Thomas Jefferson to Roger Weightman, declining to attend the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in the District of Columbia. This was the last letter written by Jefferson, who died 10 days later, on July 4, 1826. –LB
Monticello, June 24, 1826
Respected Sir –
The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exch anged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.
July 4th reminds literate Americans of at least five words, “all men are created equal,” from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. But few know one word from his last statement on it, a masterpiece, written 10 days before his death on – yes – the 4th of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the document that created our modern political world.
Jefferson’s stature fell from national demigod to all-too-human in the wake of Fawn Brodie’s book, “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait,” and recent DNA documentation that he fathered at least one child by a slave, Sally Hemmings. Nor did the dying author of the earthshaking phrase free his other slaves, as Washington did.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t diminish the impact of his youthful words. As America’s ambassador, he was lionized by Paris in 1789. His egalitarianism was what they wanted when they stormed the Bastille. Later, John Brown’s abolitionism was based on the Declaration and the Bible, and Lincoln at Gettysburg was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Modern republicanism, like its ancient models, was created topdown, by some of the educated privileged. In his writings on slavery we find primordial racism mixed with noble sentiments. In his 1781 “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he announced the blacks’ “own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the orangutan for the black woman over those of his own species.”
Yet his “Autobiography” truthfully relates how, “in 1769,” at 26, he “became a member of the legislature … I made one effort … for the permission of the emancipation of slaves which was rejected.” He returned to the question in the Declaration’s original version. George III had
“waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery … Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
He added that the British organized slaves to kill rebel masters. But other signers saw what Jefferson wouldn’t. They couldn’t denounce Britain for American slavery without being hypocrites. The passage was struck.
The Notes gave his emancipation plan. Blacks born after passage would be colonized to a place under US protection until they became a sovereign state. “It will be asked, why not retain them and incorporate the blacks into the state?” But
“Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained … will produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
For him, “the improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites … proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their conditions of life.” But he noted the absence of naturalist studies of blacks. “The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations … I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only.”
Indeed, when Benjamin Banneker, a free inventor, sent him a copy of his Almanac, Jefferson delighted to reply that “nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs … that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors.”
In 1784, Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, defeated his proposal to prohibit slavery, after 1800, in the western territories from Alabama to Ohio. But three years later, it declared that everyone born north of the Ohio River was automatically free, and the Constitutional Convention arranged to ban slave importation in 1808.
Lincoln was correct:
“(T)o the extent that a necessity is imposed upon a man, he must submit to it. I think that was the condition in which we found ourselves when we established this government. We had slaves among us; we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery; we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more; but having by necessity submitted to that much, it does not destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties.”
As the slavery issue went into political limbo in the US, Jefferson began to deteriorate as a thinker on the question. He refused to sign a French call to outlaw the slave trade. He didn’t propose a ban on slavery in the Louisiana Territory that he bought from the French. By 1820 he opposed the Missouri compromise, which allowed slavery there, but barred it in the rest of the Territory, north of 36Ao 30′.
Jefferson saw the new attacks on slavery as an election ploy by former Federalists. “As the passage of slaves from one state to another, would not make a slave of a single human being … so their diffusion over a greater surface would … proportionately facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation.”
Unreality can go no further. Nevertheless we must apply the historical statute of limitations. The 1st modern political thinker could not possibly understand what we learn, after the event, from his trajectory: If you are in politics and, for whatever reason, you do not fight what you know to be profoundly evil, inexorably you adapt to it and rationalize accommodation. Therefore he fancied that extending slavery would hasten emancipation, the last thing slavery expansionists intended.
Given his accommodation to slavery, what then is still significant in Jefferson’s thought? The only republics then in existence, Switzerland, Genoa and Venice, were aristocracies. Collectively, the founding fathers established a huge and successful republic of commoners. Republicanism became the progressive norm, worldwide. Beyond that, his lasting personal contribution was his lifelong actions and writings separating church and state.
Jefferson’s epitaph deliberately omitted his being twice elected President, and listed what he considered his major achievements, the Declaration, Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom, and the establishment of the University of Virginia.
