Historically, Thomas Jefferson is most frequently portrayed as one of America’s Founding Fathers. Even in contemporary politics, segments in the United States seek to align themselves with Jeffersonian principles and wisdom. Jefferson did indeed have a lot to say about politics and principles, one of his main campaigns during his tenure as Founding Father was a vehement demand for religious liberty. In an oft quoted speech, Jefferson avowed, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” a phrase engraved on his monument on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Even more well-known is his Letter to the Danbury Baptists explaining his view that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution builds a “wall of separation between Church & State.” The degree to which those religious beliefs are based on personal and doctrinal interpretation was one of the reasons Jefferson refused to budge on his views about separation of church and state. In Edwin S. Gaustad’s work, Sworn on the Altar of God, the author devotes a significant amount of space to Jefferson’s commitment to religious liberty. Early in his political career Jefferson is seen to have been reacting to calls for church-state reforms. For example, a bill was brought into the House of Burgesses to which Jefferson objected. Anglicans were in firm control of the administration. The House was controlled in part by the British administrator of the Burgesses' Committee for Religion, who was passionate in his religious zeal. This committee viewed any flexibility in terms of religion as heretic and supporters of religious freedoms as dissidents. The bill as presented restricted unauthorized religious and philosophical meetings and dictated specific punishments for anyone participating in these unlawful lectures and discussions. The bill dictated specific places and times for worship. Merrill D. Peterson’s definitive biography of Thomas Jefferson is a tradition portray of a founding father who was one of the architects of the American Revolution. As far as religion, Merrill asserts that mostly Jefferson tried to keep mum on the subject. His early education had turned hum away from the “corruptions and superstitions of Christianity.” For Merrill, Jefferson was a political animal. He entered the House of Burgesses in 1769 and became a force in the Dominion of Virginia. It was a time of great conflict, the Townsend Acts were passed post haste by the British and Jefferson was startled that they seemed to set on what would obviously become a conflict between the Crown and the colonists. Jefferson along with the other burgesses in the immediately passed resolutions declaring the only the local government in Virginia could levy taxes on its residents. Additionally, the burgesses declared that all trials for treason and any other crime committed in Virginia would be heard locally with a local jury. The Governor’s response was to dissolve the assembly at once. Jefferson along with the other ex-burgesses formed an Association and adopted a non-importation agreement by which the effectively launched a boycott of British goods. And so a revolutionary leader was born. Jefferson gained “fame as a leader of colonies in revolt against an empire, he embodied the nation’s aspirations for freedom and enlightenment, and throughout most of his life he was intellectually and politically engaged not only on American affairs but in the affairs of a world unhinged by war and revolution.” Unyielding in his refusal to examining his personal religious perspectives in public, Jefferson demanded that religion remain between a Man and his God. In later life, he spoke about not having a particular religion. Because of his stance, Jefferson was often the subject of intense political assaults. His convictions about God and religion were considered irregular and suspicious. Religious fanatics and other zealots sought to destroy the public’s confidence in Jefferson by attacking him are irreligious, and insinuating that his political plans were therefore likewise suspect. The matter of Jefferson's personal religious convictions was further muddled by his insistence that he was a Christian. Specifically, Jefferson commented that he was a real Christian and a disciple of Jesus Christ’s doctrines. This implied that he was Christian in a puritanical sense but factually probably meant that he appreciated the teachings of Jesus. This is a way of skirted the fact that Jefferson probably did not believe in Jesus as a divine or supernatural entity, but rather considered him a philosopher. Fawn Brodie portrays Jefferson as a determined, insightful, and complex man who privately despised Christianity as dangerous and superstitions. This distaste for religion is one of the reasons, if not the main reason that Jefferson worked so hard to instill his views on religious freedom in the America vision. Religious ideas and culture at the time were extreme. Jefferson was profoundly dedicated to his task of religious liberty in a broad sense, so as to avoid persecution. This is the basis for the tenet of separation between church and state in action today in the United States. Jefferson complained that Christianity had had the effect of causing “Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned” and that all of this coercion had not brought the world any closer to religious reconciliation. To many, Jefferson exemplified what a man of the Enlightenment. Indeed, Monticello boasted busts of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. He possessed an amazingly wide range of interests and hobbies. He is widely considered a philosopher and always one of the great leaders of early America. Religion, explains biographer David L. Holmes, “hypnotized him, incensed him, tempt him, frightened him, and here and there motivated him." Despite accusations that Jefferson ascribed to a heretical doctrine, there is evidence that he remained an Anglican and Episcopalian all through his life. He remained a long standing companion of James Madison who was the first Episcopal minister of Virginia. Jefferson conferred a religious education on his legitimate offspring who were baptized in the episcopal Church. He contributed liberally to St. Anne's Parish and recorded events such as births, deaths, and marriages in the family Bible. Douglas R. Egerton’s book, Gabriel's Rebellion, is sure to inspire discussion and incite disagreement about Thomas Jefferson. Egerton dissects two slave rebellions in the mid-1800s, claiming that finances and class had as much to do with the situation in Virginia as did forced bondage and race. Gabriel Prosser, an individual of mythic proportions is the catalyst of this piece. Prosser was a metal forger who could enter into his own contracts. He eventually staged a slave rebellion which failed and Gabriel was hanged. Egerton indicts Jefferson, contending that he was a racist from the time he framed the constitution until his death. Eventually, there were masters in the region who wanted to set slaves free and there was talk of freeing slaves by the Virginia legislature. At this point, Jefferson stepped in with an illiberal plan, “Because Jefferson could not envision large numbers of free blacks living on perfect harmony beside their former masters, his plan called for immediate deportation of those emancipated.” During Jefferson’s life and again in recent years there is an interest in how or if he rationalized his relationship with Sally Hemings in terms of morality and religion. Jefferson was often insincere when asked for comment on the topic, claiming the “public would be bored reading about his domestic life.” It was not true and then it is not true today, people do want the gory details about the private relationship he had with Sally Hemings and the fact that she was his wife’s half-sister made it all the more titillating. Newspapers openly guessed and postulated about the scenarios occurring at Monticello between these three and how twisted it was, not to mention illegal and in-Christian, to engage in such relations. Despite the fact that this scandal played out in public Jefferson and his legal white daughters were welcome everywhere. There was no social excoriation, at least to their faces, no matter that the particulars about his sex life at Monticello made front page news all over the country. He won a very decisive re-election in 1804, which points to the fact that either he was a great favorite with the people because of his contributions to the country or because violating God’s law and not being precisely Christian in his actions was not the chief concern of voting Americans at the time.
Brodie, Fawn McKay. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.Cogliano, Frank, and Cogliano, Francis D., eds. Companion to Thomas Jefferson (2nd Edition). Somerset, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.Gaustad, Edwin S. Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.Holmes, David L. Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, 2006. Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation; A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.Ragosta, John. Jeffersonian America: Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed. Charlottesville, VA, USA: University of Virginia Press, 2013.