Today is the birthday (1743) of Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father of the U.S., the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809). He was a spokesman for democracy, and embraced the principles of republicanism and the rights of the individual worldwide. At the beginning of the American Revolution, he served in the Continental Congress, representing Virginia, and then served as a wartime Governor of Virginia (1779–1781). In May 1785, he became the United States Minister to France and later the first United States Secretary of State (1790–1793) serving under President George Washington. In opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalism, Jefferson and his close friend, James Madison, organized the Democratic-Republican Party, and later resigned from Washington’s cabinet. Elected Vice President in 1796 in the administration of John Adams, Jefferson opposed Adams, and with Madison secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which attempted to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts (designed to limit immigration and suppress freedom of speech). His opposition helped him defeat Adams in the 1800 presidential election.
Elected president in what Jefferson called the “Revolution of 1800”, he oversaw acquisition of the vast Louisiana Territory from France (1803), and sent out the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), and later three others, to explore the new west. Jefferson doubled the size of the United States during his presidency. His second term was beset with troubles at home, such as the failed treason trial of his former Vice President Aaron Burr. When Britain threatened American shipping challenging U.S. neutrality during its war with Napoleon, he tried economic warfare with his embargo laws, which only impeded American foreign trade. In 1803, President Jefferson initiated a process of Indian tribal removal to the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River, having opened lands for eventual American settlers. In 1807 Jefferson drafted and signed into law a bill that banned slave importation into the United States.
A leader in the Enlightenment, Jefferson was a polymath in the arts, sciences, and politics. Considered an important architect in the classical tradition, he designed his home Monticello and other notable buildings. Jefferson was keenly interested in science, invention, architecture, religion, and philosophy; he was an active member and eventual president of the American Philosophical Society. He was conversant in French, Greek, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, and studied other languages and linguistics, interests which led him to found the University of Virginia after his presidency. Although not a notable orator, Jefferson was a skilled writer and corresponded with many influential people in America and Europe throughout his adult life.
As long as he lived, Jefferson expressed opposition to slavery, yet he owned hundreds of slaves and freed only a few of them. Historians generally believe that after the death of his wife Jefferson had a long-term relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and fathered some or all of her children. Although criticized by many present-day scholars over the issues of racism and slavery, Jefferson is consistently rated as one of the greatest U.S. presidents.
Throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, religious studies, and morality. Given that a post of this nature cannot cover more than a small fraction of Jefferson’s life and works I am going to limit myself to his religious beliefs which influenced so much of his political thought and action. Jefferson was most closely connected with Unitarianism. He was sympathetic to and in general agreement with the moral precepts of Christianity, believed in an afterlife and in the active involvement, or guidance, of God in the affairs of humanity. He considered the teachings of Jesus as having “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” yet he held that the pure teachings of Jesus appeared to have been appropriated by some of Jesus’ early followers, resulting in a Bible that contained both “diamonds” of wisdom and the “dung” of ancient political agendas.
As the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence, Jefferson articulated a statement about human rights that most Americans regard as nearly sacred. Jefferson held that “acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence” (as in his First Inaugural Address) was important and in his second inaugural address, expressed the need to gain “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old.” Still, together with James Madison, Jefferson carried on a long and successful campaign against state financial support of churches in Virginia. It is Jefferson who created the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. During his 1800 campaign for the presidency, Jefferson had to contend with critics who argued that he was unfit to hold office because of their discomfort with his “unorthodox” religious beliefs.
Jefferson used certain passages of the New Testament to compose The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (aka the “Jefferson Bible”), which excluded any miracles by Jesus and stressed his moral message. Though he often expressed his opposition to many practices of the clergy, and to many specific popular Christian doctrines of his day, Jefferson repeatedly expressed his admiration for Jesus as a moral teacher, and consistently referred to himself as a Christian (though following his own unique type of Christianity) throughout his life. Jefferson opposed Calvinism, Trinitarianism, and what he identified as Platonic elements in Christianity. In private letters Jefferson also described himself as subscribing to other certain philosophies, in addition to being a Christian. In these letters he described himself as also being an “Epicurean” (1819), a “19th century materialist” (1820), Upon the disestablishment of religion in Connecticut, he wrote to John Adams: “I join you, therefore, in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a Protestant Popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character,” a “Unitarian by myself” (1825), and “a sect by myself” (1819). Historians have often associated Jefferson with “rational religion” or deism, however Jefferson’s expressed beliefs in divine interventionism, and in an afterlife would seem to disqualify him from being labeled as a true Deist, as the word Deist is understood in modern day usage (belief in a god who did to interfere in human affairs). Jefferson saw a certain harmony between the various philosophies that he ascribed to, but his understandings of these philosophies themselves were sometimes at odds with the more popular or “orthodox” understandings of these philosophies of his day.
