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Biography as Wish-Fulfillment

Jefferson, Hitchens and Atheism

by LENNI BRENNER

I’m old fashioned. I criticize anyone in writing, he gets a copy. When I say God is the Great Sinner in the Sky, (he made the world), I email him. Badmouth Hitler & it goes to Mr. Nice Guy in Argentina, a bit old, but still planing a comeback. So Christopher Hitchens also got my July 4th CounterPunch review of his book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.

I send my articles to folks. I added Benjamin Banneker’s complete 1791 letter to Jefferson & his reply, discussed in CounterPunch. So I sent them to Hitchens. He responded:

"Since you keep mentioning this, you might care to look up TJ’s letter to Joel Barlow of 8 October 1809. (I think there is a handy reference to it in Annette Gordon-Reed’s book.) When you have done that, you ought to mention it in all conscience to the readers of CounterPunch. I wonder if you will."

In his book, Hitchens declared that

"Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he faced the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment if only because of the prudence he was compelled to observe during his political life."

Naturally I asked him a question. "What evidence do you have that Jefferson was an atheist?"

He came back with:

"It can’t be proved that tj was an atheist but it can be argued (a distinction in my book that you ignore). He wrote several times that he faced extinction without "hope or fear", which certainly means he was not a Christian. No man of any cloth was asked to his well-anticipated deathbed and his headstone/obelisk more or less speaks for itself. There’s more in the book but I guess if you’ll take dictation from a magazine with the standards of CounterPunch you will elide what you don’t know or else what doesn’t fit."

There’s more.

"I will still know that you sold yourself very cheap on this occasion and I will be able to join with more than usual laughter in the general mirth that always occurs when you circulate your pieces of lone and flinty integrity."

I also "wonder." Why would I hesitate to "mention" Jefferson’s letter "to the readers of CounterPunch"? I had concluded my article with "You don’t need to read anyone’s book about Jefferson. Read him. With his faults, he was a gifted writer. Come to your own conclusions as to his proper place in history." So Jefferson to Barlow is below.

Hitchens recommended reading Gordon-Reed, where I would get my comeuppance. She is on the Advisory Board of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello & authored Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. What he didn’t know is that she read me:

"I’ve enjoyed reading your comments about TJ in CounterPunch. I look forward to reading your book on Jefferson and Madison and the Separation of Church and State. Their views on the matter have special resonance today both for our domestic policy and international relations."

Building a reputation for "lone and flinty integrity" is hot, dirty, sweaty work. If I ever worried about losing it, I’ve been saved by Hitchens’ reply. Now all the world can see that he hasn’t a stitch of evidence behind his speculation that Jefferson was a closet atheist.

Hitchens has Jefferson saying that he faced extinction "’without hope or fear.’" To be precise, he wrote a 3/14/1820 letter to John Adams:

"Were it necessary however to form an opinion, I confess I should, with Mr. Locke, prefer swallowing one incomprehensibility rather than two. It requires one effort only to admit the single incomprehensibility of matter endowed with thought: and two to believe, 1st. that of an existence called Spirit, of which we have neither evidence nor idea, and then 2ndly, how that sprit which has neither extention nor solidity, can put material organs into motion. These are things which you and I may perhaps know ere long. We have so lived as to fear neither horn of the dilemma. We have, willingly, done injury to no man; and have done for our country the good which has fallen in our way, so far as commensurate with the faculties given us. That we have not done more than we could cannot be imputed to us as a crime before any tribunal. I look therefore to that crisis, as I am sure you also do, as one ‘qui summum nec metuit diem nec optat’ [Who neither fears the final day nor hopes for it]."

Hardly proof of atheism.

Jefferson was well past concern for political effect when he wrote a 6/26/1822 letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse:

"I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered it’s creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian."

But he never joined the movement because, "much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its Votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and Confessions of faith."

Jefferson believed in God & heaven. He told Waterhouse that

"The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
1. That there is one only God, and he all-perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion."

In a 4/13/1820 letter to William Short, Jefferson had explained that he differed with Jesus. "it is not to be understood that I am with him in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of spiritualism." Why then did he believe in God & his heaven? Look to his wife dying in childbirth. It devastated him. Then four of his six children by her died. For all his materialism, he needed heaven. If he wasn’t going to meet them in the hereafter, why did his children live for no purpose? With this mentality, he concluded a 6/5/1824 note to John Cartwright with

"Your age of eighty-four and mine of eighty-one years, insure us a speedy meeting. We may then commune at leisure, and more fully, on the good and evil, which, in the course of our long lives, we have both witnessed."