In 1786, with able assistance from James Madison, his lifelong associate, he succeeded in disestablishing the Episcopal Church in Virginia. In 1802, as President, he defined the meaning of the 1st Amendment on religion in a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association:
“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.”
Jefferson wanted to say more. He sent his draft reply to his Attorney General with a note:
“The Baptist address … furnishes an occasion, too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessor did. The address, to be sure, does not point at this, and its introduction is awkward. But I foresee no opportunity of doing it more pertinently. I know it will give great offense to the New England clergy; but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.”
He was persuaded him not to gratuitously pick a fight, and the reply ultimately didn’t deal with thanksgivings. But in 1808, he did explain his policy in a letter to Reverend Samuel Miller:
“I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.”
If he had no choice but to adapt to the continued existence of black slavery, he never compromised his right to think for himself. As he was victorious on this early on, and proud of his Presidential separatism, his writings on religion, psychologically uncorrupted by political necessity, could continue to be vigorous and are literary classics thru to his final testament.
In a 1787 letter to a young nephew, Jefferson told him to “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.”
In an 1800 epistle, he explained why the clerics were “in arms” against him. “They believe that any portion of power confided in 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.”
In his Presidential days, his followers were called the Republican Party. It became universally known as the Democratic Party in the 1820s. The present Republicans took the vacated name when they set up in 1854, against the Democrats, to identify with Jefferson. Yet can anyone imagine a major 2004 Presidential contender from either party talking like him about Judaism and Christianity? Jesus,
“Like Socrates & Epictetus … wrote nothing himself. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life and doctrines fell on the most unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.
According to the ordinary fate of those who attempted to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the alter and the throne, at about 33 years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of 3 years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete set of morals.
Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come down to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.
They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust and to view Jesus himself as an impostor. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.”
The ‘good men’ referred to in this 1814 letter were rare to nonexistent in America, but ambassador Jefferson had met or read them.
“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasoning in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”
In 1819 or 1820, he produced “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” aka “the Jefferson Bible.” He took scissors to Greek, Latin, French and English versions of the gospels, cutting out every bit of “monkish ignorance and superstition.” Even Jesus is not without philosophical sin, he explained in a covering letter:
“(I)t is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; He takes the side of Spiritualism. He preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin. I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc.”
Jefferson’s Jesus is born in Luke 2:1 thru 2:7 and is laid in the manger. But everything about angels appearing to shepards, telling them of the savior’s birth, was cut to Luke 2: 21, as, eight days later, he’s circumcised. Jefferson leaps over predictions that he’s the messiah to Luke 2: 39, where the family returns to Nazareth. Everything is cool until mom and pop lose him at 12, on a trip to Jerusalem, and find him challenging “the doctors” in the temple. His “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business” is snipped out. Jefferson has no time for 12 year old saviors.
So it goes until John 19:41-2, as they put Jesus in the sepulcher. Jefferson segues to Matthew 37:60, where they ‘rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” The author of the Declaration of Independence believed Jesus was a great philosopher, not the son of God, nor the messiah, and philosophers don’t rise from the dead.
Jefferson is For Today
Jefferson believed there was a God. However he was learned in the history of religious fanaticism and separated church and state because he believed connecting them was corrupting for both. Thanks to him and Madison, if America wasn’t perfect in this regard, it was the best there was. But he never tried to convert anyone to his religious skepticism and it never took root among the people. They didn’t read Greek and Latin or study law. They knew little science. Most were barely literate. Once separation was established, religion flourished. Eventually the two ‘Jeffersonian’ parties became bywords for corruption, and pandering to religious voters became normal. “In God we trust” got onto our money, “under God” into the school Pledge of Allegiance, and now the US simultaneously militarily protects Islamic fundamentalist Saudi Arabia and Israel, an Orthodox Jewish state.