Jefferson was raised in the Church of England at a time when it was the established church in Virginia and only denomination funded by Virginia tax money. Before the Revolution, parishes were units of local government, and Jefferson served as a vestryman, a lay administrative position in his local parish. Office-holding qualifications at all levels—including the Virginia House of Burgesses, to which Jefferson was elected in 1769—required affiliation with the current state religion and a commitment that one would neither express dissent nor do anything that did not conform to church doctrine. Jefferson counted clergy among his friends, and he contributed financially to the Anglican Church he attended regularly.
Following the Revolution, the Church of England in America was disestablished. It reorganized as the Episcopal Church in America. Margaret Bayard Smith, whose husband was a close friend of Jefferson, records that during the first winter of Jefferson’s Presidency he regularly attended service on Sunday in a small humble Episcopalian church out of respect for public worship. This was the only church in the new city, with the exception of a little Catholic chapel. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives, a custom had not yet begun while he was Vice President, and which featured preachers of every Christian sect and denomination.
In January 1806, a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a “crowded audience”. Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings, which were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary, and because he believed that religion was an important support for republican government.
Henry S. Randall, the only biographer permitted to interview Jefferson’s immediate family, recorded that Jefferson
. . . attended church with as much regularity as most of the members of the congregation—sometimes going alone on horse-back, when his family remained at home”, and that he also “contributed freely to the erection of Christian churches, gave money to Bible societies and other religious objects, and was a liberal and regular contributor to the support of the clergy. Letters of his are extant which show him urging, with respectful delicacy, the acceptance of extra and unsolicited contributions, on the pastor of his parish, on occasions of extra expense to the latter, such as the building of a house.
While Jefferson did use the term Deism to describe Jesus’ teachings, his usage of this term in this context may not have had exactly the same meaning as contemporary usage of the term “Deism” most typically implies today. Even though Jefferson did indeed reject the miracles and the divinity of Jesus, he still maintained a belief in an afterlife, and in divine interventionism. In modern day understandings of Deism, divine interventionism is specifically opposed by Deism, and a belief in an afterlife is generally tolerated but certainly not a core belief. Jefferson was never known to have described his own self as a Deist.
In 1760, at age 16, Jefferson entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, and for two years he studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under Professor William Small. He introduced the enthusiastic Jefferson to the writings of the British Empiricists, including John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. Jefferson biographers say that he was influenced by deist philosophy while at William & Mary.
Phrases such as “Nature’s God”, which Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, are typical of Deism, although they were also used at the time by non-Deist thinkers, such as Francis Hutcheson. In addition, it was part of Roman thinking about natural law, and Jefferson was influenced by reading Cicero on this topic.
For Jefferson, separation of church and state was a necessary reform of the religious tyranny whereby a religion received state endorsement, and those not of that religion were denied rights, and even punished. Following the Revolution, Jefferson played a leading role in the disestablishment of religion in Virginia. Previously as the established state church, the Anglican Church received tax support and no one could hold office who was not an Anglican. The Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches did not receive tax support. As Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Virginia, pre-Revolutionary colonial law held that “if a person brought up a Christian denies the being of a God, or the Trinity …he is punishable on the first offense by incapacity to hold any office …; on the second by a disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy …, and by three year’ imprisonment.” Prospective officer-holders were required to swear that they did not believe in the central Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
In 1779 Jefferson proposed “The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom”, which was adopted in 1786. Its goal was complete separation of church and state; it declared the opinions of people to be beyond the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate. He asserted that the mind is not subject to coercion, that civil rights have no dependence on religious opinions, and that the opinions of men are not the concern of civil government. This became one of the American charters of freedom. This elevated declaration of the freedom of the mind was hailed in Europe as “an example of legislative wisdom and liberality never before known”.
From 1784 to 1786, Jefferson and James Madison worked together to oppose Patrick Henry’s attempts to assess general taxes in Virginia to support churches. In 1786, the Virginia General Assembly passed Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom, which he had first submitted in 1779. It was one of only three accomplishments he put in his epitaph. The law read:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
In his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson stated:
Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth. … Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws.
During the 1800 presidential campaign, the New England Palladium wrote, “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous ‘prostitute’, under the title of goddess of reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High.” Federalists attacked Jefferson as a “howling atheist” and infidel, claiming that his attraction to the religious and political extremism of the French Revolution disqualified him from public office. At that time, calling a person an infidel could mean a number of things, including that they did not believe in God. It was an accusation commonly leveled at Deists, although they believe in a deity. It was also directed at those thought to be harming the Christian faith in which they were raised.
While opposed to the institutions of organized religion, Jefferson consistently expressed his belief in God. For example, he invoked the notion of divine justice in 1782 in his opposition to slavery, and invoked divine Providence in his second inaugural address. Yet Jefferson did not shrink from questioning the existence of God. In a 1787 letter to his nephew and ward, Peter Carr, who was at school, Jefferson offered the following advice:
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 the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.
