A fascinating figure on the Fourth
History | Musings on Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 6/30/18, 07:57 am
We will celebrate this coming Wednesday the work of a brilliant writer, Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson. Here’s what’s less known: Jefferson worked hard at writing because he was a lousy speaker. I’ll discuss that, then note his way of neutralizing Christian opponents, then look at his small government principles and his pacifism in regard to Britain—and how that worked out. He’s a fascinating figure.
BORN ON APRIL 13, 1743, Jefferson was the oldest son among 10 children. He inherited 30 slaves and more than 2,500 acres of land upon his father’s death. Educated in the classics by tutors and by classes at William and Mary College, Jefferson could make the references to Greek and Roman history that could turn political remarks into statesmanlike words.
In his 20s Jefferson wanted to be a great orator. He admired Patrick Henry, once noting that Henry “appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.” But Jefferson, despite his ability to write Homeric proclamations and to defend them well in small group settings, could not perform at the podium. Like his father, he became a lawyer and gained election to the House of Burgesses—but his speeches were inarticulate disasters.
Jefferson’s lack of speaking ability led some to think of him initially as a tall, good-looking, and wealthy empty suit. His way out of that misapprehension was to work hard on his writing. He did, and soon received requests to draft resolutions. (For a time he continued to try to orate, but by the time he became president in 1801, Jefferson had given up. Except for his inaugural addresses, which he read in such a mumbling manner that eager listeners could barely hear him, he gave almost no speeches during his eight years in office.)
Jefferson first gained celebrity as a writer in 1774 with his Summary View of the Rights of British America, a pamphlet that connected the dots: “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued, unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematic plan of reducing us to slavery.”
When the booklet was reprinted in Philadelphia and London, Jefferson’s facility with the pen became widely known. In 1776, when the Continental Congress was looking for someone to draft a declaration of independence, it turned to Jefferson, who brought with him —in John Adams’ words—“a reputation for literary science and a happy talent for composition.”
Jefferson was a deist, but he knew his draft had to satisfy the majority of delegates who had Christian faith. Jefferson’s talent for composition allowed him to locate language that satisfied Christians without violating his own principles. Phrases such as “endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights,” expressed Christian positions but were also acceptable to deists.
Jefferson himself believed that God was the Prime Mover, but thought He had then moved out of the way. Christians enjoyed seeing explicit mention of God in phrases like “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” but “nature’s God” could make it seem that nature had created God and now owned Him.
Similarly, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” had a religious meaning for Christians, who saw natural man as a slave to sin, doomed to misery and death unless he was born again. As Connecticut minister Levi Hart put it, “The whole plan of Redemption is comprised in procuring, preaching and bestowing liberty to the captives.” Jefferson, however, could dwell on the political meaning of the word.
Like early Unitarians who were intellectually formed within ideas of God’s sovereignty but were unwilling to accept the idea of Christ’s intervention, Jefferson was a necessitarian: progress was a necessary outcome of the laws that the Creator had established. “The end will be glorious and paradisaical beyond what our imagination can conceive,” Jefferson’s friend Joseph Priestly said in 1771. That end could come more quickly if man was given full liberty to exercise his natural gifts.
“Providence” was another mellifluous word for a multitude of ears. For Jefferson, “providence” was the general motion of natural forces implanted in a world created by God but left to run on its own. For deists, use of the word “providence” downplayed God’s current role. For Christians, the word meant—as the Westminster Confession of Faith stated—that “God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence.”
Jefferson, respecting the Christians around him, became “the pen of the revolution.” (George Washington was known as its sword, Patrick Henry its voice.) Christian leaders like Samuel Adams loved Jefferson’s rhetoric and became his supporters. Praising the Declaration’s emphasis on providence and a law above kings, Adams declared, “We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient.”
In September 1776, Jefferson resigned from Congress to return to Virginia and lead the drive to disestablish the Anglican Church. Jefferson allied himself with Baptists, Presbyterians, and disenchanted Anglicans in the successful effort to remove clergymen from the public payroll. Had Jefferson been perceived as an opponent of Christianity, he would not have been elected to the governorship of Virginia twice, as he was in 1779 and 1780.
Over the next two decades, Jefferson served as ambassador to France, secretary of state, and vice president. Civil war, with some Southern states in rebellion, might have broken out had Jefferson not been elected president in 1800 after a campaign that resonated with religious claims and counterclaims.
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE OF JEFFERSON’S RELIGION as president? Some argued that Jefferson’s suspect views did not matter, because he was “practicing the blessed religion of Jesus Christ by acts of charity and benevolence.” Yale President Timothy Dwight thought Jeffersonians were “blockheads and knaves” intent on severing “the ties of marriage with all its felicities,” but he had to acknowledge that John Adams also harbored deistical beliefs.
Jefferson’s brilliant inaugural address, given only after the unscrupulous vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr almost rode a procedural oversight into presidential power, built a bridge from the 18th to the 19 century, and from his followers to his opponents. Instead of celebrating a victory of party, Jefferson proclaimed, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
He explained to red-meat followers that his goal was “not to shock or revolt our well-meaning citizens who are coming over to us in a steady stream,” and he stuck to it. Jefferson especially emphasized peacemaking with Christians who had charged him with personal impiety and predicted dire governmental manifestations of the same. Jefferson did not talk of “God” or “Christ” but used that word “providence” once more, and praised “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.”
Jefferson wooed his Christian opponents in three more ways: He attended worship services, offered soothing remarks to correspondents who could be expected to circulate his sentiments, and took several symbolic actions in the public policy realm. The diary of a Federalist congressman and minister Manasseh Cutler suggests the political usefulness of Jefferson’s attendance at services held almost every Sunday in the Hall of the House of Representatives.
One entry from early in 1801 noted, “Attended worship at our Hall. Meeting very thin, but the President, his two daughters and a grandson attended, although a rainy day.” Then came repetitions: “Attended worship. … Jefferson at the Hall in the morning,” and “Attended worship at the Capitol. … Mr. Jefferson and his secretary attended.”
Jefferson’s efforts sapped plans of those who wished to portray him as the anti-Christ. Cutler’s grudging respect turned into a peace treaty: “It was very rainy, but [Jefferson’s] ardent zeal brought him through the rain on horseback to the Hall. … Although this is no kind of evidence of any regard for religion, it goes far to prove that [he has given up] the idea of bearing down and overturning our religious institutions.”
Jefferson was particularly successful in bringing Baptists into his coalition. When they expressed fear that the United States would eventually have a nationally funded denomination, like the Anglican Church in England, Jefferson calmed concerns by writing to the Danbury Baptist Association of “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Jefferson’s success was evident in the 1804 campaign, when 1,500 people filled the seats of a Massachusetts church building on July 4. He gave irenic responses to voters like Henry Fry and others who questioned his belief: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus Christ as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught. …”
Such a red-letter construction freed Jefferson from the writings of apostles such as Paul, James, Peter, and John, or from the Gospel writers who described miracles. He stuck with the formula for the rest of his life, writing in 1820 that “I hold the precepts of Jesus Christ as delivered by Himself, to be the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man.”
LET’S LOOK AT JEFFERSON’S POLICIES in office. He laid them out in a letter to voter Gideon Granger during the campaign of 1800: “The true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best, that the States are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations. Let the general government be reduced to foreign concerns only … and our general government may be reduced to a very simple organization and a very unexpensive one, —a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants.”
Jefferson also wanted to keep the Supreme Court from promoting the centralization of power. His allies in the House impeached Supreme Court Justice Thomas Chase but the Senate acquitted him, and for many years Jefferson grieved the narrow failure of his attempt to make ambitious justices feel the legislative footsteps just behind them. In 1820 he complained, “The Judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working underground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric.”
Previously known as a provocative writer, Jefferson gained a reputation as a prudent politician. Jefferson told his followers, some of whom had hoped for upheaval like that of the early French Revolution, that building rather than blasting was necessary: “If we are permitted to go on so gradually in the removals called for by the Republicans, as not to shock or revolt our well-meaning citizens who are coming over to us in a steady stream, we shall completely consolidate the nation in a short time—excepting always the royalists and priests.” This last clause is in a letter to Peter Carr that assured supporters that they need not worry about an Anglican comeback.
Jefferson also showed his flexibility when it came to purchasing the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. Napoleon’s offer caused constitutional difficulties for American strict constructionists that were as immense as the Purchase territory itself, because the Constitution did not expressly allow for purchase and annexation of new territory—but in this instance Congress and Jefferson allowed use of the “general welfare” and “necessary and proper” clauses of the Constitution, both of which would often be abused.
But while Jefferson was undogmatic in domestic affairs, he had a fixed set of ideas concerning external affairs, and his selective reading of Scripture gave him additional impetus to carry them out. It often seems that New Testament reading by a person who does not accept the Biblical concept of sin produces pacifism in foreign policy, and so it was with Jefferson. He and his Congress cut the Army and Navy budget from the $6 million it had been in 1799 to $1.6 million—this at a time when English ships, French armies, and Indians all were major threats.
Jefferson immediately found it necessary to restore some funds to fight the Barbary pirates near the shores of Tripoli, but spending fell off thereafter. Preparedness was so lacking that a Maryland member of Congress, when asked how the United States would defend itself in case of an attack on coastal cities, simply responded, “When the enemy comes, let them take our towns, and let us retire into the country.”
With America virtually defenseless, American sailors became England’s particular prey. Some had deserted from British ships and found a transatlantic home, but British captains who were desperately seeking seamen, started stopping American ships and seizing all sailors suspected of desertion. Since it was hard to tell Brits and Americans apart, thousands of New Worlders found themselves back in the holds of the old. Forced British impressments were running at about a thousand a year, but Jefferson did not respond. According to John Randolph, the administration had “the policy of yielding to anything that might come in the shape of insult and aggression.”
Jefferson’s pacifism merely deepened the likelihood of belligerence during the administration of his successor—and it very nearly did not provide peace in his time. As Henry Adams wrote, “England had never learned to strike soft in battle. She expected her antagonists to fight; and if they would not fight, she took them to be cowardly or mean. Jefferson and his government had shown over and over again that no provocation would make them fight; and from the moment that this attitude was understood America became fair prey.” In June 1807, when the captain of the American ship Chesapeake refused to let men from the British frigate Leopard search his ship for deserters, the British attacked. War seemed imminent.
Jefferson took a radical position: Let Britannia rule the waves and keep American ships home. No trade with either England or France, the major combatants during the Napoleonic Wars.
Many Americans disagreed. Vermonters accustomed to trading with Canada openly defied it. Since nearly all commerce among states was by coastal vessels, and since it would be easy for schooner captains to say that weather or accident had driven them to Nova Scotia or the West Indies, Jefferson had to instruct governors “to consider every vessel as suspicious which has on board any articles of domestic produce in demand at foreign markets, and most especially provisions.” Buyers and sellers of wheat, instead of freely trading, were to get certificates from governors allowing them to trade, and those without certificates were to be detained.
The governor of Massachusetts predicted that a refusal to issue certificates to all applicants would lead to “mobs, riots, and convulsions,” but Jefferson persisted in his policies. When an armed mob in Newburyport prevented customs officials from detaining a ship about to sail, Jefferson complained about a “rank growth of fraud and open opposition by force.” When the governor of New York reported that residents of his state were in open insurrection, Jefferson begged him to lead troops against the insurgents in order to “crush those audacious proceedings and make the offenders feel the consequences of individuals daring to oppose a law by force.”
When people in Louisiana wanted to bring in flour from eastern states, Jefferson became the nation’s chief dietician: “I have been averse to letting Atlantic flour go to New Orleans merely that they may have the whitest bread possible.”
Americans wanted to trade, and Jefferson was determined to stop them in order to keep some American products from heading abroad. To maintain his unpopular embargo policy, Jefferson had to resort to domestic restrictions of personal liberties and rights of property. Corruption increased and the Constitution was stretched far beyond what a strict constructionist would allow, but when Jefferson had to choose between giving up or pressing all the harder, he pushed through Congress an Enforcement Act (signed into law on Jan. 9, 1809) that placed the entire country under government officials who could seize suspicious cargo anytime they chose. Their authority was even greater than that of the hated British port officials prior to the Revolution—like those officials, they were freed of legal liability for wrongful seizures and were told to count on support when needed from the Army, Navy, or militia.
Jefferson’s election had put off a potential civil war, but his policies drove the United States once again to the brink of disunity during the last several months of his administration. First the fires flared locally. Citizens in New England towns such as Bath and Gloucester established committees of safety and correspondence, just as they had before the Revolution, and vowed “to give immediate alarm [when] any officer of the United States” tried to enforce the embargo. Citizens of Newburyport voted not to “aid or assist in the execution of the several embargo laws,” and to declare “unworthy of confidence and esteem” any who did assist. Four thousand citizens at a Boston town meeting at Faneuil Hall vowed that those trying to enforce the “the arbitrary and unconstitutional provisions [of the embargo] ought to be considered as enemies to the Constitution of the United States and of this State. … ” A public meeting in Hampshire warned that administration measures would “tend to produce … a dissolution of the Union,” and town meetings in Plymouth and Beverly came to similar conclusions.
Then nullification proceeded to the state level. Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull said he would not instruct his state’s militia to help federal officials charged with enforcing an embargo that was “unconstitutional in many of its provisions, interfering with the State sovereignties, and subversive of the rights, privileges, and immunities of the citizens of the United States.” Using language that Jefferson and Madison had penned a decade before for the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures, Trumbull declared that since federal legislators had decided “to overleap their prescribed bounds of their constitutional powers,” state legislatures should “interpose their protecting shield between the rights and liberties of the people and the assumed power of the general government.”
We do not know whether a civil war would have broken out in 1809 had the embargo remained. Early in 1809, as Gov. Trumbull refused to enforce the “unconstitutional and despotic” embargo and other Northern governors also said no, Congress gave up Jefferson’s plan, voting 81-40 to repeal the embargo.
Extremism in the defense of pacifism did not work, and neither did a resumption of regular trade without adequate defense forces to make London look before leaping into aggressive acts. Three years after the embargo’s repeal, Britain and the United States began a war so ill-defined that it was called only by a year, 1812. Two years after that, British troops faced American forces so inadequate that Washington was readily seized and burned. But Jeffersonian unpreparedness curiously allowed for the emergence of a national anthem (as the unlikely survival of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write about bombs bursting in air) and a new national hero, as a decidedly non-pacifistic Andrew Jackson pushed American forces to an even more unlikely victory in New Orleans.