Would the freethinking Jefferson be elected today?

Would the freethinking Jefferson be elected today?

Sidney M. Goetz

Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800 as the third president of the United States. As one of the nation’s founding fathers and author of the Declaration of Independence, he helped enunciate the principles upon which democracy was established and flourished in the New World. Throughout most of U.S. history he has been acknowledged as one of our most beloved and revered figures. But the political, economic, social, and technological climate of eighteenth-century America was much different from that of today and the question begs: if he ran for office in the twenty-first century, would Jefferson be elected president?

It is particularly appropriate that we analyze this question at this time, having just celebrated the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and are now honoring the bicentennial of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” letter of January 1, 1802, to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut.

So would Jefferson be elected today? To determine this, we must study the man.

Actually, there are two versions of the Jefferson persona with which we must contend. The first is the version most Americans grew up with–and espoused by Jefferson’s earliest and most celebrated biographers, Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson–of a truly Renaissance personality. Perhaps no one in Western history except Aristotle or Leonardo da Vinci ever matched Jefferson in the range of activities, the fertility of thinking, and the multiplicity of interests.

The son of a Virginia land surveyor, Jefferson was a lawyer, politician, mathematician, inventor, surveyor, architect, paleontologist, philosopher, farmer, and fiddler. He set up the public educational system, built a university, founded a great political party, and helped design the nation’s Capitol. He invented machines and gadgets; collected scientific materials in the fields of zoology, geology, and anthropology; and wrote a classic essay on poetry. He was instrumental in establishing the nation’s coinage, doubled the territory of the United States, codified the legal system of Virginia, and invoked the “wall” metaphor in defense of separation of church and state. Everything interested him; nothing was alien to his mind.

One of the principal builders of the republic, Jefferson held nearly every important public office and enriched them all with his wisdom, humanity, and democratic spirit. He was a member of Congress, governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, Secretary of State, vice-president, and two-term president. Among his famous writings, he authored the Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s famous statute of religious freedom.

But above his intellectual interests and political activities, Jefferson stands out as a major philosopher and theorist of U.S. democracy. In brilliant letters–his total correspondence runs to 18,000 pieces–in essays, in addresses, in conversations, and in lectures, Jefferson expressed his ideas of progress, democratic government, and human freedom with a consistency, depth, and beauty rarely exceeded. Jefferson was a passionate champion of the rights, freedom, and dignity of humanity (as was Abraham Lincoln, who later resembled him spiritually). He devoted his life to the realization and spread of the democratic ideal. Today his words continue to inspire.

But, of course, Jefferson was human, not a saint. The “flawed” man has been discussed more recently by such biographers as Fawn M. Brodie of the University of California at Los Angeles and Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish scholar and politician and former member of the parliament of the Irish republic. As they note, Jefferson, despite his brave words about equality and the abomination of slavery in the southern states, was himself a slaveowner and refused to free his own slaves, most of whom he inherited, along with a large estate, from his father-in-law. And from the modern technology of DNA testing, we now know that Jefferson was almost certainly the father of one or more sons by his household slave, Sally Hemings, who was biologically his wife’s half-sister. And so this celebrated founding father of ours became an early and leading example of miscegenation. (incidentally, marriage between blacks and whites was forbidden by Virginia statute until the mid-1960s.)

Jefferson was also, perhaps, one of the earliest Unitarians in the United States. He scorned the Christian notion of Jesus’ immaculate conception and the church’s basic doctrine of the Trinity. He distrusted the clergy and ridiculed the entire structure of mortal sin and heaven and hell that the priests of Anglican Virginia had developed. In an August 10, 1787, letter sent from Paris to his seventeen-year-old nephew, Peter Carr, Jefferson advises:

Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object … divest yourself

of all bias … shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which

weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call

to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the

existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the

homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear….

Those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be

examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur

to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what

evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so

strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the

laws of nature in the case he relates….

