Sunday, December 04, 2005

Thomas Jefferson's forgotten legacy

Andrew at ConfirmThem gives us this classic quotation:

Thomas Jefferson to Supreme Court Justice William Johnson, June 12, 1823:
On every question of construction, carry yourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.

This is original intent jurisprudence in terms as clear and plain as the Jefferson Memorial or the dome of Monticello.

Of course, stuff like that would today get you drummed out of the party Jefferson founded: namely, the Democrats.

In the place of the real Thomas Jefferson of history, we get the politically correct Thomas Jefferson, remembered only for his "wall of separation" between church and state: 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. (Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT. (Jan. 1, 1802))

But despite what some moderns imagine based on the Danbury letter, Jefferson's political philosophy always rooted human liberty in the existence of God:
Jefferson's reputation began to reach beyond Virginia in 1774, when he wrote a political pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Arguing on the basis of natural rights theory, Jefferson claimed that colonial allegiance to the king was voluntary. "The God who gave us life," he wrote, "gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."

Indeed, as the above citation from the Danbury letter makes clear, in Jefferson's eyes, it was precisely the existence of God that created the network of liberties that separation of church and state was designed to protect. Jefferson's God was the classic Enlightenment God, proven to exist by the clear force of reason itself, acknowledged by the great philosophers from Aristotle to Newton, and not necessarily to be identified with any tradition of established religion.

Jefferson would be given the privilege of enshrining this view of the God of natural reason in American history two years later when he wrote the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights...

This did not conflict in the slightest with Jefferson's view on the wall of separation: for Jefferson, the existence of God was a matter of philosophy; while church was a matter of religion. Hence for Jefferson there was no contradiction whatever in rooting human freedom in God, for that was a matter of sound philosophy rather than a matter of religion.

In fact his own attitudes to many of the religious denominations of the new country were largely contemptuous: he scorned Calvin, thought little of Athanasius, denied the historicity of the New Testament, and seems to have held the Catholic Church in particularly low repute: "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes." (Letter to Alexander von Humboldt (Dec. 6, 1813))

But for all this disdain for religious tradition, he thought God himself the cornerstone of liberty:

"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever." (Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1785) Query 18)

No leading Democrat would be caught dead saying that today: what Jefferson held to be the basis for democracy is now thought to be "intolerant", "narrow-minded", and "theocratic". But Jefferson's belief that God is the basis of human liberty is quite in keeping with the views of most Americans today:

Fully 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, 85 percent in heaven and 82 percent in miracles

Democrats will do better in the polls when they take more seriously the views of Jefferson.


At Monday, 05 December, 2005, Anonymous Doug Hoffer said...

Nice post. I often think of how mischaracterized one phrase from Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist's has become. The modern day interpretation clearly does not square with Jefferson's beliefs.

I also think it's interesting that two days after writing the letter to the Danbury Baptists Jefferson attended religious services in the House of Representatives, services he regularly attended during his Presidency.

At Tuesday, 06 December, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

Great comment, Doug.

At Sunday, 13 April, 2008, Blogger aristocat said...

I agree with your assessment. Our founding fathers were driven by the belief that the purpose of their lives was the pursuit of virtue. Their belief in the importance of god in their lives is expressed in almost all of the documents which they prepared for the creation of this nation.


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