Jefferson sought what he called a “wall of separation between Church and State”, which he believed was a principle expressed by the First Amendment. Jefferson’s phrase has been cited several times by the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Establishment Clause, including in cases such as Reynolds v. United States (1878), Everson v. Board of Education (1947), and McCollum v. Board of Education (1948).
In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, he wrote:
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.
Regarding the choice of some governments to regulate religion and thought, Jefferson stated:
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
In an 1821 letter he wrote:
No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since His day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines He inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily His disciples; and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from His lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian. I know that the case you cite, of Dr. Drake, has been a common one. The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers, to revolt them against the whole, and drive them rashly to pronounce its Founder an impostor. Had there never been a commentator, there never would have been an infidel. … I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.
Biographer Merrill D. Peterson summarizes Jefferson’s theology:
First, that the Christianity of the churches was unreasonable, therefore unbelievable, but that stripped of priestly mystery, ritual, and dogma, reinterpreted in the light of historical evidence and human experience, and substituting the Newtonian cosmology for the discredited Biblical one, Christianity could be conformed to reason. Second, morality required no divine sanction or inspiration, no appeal beyond reason and nature, perhaps not even the hope of heaven or the fear of hell; and so the whole edifice of Christian revelation came tumbling to the ground.
There is much more, but this epitome must suffice.
Jefferson had an adventurous palate and active interest in a wide range of foods. In his four years in Paris he sampled widely French cuisine, making copious notes of dishes he liked so he could serve them back home. In Holland he sampled waffles for the first time and was so pleased he immediately bought a waffle iron…A particular tea in Amsterdam appealed to him; he bought some to take along. In Nancy it was chocolate that caught his fancy, and in southern France he made notes on the differences in oranges in various communities he visited. Notes made on a visit to Rozzano included details of butter- and Parmesan cheese-making. He tasted a frozen delicacy (ice cream) and observed that “snow vives the most delicate flavor to creams, but ice is the most powerful congealer and lasts longer.” Like many a traveler returning home, Jefferson missed the dishes to which he had become accustomed. To his valet returning after him he sent a request for him to “bring a stock of macaroni, Parmesan cheese, figs of Marseilles…raisins, almonds, mustard…vinegar, oil and anchovies.”…President Jefferson was particularly addicted to intricate dishes and brought back from Paris. His bouilli, daubes, ragouts, gateaux, soufflés, ices, sauces, and wine cookery. Jefferson confessed a preference for French cooking “because the meats were more tender.” He was especially fond of fresh vegetables and kept a careful chart of the season when certain ones would be available in the local mark. A gourmet. Jefferson ate lightly.He preferred vegetables to meats and was particularly fond of olives, figs, mulberries, crabs, shad, oysters, partridge, venison, pineapple, and light wines. He was a connoisseur as well of delicate French pastries, soufflés, light cakes.His table drinks were cider and malt drinks; his greatest field of expertise was wine, his favorite being Madeira. (see The Presidents’ Cookbook, Poppy Cannon & Patricia Brooks 1968)
Recipes included in this book are Old-Fashioned Coffee Cake, Dutch Waffles, Capitolade of Chicken, Batter Cakes, Soup à la Julienne, Gumbo, Potato Soup, Mexican Black Bean Soup, Okra Soup, Jamablaya, Noodles à la Jefferson, Macaroni and Cheese Pudding, and Bachelor Buttons (cookies).
Here is Capitolade of Chicken:
Capitolade of Chicken
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
3⁄4 cup packed fresh breadcrumb
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots, minced
6 ounces small tender wild mushrooms, thinly sliced (chicken-of-the-woods, oyster, portobello, or button mushrooms)
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1⁄4 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1⁄2 cup half-and-half
1⁄2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
3 cups diced cooked chicken
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, chervil, or summer savory
Preheat oven to 375°F
Butter a medium baking dish.
To make the bread crumbs: melt 2 teaspoons butter in a small skillet over medium heat; stir in the bread crumbs and toast them until golden; stirring occasionally.
Scrape bread crumbs out of the skillet and reserve.
To make the hash: melt the 4 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat.
Stir in the shallots and mushrooms; cook about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms are limp.
Sprinkle in the flour and, when incorporated, pour in the wine and simmer briefly until reduced by half.
Pour in the stock and the half-and-half, add salt, and cook 5 minutes longer or until lightly thickened.
Stir in the chicken and heat through; remove from heat and add the parsley. Spoon the capitolade into the prepared dish; sprinkle with the bread crumbs and bake 15-20 minutes, until the bread crumbs are nicely browned and the sauce is bubbly.