No atheism here.

Hitchens reminded me that "No man of any cloth was asked to his well-anticipated deathbed." But in a 1/8/1825 letter to Waterhouse, Jefferson explained that, altho he was

"anxious to see the doctrine of one god commenced in our state …. the population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented to be an Unitarian by myself, although I know there are many around me who would become so, if once they could hear the questions fairly stated."

Clearly absence of a Unitarian minister isn’t evidence of atheism. Hitchens further claims that "his headstone/obelisk more or less speaks for itself." But his 1826 note on his Epitaph simply reads,

"On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more

‘Here was buried Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independance of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.’

Because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

Proof of atheism?

After giving ‘evidence’ that doesn’t prove Jefferson to be an atheist, Hitchens insists that "There’s more in the book but I guess if you’ll take dictation from a magazine with the standards of CounterPunch you will elide what you don’t know or else what doesn’t fit."

I’m an atheist. Why would I or CounterPunch "elide" – suppress – documentation of Jefferson’s atheism if it existed? So much for Hitchens. He will forever more be a standing joke among scholars of the American revolution.

There are profound reasons for being exact as to Jefferson’s religious ideas. Slaveholder he was, but his Declaration was the central ideological document of the modern world’s 1st successful revolution of republican commoners. Then, as President, 1801-09, he continued to build the "wall of separation between Church and State" that distinguished that republic from every government before it.

His monument lists authoring the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom as his 2nd most important accomplishment. He presented it to the Virginia Assembly in 1779. It failed because of the opposition of Patrick Henry, an Episcopalian establishmentarian fanatic. It passed in 1786, while he was in France as the American Ambassador, via the persuasive arguments of James Madison, his political comrade from 1776 to Jefferson’s death, 50 years later.

Jefferson’s 12/20/1787 urgings from Paris: "I will now add what I do not like. First, the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly & without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion," were also crucial in convincing Madison to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. (He had felt that "experience proves the inefficacy of a bill of rights on those occasions when its control is most needed. Repeated violations of these parchment barriers have been committed by overbearing majorities in every State.")

When the world at large looks at George W. Bush’s administration, the 1st thing it sees is his linking of religion & politics. Government funding of faith-based charities at home, his "crusade" against Islamic terror abroad. All this is done in an office under the Constitution, with its Article VI, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States," & the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

From a constitutional perspective, Americans have no choice but to see Bush as the reigning heavyweight political champion, defending his title against all challenges, in a boxing ring designed & built by Jefferson & Madison. Were they slaveholders? Black lawyers don’t care. When they come before the Supreme Court, there is nothing like a quote from these great anti-clericals to throw at Clarence Thomas.

Look at any government action. It is either constitutional or it isn’t. Has Bush gone beyond the Constitution? Have the courts gone beyond their constitutional authority? The 1st place a constitutional student must look for answers is in Jefferson & Madison’s writings. What limits did they set?

Of course they aren’t holy writ on religion or anything else. But they are classic authorities. When we go beyond them we must show good & sufficient reason to do so. Of course courts have had to move with the times. The Bill of Rights & separation of church & state originally only applied to the federal government. Some of the 13 founding states insisted on keeping their established churches. The Supreme Court didn’t fully apply the 1st Amendment to the states until the 20th century, via the post-civil war 14th Amendment’s "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." But when we look at their writings, we see that they always wanted the Bill to apply to the states & had to accept state churches, hoping, in this case correctly, that they would sink in the wake of their glorious victory at the federal level.

They founded what in their time were called the Democratic Republicans, now the Democratic Party. Again, we should use them as benchmarks to judge our herd. When an atheist got a federal court to drop "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, John Kerry & every other Democratic Senator denounced the decision. But go to Jefferson. We find him on 1/1/1802 explaining that "I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did." What would he say about Kerry & the self-proclaimed ‘liberals’ who voted for him? Indeed, what would he say about the Pledge, with or without God?