You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage

called Jesus. Keep your eye on the opposite pretensions 1. of those who say

he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the laws

of nature at will, and ascended bodily into heaven; and 2. of those who say

he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic

mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity…. Do not be frightened

from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences…. In fine, I repeat

that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe or

reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons have

rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by

heaven and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the


He spoke out and wrote emphatically about his distrust of the clergy. In turn, he was attacked both in print and from the pulpit as an atheist and nonbeliever. In an 1800 letter to his close friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, just before his election to the presidency, Jefferson describes his and the clergy’s mutual antipathy. He wrote that the clergy was

in arms against me…. They believe that any portion of power confided to

me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe

rightly, for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against

any form of tyranny over the mind of man…. This is the cause of their

printing lying pamphlets against me, forging conversations for me … which

are absolute falsehoods without a circumstance of truth to rest on.

He wrote on this further in a letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, dated August 6, 1816:

I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our

consciences, for which we were accountable to him, and not to the priests.

I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never

attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I have

ever judged the religion of others by their lives…. For it is in our

lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same

test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood.

They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested

absurdities. My opinion is that there never would have been an infidel, if

there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on

the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence

and power, revolts those who think for themselves.

Jefferson’s religious beliefs were mirrored by the Reverend Joseph Priestley, an Englander whose unconventional beliefs forced him to leave his native land and emigrate to the United States in 1794. Jefferson and Priestley soon became fast friends by virtue of their parallel approaches to Christianity. Priestley, who was the chief protagonist of the Unitarian movement in the United States, wrote a book in 1796 entitled Unitarianism Explained and Defended. In 1802 he published a second volume of A General History of the Christian Church from the Fall of the Western Empire to the Present Time, which he dedicated to Jefferson. Priestley died two years later. In 1813, exchanging letters with John Adams, Jefferson and Adams remembered Priestly with great fondness. Jefferson wrote of Priestley’s books, saying “Over and over again, I rest on them … as the basis of my own faith.”

In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson explained the method he used in producing his handbook, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly known as The Jefferson Bible. He wrote:

In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip

off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests,

who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and

power to themselves…. We must … select … the very words only of

Jesus…. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent

code of morals which has ever been offered to man.

I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by

verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently

his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The

result is an octavo of forty-six pages of pure and unsophisticated


And so we have a good idea of Jefferson’s religious beliefs. We know

what he thought about the Protestant clergy and what they thought about

him–and didn’t hesitate to express to their congregants.

The question then remains: how was Jefferson elected president of the

United States?

In fact, it was a very close contest. The vote in the electoral college

was a tie between him and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives then

cast its vote in favor of Jefferson. (Most U.S. voters today would have no

clue as to how the electoral process functioned were it not for the 2000

presidential elections and the ensuing maelstrom.)

To understand Jefferson’s successful election, one must consider the dynamics of the period and culture of the infant nation with little more than three million constituents. We begin by examining The Churching of America: 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, a scholarly book by two university professors, published in 1992 by Rutgers University Press. The thesis of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s book is that, since colonial days, the United States has gone from being “a nation in which most people took no part in organized religion to a nation in which nearly two-thirds of American adults do.”

In eighteenth-century New England, Finke and Stark contend, “non-puritanical behavior abounded.” Only a fifth of New Englanders were church members, while a third of all first-born children were born to mothers who had been married less than nine months. “Single women in New England were more likely to be sexually active than to belong to a church,” the authors conclude, adding that only 17 percent of the population were religious adherents in 1776.

Other historians have estimated that about one in seven people in New England was a church member, about one in fifteen people in the middle colonies, and fewer still in the South.

The Presbyterian Assembly, which represented the strongest religious force in the middle states, described in 1796 the religious condition of the country in the following terms:

We perceive with pain and fearful apprehension a general dereliction of

religious principles and practice among our fellow citizens, a visible and

prevailing impiety and contempt for the laws and institutions of religion,

and an abounding infidelity, which in many instances tends to atheism

itself. The profligacy and corruption of the public morals have advanced

with a progress proportionate to our declension in religion. Profaneness,

pride, luxury, injustice, intemperance, lewdness, and every species of

debauchery and loose indulgence greatly abound.

Lyman Beecher, a sophomore at Yale in 1795, described the climate at the university as follows:

College was in a most ungodly state. The college church was almost extinct.

Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and

liquors were kept in rooms, intemperance, gambling and licentiousness were

common. I hardly know how I escaped…. Most of the class before me were

infidels, and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, etc.

In this atmosphere it doesn’t strain the imagination to view Thomas Jefferson as a viable candidate for president of the United States. But today …

How things have changed! Let’s briefly review the current climate in the United States. It’s hard to believe that only forty years ago a presidential candidate couldn’t win unless he left his religion out of the campaign. Under suspicion that, as a Catholic, his religious loyalty could conflict with his allegiance to his service as U.S. president, John F. Kennedy vowed to keep a wall between church and state when he said: “I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affairs.”

It was President Ronald Reagan who first invited the leaders of the radical religious right to participate in the political process and who appointed William A. Wilson in 1983 as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, moving the debate over diplomatic relations with the Vatican from the executive and legislative branch to the judiciary.

Reagan was followed by George Bush who, in a speech to a conference of National Religious Broadcasters on January 27, 1992, said: “You cannot be America’s president without a belief in God or a belief in prayer.” This statement violates both the letter and the spirit of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution which reads, “No religious test, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (and was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1961 in Torcaso v. Watkins).

Additionally, legislation has been proposed in many states that would either require or permit the Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools. In Georgia, the bill would have even cut off state funds to any school that refused to post them. Now the Family Research Council–the religious lobby group behind the “Hang Ten” craze–attempts to circumvent church-state separation by arguing that the Ten Commandments should be considered and treated as a “historical” rather than religious document, comparable to the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights.

Religion has seeped so deeply into the U.S. political consciousness that, during the 2000 presidential election, we had two major candidates who publicly proclaimed themselves to be “born-again Christians.” As columnist Maureen Dowd said, “When you take something deeply personal and parade it for political gain, you are guilty either of cynicism or exhibitionism.” It certainly raised the question of whether Jesus was their personal savior or just their political savior. One Washington columnist counted twenty-one times that the name of Jesus was mentioned during the Iowa debates by the Republican primary candidates.

According to pollster John Zogby, there were three reasons why the two major party presidential candidates decided to venture into religious territory that has generally been considered off-limits to those in the secular world of politics. Ironically, it was Bill Clinton who encouraged the rush to Christianity. His immorality provided other politicians with the perfect foil: by wrapping themselves in religion they could proclaim, “I’m not like Bill Clinton.” Each was a family man. Each was avowedly faithful to his spouse. Each was God centered. This posture was particularly important for Al Gore, who declared his Christian faith in an effort to gain distance from the disgraced Clinton.

There was also the need among Republican candidates to pay homage to the religious right, an influential component of their party and their coffers. The wall was crossed repeatedly during the elections as church pulpits were used to get out the vote and to influence the voters.

Embracing Christianity worked particularly well for George W. Bush. In the Iowa debate, when asked to name his favorite philosopher, Bush replied: “Jesus Christ, because he changed my heart.” With those few words, Bush sent a signal that no matter what information might surface about his past, voters were to remember that he had been “reborn.” And in Bush, Christianity has its most vocal and proactive supporter in the White House. Since his first week in office, Bush has sought to tear down the wall of separation in favor of his religious beliefs. From school vouchers to faith-based initiatives, he has endeavored to manipulate legislation and policy toward that end.

Polls taken at the time of the elections demonstrated the stirring of religious fervor in the United States. More people claimed to be attending church and certainly more of them were talking and writing about spirituality–however you define it–than in the past. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that fervor has run rampant as both civilian and government entreaties to “God Bless America” have equated religiosity to patriotism, and any attempt to stem the flood is viewed as treasonous.

So, would Thomas Jefferson succeed, were he a candidate for U.S. president in the twenty-first century? In view of the climate of the country, the intense media exposure and examination now directed at candidates’ characters and careers … well, I leave the answer to you.

Sidney M. Goetz is a Florida organizer for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a civil liberties activist, and a former member of the American Humanist Association board of directors.

COPYRIGHT 2002 American Humanist Association

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