Thursday, June 28, 2007

Thomas Jefferson

I've heard it claimed that Jefferson was a "deist", that he believed in an omnipotent deity that may or may not have been the Christian God. I know there's a body of evidence to support that claim, but you wouldn't know it from visiting the Jefferson Memorial. The following quotes adorn the walls of that memorial; boldface is mine.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men...And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever...

Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens...are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion...No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.

I've sworn upon the altar of God Eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

I don't know the personal religious beliefs of Jefferson the Man, but Jefferson the Icon was a Christian.

There are two other quotes there, one in the rotunda with his statue and one downstairs in the display area. These two speak not to religion, but to government.

I am not an advocate for frequent change in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.


Mike said...

Interesting post and worthy words to consider. Reading Jefferson and most of the Founding Fathers always give me pause to consider how extraordinary, how utterly without precedence, it was that such a confluence of great minds came together in exactly the right place and time to form America. We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants and would always do well to remember that.

It is always wise, too, to remember that it is dangerous to try to apply the religious conventions of the past to the present as a means of arguing that the Founders would support whatever religious/political point we currently favor. I'm not suggesting you're making that argument, just arguing for a solid grounding in history.

People, for example, make much of the invocation of the Diety in the political writings of the Founders, apparently without understanding that such invocations were a common feature of the writing of the educated classes of the time and did not, by their mere presence, indicate fervent support of a given sectarian outlook, particularly a contemporary sectarian outlook.

We should thank our lucky stars that Jefferson was wise enough about human nature to write Virginia's religious liberty law and to help to enshrine the First Amendment in the Constitution.

Parentalcation said...

From your last quote of Jefferson, it appears that he isn't much of an originalist.

I have always suspected that the Founding Fathers viewed religion in a practical manner. That is, they simultaneously feared its entanglement with government, but also recognized that religion provided moral guidance for the common people.

I would also disagree with you about Jefferson the Icon being viewed to much as a Christian, especially considering he authored the "Jefferson Bible", which re-emphasized the "spirituality" of Jesus, and promoted him more as a philosopher. Jefferson is quite revered among Unitarian Universalises.

I think the quotes on the Jefferson Memorial are more representative of the architect than of the man. Sadly, I doubt the average man on the street is even aware of his contributions to our country. Those who are more familiar with him are much more likely to have heard about him because of his contrarian religious views.

Darren said...

You're referring to Jefferson the Man. By Jefferson the Icon I mean the Jefferson who's displayed in that memorial--which definitely is the product of a 1930's-era person.

And based on my readings of the Founding Fathers, I don't get a sense that any of them feared religious entanglement in government. On the contrary, they feared governmental entanglement in religion. The 1st Amendment is a one-way prohibition.

Mike said...

Hmm. Remember that it was Jefferson, in his letter to the Danbury Baptists who coined the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" in explaining the founder's intent in writing the religion clause of the First Amendment. While I agree that the founders clearly, perhaps even primarily feared government entanglement with religion, that was not their only fear. A man as careful with language as Jefferson would certainly understand that a wall goes, so to speak, both ways.

Subsequent court decisions have held that government must avoid "excessive entanglement with religion," which is a reasonable and responsible interpretation of Jefferson's intent that has served us, and the free proliferation of faith, well.

Darren said...

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

That's his statement to the Danbury crowd. I see no inference that he expected religion to stay out of government.

Additionally, plenty of the other Founders were clear that the prohibitions of the 1st Amendment go only one way.

Parentalcation said...

On a side note of interest... Edweek has an article up about Jefferson and Public Education..