Few Americans know that Jefferson was in Paris when the Bastille was stormed. But enlightened French saw him as the embodiment of what they wanted & strategized against their King in his residence. He wrote to Madison on 8/28/1789:

"It is impossible to desire better dispositions towards us than prevail in the National Assembly. Our proceedings have been viewed as a model for them on every occasion; and though in the heat of debate men are generally disposed to contradict every authority urged by their opponents, ours has been treated like that of the Bible, open to explanation but not to question."

Some historians are struck by his moderate role in on site French politics. He notified the court that some gentlemen would be meeting with him. But he was his country’s representative to Louis XVI. Washington couldn’t have won independence from Britain without his aid. When he returned to the US to become Washington’s Secretary of State in 1790, he continued to support the revolution until Jacobin fanaticism made that impossible. Jefferson, Tom Paine & the Marquis de Lafayette share the singular distinction of being present during the 2 great revolutions that opened up modern times. In that sense, Jefferson in Paris was the secular equivalent of the Catholic laying on of hands. He & America kicked off the French revolution. That drama inspired Marxism & the subsequent waves of revolution that still are with us.

Clearly, for Americans & worldwide, Jefferson’s ideas, right & wrong, will always be worth studying. But he wrote over 19,000 letters plus numerous drafts of state & federal documents, etc. Where should a general reader begin?

I have recently published Jefferson & Madison On Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism. Now Gordon-Reed is about to publish a Jefferson Reader on race for Princeton University Press. That’s the way to go. Read him on your topic, whatever it is. But do so in conjunction with a chronology of his entire career & a collection of his works on another issue. That’s the best way to see his strengths & weaknesses in his times & where he is still relevant to ours.

LENNI BRENNER is the editor of Jefferson & Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He also edited 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis. He can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com.

*****

Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow
10/8/1809

Dear Sir,

It is long since I sought to have acknowleged the reciept of your most excellent oration on the 4th of July. I was doubting what you could say, equal to your own reputation, on so hackneyed a subject. But you have really risen out of it with lustre, and pointed to others a field of great expansion. [unclear] a day or two after I recieved your letter to Bishop Gregoire a copy of his diatribe to you came to hand from France. I had not before heard of it. He must have been eagle eyed in quest of offence to have discovered ground for it among the rubbish massed together in the print he animadverts on, you have done right in giving him a sugary answer, but he did not deserve it. For notwithstanding a compliment to you now & then he constantly returns to the identification of your sentiments with the extravagancies of the Revolutionary zealots. I believe him a very good man, with imagination enough to declaim eloquently, but without judgement to decide. [unclear word]

He wrote to me also on the doubts I had expressed five or six & twenty years ago, in the Notes on Virginia, as to the grade of understanding of the negroes, & he sent me his book on the literature of the negroes. His credulity has made him gather up every story he could find of men of colour (without distinguishing whether black, or of what degree of mixture) however slight the mention, or light the authority on which they are quoted, the whole do not amount in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicott, who was his neighbor & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed. As to Bishop Gregoire, I wrote him, as you have done, a very soft answer. It was impossible for doubt to have been more tenderly or hesitatingly expressed than that was in the Notes on Virginia, and nothing was or is farther from my intentions than to enlist myself as the champion of a fixed opinion, where I have only expressed a doubt. St Domingo will, in time, throw light on the question.

I intended, ere this, to have sent you the papers I had promised you. But I have taken up Marshall’s 5th volume & mean to read it carefully, to correct what is wrong in it, and commit to writing such facts and annotations as the reading that work will bring into my recollection and which have not yet been put on paper. In this I shall be much aided by my memorandums & letters, and will send you both the old & the new. But I go on very slowly, in truth during the pleasant season I am always out of doors employed, not passing more time at my writing table than will dispatch my current business. But when the weather becomes cold I shall go out little. I hope therefore to get through this volume during the ensuing winter; but should you want the papers sooner, they shall be sent at a moment’s warning. The ride from Washington to Monticello in the stage, or in a gigg is so easy that I had hoped you would have taken a flight here during the season of good roads. Whenever Mrs. Barlow is well enough to join you in such a visit, it must be taken at ease. It will give us real pleasure whenever it may take place. I pray you to present me to her respectfully, and I salute you affectionately.

*****

Thomas Jefferson to Henri Gregoire
2/25/1809

Sir,

I have recieved the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind as to send me on the "Literature of Negroes." Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief.