza as he developed his own system of political theory.

Given the scarcity of references Locke made to Hobbes, Spinoza serves an important role in connecting the figures and providing commentary. Although earlier historians discounted Hobbes in Locke’s philosophical development, recent research has provided novel insights. A memoir written after consultation with Locke’s friends explained that “he almost always had the Leviathan by H. on his table, and he recommended the reading of it to his friends.” The document also accuses Locke of plagiarism, charging that “he scorned that which he was unable to pass off as his own.” Even if the allegations were hyperbolic, at the very least they suggest that Locke paid attention to the philosophical trends around him. As a prime example, both he and Spinoza took after Hobbes, in starting their study of political philosophy with an investigation of the natural rights of humans. These rights, as Spinoza explained, “are to be deduced from the common nature or condition of man.” He explained that “the natural right of all nature, and consequently of each individual, extends itself as far as its power, and consequently, whatever any human does from the laws of their nature, they do it with the highest right of nature, and he has as much right in nature as he has power.” Locke concurred, suggesting that “we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature." Both believed that it was natural law that delimited these natural rights; they disagreed however, on the place of morality in natural law. Hobbes, their common source, explained that, “Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice.” That is, justice only exists when enforced by law, and law only exists when enforced by a power. Spinoza, agreed, offering an even stronger restatement that “wrong-doing cannot be conceived of, but under dominion—that is, where, by the general right of the whole dominion, it is decided what is good and what evil.” Morality is not only unenforceable in the Spinozan state of nature, it unambiguously does not exist and, as a result, Spinoza saw no restriction in the state of nature which “forbids nothing but what no one wishes or is able to do, and is not opposed to strife, hatred, anger, treachery, or, in general, anything that appetite suggests.” That is not to say he didn’t value reason: he saw it as the key to freedom. Locke took a different view, arguing from a Christian standpoint that “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it … and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind … no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” and in doing so, upgrading reason to the source of morality. Even with such differences, in formulation, Hobbes’ “warre,” Spinoza’s “statu naturali,” and Locke’s “state of nature” all have the same prognosis: “the life of man [is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. To leave this place, to band together and end such strife, all three agree: a government must be formed.

The most important ideas of Locke, at least in the American context, were those that suggested governments required continuous consent of the governed. These ideas also appeared in earlier forms in the writing of Spinoza. A government, or commonwealth, as Hobbes explained was “One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutual Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence.” Importantly, Hobbes’ definition has a downright monarchical or aristocratic focus. The oath of Hobbesian citizenship is that “I authorize and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men,.” Such a contract was completely alien to Spinoza as well Locke, who both despised absolute monarchy. In the words of Spinoza, “it is slavery, not peace, to give all power to one.” Similarly, Locke wrote that “absolute monarchy … is indeed inconsistent with civil society” Spinoza himself explained to his friend Jarig Jelles that  “the difference between Hobbes and me, of which you ask, consists in this: I always preserve natural law in full, and maintain that in each state there is not more right over the subject to the supreme magistrate than proportional the the superiority of his power over them, which is always the case in the state of nature.” For Spinoza, unlike Hobbes, government was a continuum existing within the framework of natural law, rather than superseding it. Spinoza reinforced his reformulation with a different view on the contracts that bound commonwealths together. To Hobbes, contracts were binding: those renouncing rights were “OBLIGED, or BOUND, not to hinder those, to whom such Right is granted, or abandoned, from the benefit of it: and that he Ought, and it his DUTY, not to make voyd that voluntary act of his own: and that such hindrance is INJUSTICE, and INJURY.” Locke agreed with Hobbes on this matter, that promises in the state of nature were morally binding. To Spinoza, such a statement was meaningless, since there was no injustice or injury in his state of nature. Rather, “if one, who by the law of nature is his own judge, has judged, either correctly or mistakenly (for to err is human), that there is more harm than utility from following the oath, he divides by the thought of his own mind that the trust should be broken, and breaks it by the law of nature.” That is, in the state of nature, one is able to break promises and since humans are given such power, they are given the right to use it. Similarly, “contracts or laws … should without doubt be broken, when it is expedient for the general welfare to do so.” Spinoza, however, limited the right of judging expedience to those with dominion. Locke reframed this idea into his radical assertion that “whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience.” It, of course, was this suggestion that the Americans would later apply in support of their rebellion against a government that they believed had overstepped its boundaries.