Paradoxically, the Bush administration’s determination to destroy Jefferson’s wall elevates his religious writings to a central position in contemporary America. Now is the time to publicize them to build his wall, straight up to high heaven above. Bush is a classic Christian God and country right-winger. But his country’s defining statements are Jefferson’s Declaration and Madison’s Bill of Rights. Any critical mind reading the two authors, and then listening to Bush babbling about a “crusade” against Islamic fundamentalism immediately sees that there is not a spec of Jefferson and Madison in him. And it is still Jefferson’s wall that legally defines the relationship between religion and America’s government.
In terms of education, the country is catching up with him. It is no accident that the antiwar movement has been rooted in the campuses since the 60s. Today, sending their kids to college is the normative American ambition. Already, even 17% of Blacks over 25 have degrees.
One out of seven Americans now say they have no religion. But the Declaration’s “nature’s God” is still the God of most of the educated. If Bush’s base is the 47% of Americans (57% of Blacks) who believe God created the world about 10,000 years, 42% combine belief in a God with the knowledge that the world is millions or billions of years old.
Tens of millions have abandoned their birth religion. In 2001, 49% of all American Jews, the most educated stratum on the planet, said Judaism was no longer their religion. The classic WASP religions, Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism, are losing their educated. Millions have poured out of the Catholic Church and the rate of abandonment is accelerating in the wake of the molestation scandals.
In religious sect after sect there is a battle over women and gay ministers. Forty-four percent of Americans now believe that atheists can go to heaven. While I must laugh at the notion of them leaving the porch light on for me for a heaven that I wouldn’t even think of visiting (Too many Confederate soldiers already there), nevertheless, that growing posthumous ecumenicalism symbolizes the move away from the theological fanaticism encouraged by Bush and accepted as given by electoral liberals.
Our moral standards are changing. A majority of Americans now believe premarital sex is OK. By now a majority of 18 to 30s believe marijuana should be legal.
Scientific American and Science magazine, the popular ‘techie’ journals, are alarmed at Creationist attacks on evolution and Bush’s patronage of them. They are also scandalized at the Democrats adaptation to the religious right.
In 6/02, the Senate voted 99-to-0 to condemn a federal court ruling, striking “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Among these degenerates was Paul Wellstone, our liberals’ latest hero. In the House, only three Representatives voted no. On 3/4/03, the Senate voted 94-to-0 to condemn the 9th Circuit Courta*TMs later position, upholding most of the earlier decision.
Most progressives think the Democrats automatically oppose Bush’s pandering to the religious right. But reality is more complex. When Geraldine Ferraro represented a Catholic congressional district, she was against abortion. The same with Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich. But suddenly, when they developed national ambitions, like Paul they saw the light and got in harmony with the national party, which knows it would lose its liberal wing if it abandoned abortion, nationally. But such “voting my district” Catholic pandering is still the norm for many local Democrats.
Wellstone voted to condemn the court because his “democratic wing of the Democratic Party” are “economic populists.” Their electoral strategy is to take an economic position a big whole nickel better for ordinary Americans than Bush, without losing votes by unnecessarily differing with Joe Sixpack when it comes to his prejudices.
That may or may not work for them, electorally. But it is impossible to believe that Jefferson would have voted for putting in “under God,” when it is well known that it was inserted in 1954 to contrast the US with ‘Godless, atheist Communism.’ Their Senate votes should remind us is that, in life, Modern Democrats, including their liberals, have a dreadful record when it comes to keeping politics and religion separate. We must always remember that it was the Democrats who 1st patronized Israel, an Orthodox Jewish state, and it was two Democrats, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, who committed the vilest violation of religious freedom in American history, the wiretapping of Martin Luther King.
Educated Americans know they should know more about the Founding Fathers and the history of the 1st Amendment. It is up to us to take Jefferson and Madison on religion and separation of church and state to them.
I’m certain there is no God. But that isn’t the issue. Some atheists, as with Stalin, have committed crimes as great as their theological competitors. The tasks before us are separation of religion and politics and the popularization of scientific knowledge. It is up to all progressives to mobilize the one in seven non-religious, the principled scientists, and the many Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious who believe in separation, to defend it against its enemies, the Senatorial scoundrels and their infamous Republican and Democratic parties.
LENNI BRENNER, editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis, can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com