Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 - July 4, 1846) was the third president of the United States of America, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and founder of the University of Virginia.[1] Major events during his presidency included the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806).

He is highly relevant to today's "Separation of church and state" debate because he originated the phrase in his letters to the Danbury Baptists and one of his primary accomplishments, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, would prove an early basis for the 1st amendment and religious freedom. Both his major documents reference a Creator as the source of religious freedom and inalienable rights. Jefferson's campaign for religious freedom was backed by Virginia's Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians.[2]

Declaration of Independence

Main Article: Declaration of Independence

Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence (1776), began by establishing that the source of inalienable rights is a Creator, consistent with the earlier government of William Penn:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Main Article: Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was authored in 1779

It is often claimed that Jefferson was not Christian but a Deist and that his use of the term "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence was to a vague concept of a designer or even nature itself.[3][4] However, such arguments do not mention Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, perhaps because (1) such critics aren't aware of it, or (2) the document very clearly shows Jefferson's beliefs were more refined:

An Act for establishing religious Freedom. Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do

Since Thomas Jefferson called William Penn "the greatest law giver the world has produced"[5] it would seem that whatever his beliefs may have become in later years, he derived his original inspiration from the Christian government of William Penn over a century earlier, the Province of Pennsylvania.

Autobiography

Jefferson's autobiography provides more insight on the Virginia Statute. Jefferson stated,

Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion." The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.[6]

Therefore, it appears that this was actually a more liberal statement by not using the name "Jesus Christ" at the time, much moreso than the clearly Christian origins of William Penn a century earlier. The Virginia legislature wanted to ensure all religions were "within the mantle of it's protection". Nevertheless, while it may have protected the beliefs of atheists or "infidel[s]" as Jefferson stated, the references to a Creator show such a belief was requisite for stating inalienable rights accorded by law.

Slaveholding

Jefferson was a cruel slaveowner who used abuse and torture to keep his slaves, who he occasionally sold, in line.[7]

References

  1. University of Virginia Library. "Thomas Jefferson."
  2. Thomas Jefferson Foundation (2007). "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom." Learning Resources.
  3. Voelker, David J. (1993). "Who is Nature's God?" Hanover Historical Review 1.
  4. Isaacson, Walter (2004, July 5). "Thomas Jefferson: God of our Fathers." Time Magazine.
  5. Ries, Linda A. & Stewart, Jane S. "This Venerable Document." Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
  6. Jefferson, Thomas (1821, January 6). "Autobiography."
  7. Wiencek, Henry (2012, October). The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson. Smithsonian Magazine.