Thomas Jefferson, who helped write the Declaration of Independence, expressed significant interest in Spinoza throughout his life. He owned copies of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and Opera Posthuma, as well as Clarke’s A Discourse. All of these works bear his initials in their front covers. Nor was it by chance that these books came into his possession: in 1792 he specifically ordered the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus from a French bookseller. He also referenced Spinoza in a letter to John Adams on the 11th of April in 1823, arguing that:

Now one sixth of mankind only are supposed to be Christians: the other five sixths then, who do not believe in the Jewish and Christian revelation, are without a knolege of the existence of a god! This gives compleatly a gain de cause to the disciples of Ocellus, Timaeus, Spinosa, Diderot and D'Holbach. The argument which they rest on as triumphant and unanswerable is that, in every hypothesis of Cosmogony you must admit an eternal pre-existence of something; and according to the rule of sound philosophy, you are never to employ two principles to solve a difficulty when one will suffice.

Such a reference, although fleeting, confirms that Jefferson knew Spinoza's beliefs and suggests that he would have expected Adams to as well. Adams very well could have: by 1748 there was a biography of Spinoza in Boston and it is likely that more arrived as time passed (Figure 3). Perhaps the greatest demonstration that Jefferson was influenced by Spinoza was the Declaration of Independence whose language and arguments drew parallels with Spinoza's philosophy. Furthermore, the most radical ideas of Locke, which Spinoza likely inspired, appeared in the claim “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” This is the crux of the declaration's argument, the claim without which the document would be meaningless and it is very nearly a direct paraphrase of Spinoza. It is possible that such similarity is mere coincidence, however, the short and clear chain of transmission suggests that Spinoza did, in one way or another, leave his mark on the colonies.

Newspaper articles, library catalogs, and textual comparisons reveal that, by the time of American independence, Spinoza had a firmly established foothold in the national consciousness. This influence or, more properly, influences took many forms. From newspapers, it is evident that many Americans were able to recognize Spinoza’s name and religious beliefs. Some authors had a much more detailed understanding of his philosophy. This philosophy made its way into the founding documents of the country, with the writer of the Declaration of Independence expressing interest in Spinoza’s work. It is certain that Spinoza was not the most well known philosopher, nor the most consequential in revolutionary America, but that doesn’t mean he was irrelevant. Traces of his work appear in a complex, sometimes contradictory manner. He inspired the Founding Fathers and he terrified many others. While his political philosophy was at home in the new country, his religious philosophy was anathema. There is more research to be done and more discoveries to be made about Spinoza’s reception in the young country. Regardless of what is yet to come, the old view that Spinoza has no place in the history of early America, is untenable in light of the evidence. Rather, it is clear that the command, the warning of the rabbis of Amsterdam would not be heeded across the Atlantic: Spinoza would be read, he would be debated, and he would contribute his small part to the founding of a radically new nation.


  • Carter, John. Letter to the editor. Providence Gazette; And Country Journal (Providence, Rhode-Island), August 27, 1774. Digital file.
  • Christianus. Reply to letter to the editor of Rev. Mr. W-ST. The Connecticut Journal and the New-Haven Post-Boy (US), November 6, 1772. Digital file.
  • Clarke, Samuel, D.D. A Discourse Concerning the Beings and Attributes of GOD, The Obligations of Natural Religions AND The Truth and Certainty OF THE Christian Revelation. 7th ed. London: W. Botham, 1704. Digital file.
  • Colerus, John. The Life of Benedict De Spinosa. London: D.L., 1706. Digital file.
  • The Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy, April 27, 1770.
  • "The Declaration of Independence." National Archives. Accessed April 14, 2022.
  • "A discourse concerning the being and attributes of God; the obligations of natural religion and the truth and certainty of the Christian revelation." William and Mary Library Catalogue. Accessed April 13, 2022.
  • Dowse Library, Jenna. "[MHS Reference] There are three books in the catalog concerning Spinoza, that predate the founding of the country: DA27, L.VI.2 and OFFSITE STORAGE SH 17ZS U. I." E-mail message to author. April 13, 2022.
  • Federal Gazette (Baltimore, MD), December 18, 1798. Digital file.
  • Federal Gazette (Baltimore, MD), January 23, 1799. Digital file.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London, UK: Andrew Crooke, 1651. Accessed April 24, 2022.
  • Hoffheimer, Michael H. “Locke, Spinoza, and the Idea of Political Equality.” History of Political Thought VII, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 341-60.
  • Irenaeus. "An Address to All Unchristian People, Who Believe in Thomas Paine." The Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Ct), January 19, 1795, 3. Digital file.
  • Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823. Accessed April 4, 2022.

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