In November of 2021, a statue of Thomas Jefferson was removed from City Hall in New York City. It had been in the building for 187 years. Jefferson-Jackson dinners used to be key fundraising dinners for the Democratic Party. No longer. We have yet to see if Jefferson’s image will remain on the nickel and two-dollar bill. Jefferson was at one time honored for authoring the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, serving as president of the United States, orchestrating the Louisiana Purchase, and founding the University of Virginia. For many Americans, these accomplishments matter little because he also owned slaves.
Not only did Jefferson own slaves, he almost certainly had a longtime sexual relationship with an enslaved woman—Sally Hemmings. Although he wrote and spoke about the evils of slavery, he made little effort to free his own slaves. Indeed, he lived a lavish lifestyle that put him so far into debt that he could not legally free more than a handful of them.
Thomas S. Kidd’s Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh recognizes that he was not a saint, but Kidd reminds us that we are not saints either. Rather than engage in “patriotic apologetics or iconoclastic destruction,” he offers an account of Jefferson’s life that is both reasonable and fair. In doing so, he dispels common misconceptions about the Sage of Monticello and he shows that Jefferson continues to merit recognition as one of America’s leading founders.
Far too many books assert that “most” or “many” of America’s founders were deists. Authors of these works usually define deism as “the belief that a god or supernatural being created the universe but has played no role in events since, rather like a watchmaker who made the universe and set it in motion . . .” To substantiate their claim, they explore the religious views of a handful of important founders; first and foremost among them is always Thomas Jefferson. In Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I show that there is absolutely no reason to accept the claim that “most” or “many” of America’s founders were deists, but I acknowledge a few may have been. Should Jefferson be counted among their number?
Kidd acknowledges, as any student of Jefferson must, that he was not an orthodox Christian. But he suggests that there are good reasons to conclude that Jefferson believed in a God who was active in the affairs of men and nations. For instance, Jefferson closed his first inaugural address with the observation that
I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.
It is tempting to dismiss Jefferson’s discussion of God’s providence and his request that Americans pray for him as rhetorical flourish. Indeed, that is how I have long thought of these words. But Kidd provides numerous examples, both public and private, where Jefferson writes or speaks of God’s providence. To give just one additional example, after the House of Representatives formally declared Jefferson to be president in 1800, he “replied (echoing Philippians 4:8) that
whatsoever of understanding, whatsoever of diligence, whatsoever of justice, or of affectionate concern for the happiness of man, it has pleased providence to place within the compass of my faculties, shall be called forth for the discharge of the duties confided to me, & for procuring to my fellow citizens all the benefits which our constitution has placed under the guardianship of the general government.
Kidd concludes that Jefferson’s “talk of providence was heartfelt.” If deism includes “the belief that a god or supernatural being created the universe but has played no role in events since,” then Jefferson was not a deist, at least as the term is commonly defined.
Jefferson, the Bible, and Jesus
Another surprise is how well Jefferson knew, and how often he referenced, the Bible. In many cases, Jefferson quoted or alluded to the Bible without including a citation. For instance, in a letter to his daughter, he paraphrased Romans 3 when he reminded her that “None of us, no not one, is perfect.” Similarly, Jefferson “professed to have felt, upon hearing the news of the first president’s passing, that ‘verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel’ [II Samuel 3:38].”
Jefferson was particularly interested in Jesus’s moral teachings. In 1804, he cut and pasted passages from the Gospels that he considered to be Jesus’s true moral teachings. Unfortunately, no copy of this work, which he called “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth . . . Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of Indians,” is extant.
Fifteen years later, Jefferson returned to this project and produced “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” The text consists of passages from the four Gospels that tell, in Jefferson’s estimation, the true story of Jesus’s life and provide an accurate account of his moral teachings. It is this work, which he kept private during his lifetime but that was eventually published by the U.S. Government in 1904, that people usually refer to as “Jefferson’s Bible.”
Jefferson’s Bible famously leaves out most of the miracles described in the Gospels, and it ends with Jesus’s death and burial. But Kidd points out that it does contain passages describing supernatural events and “the coming ‘great tribulation’ for God’s people, a fiery hell, the future resurrection of humankind, and the second coming of the ‘Son of Man.’” He does not make much of these references to supernatural events, and rightfully so. It is clear that Jefferson was primarily interested in Jesus’s moral teaching.
Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian, but writers and scholars who treat him as a secular rationalist need to recognize that he considered himself to be a Christian. On more than one occasion he professed to be “A Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines . . .” and, later, that “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus” (emphasis original).
Church and State
In the 1947 Establishment Clause case, Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Wiley Rutledge asserted that: “No provision of the Constitution is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history than the religious clause of the First Amendment. It is at once the refined product and the terse summation of that history.” Although Rutledge and Hugo Black differed on how this case should be decided, they agreed that, in Black’s words, the “First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”
Justice Black was, of course, referring to Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists where he explained that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” Since 1947, separationist jurists, scholars, and activists have relied heavily on the views of Jefferson (and James Madison) to make the case that the founders desired the strict separation between church and state.
Jefferson desired a greater degree of separation between church and state than most other founders, but he did not act as if there was a wall between the two when serving in public office. For instance, he issued a call for prayer when governor of Virginia, and he authored a bill that would have “authorized the Virginia governor to declare prayer days, threatening pastors with fines if they did not cooperate.”
In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Jefferson to a committee to begin the process of creating a national seal. Jefferson proposed that the nation adopt one with the images of
Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head & a sword in his hand, passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites: rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the divine presence & command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore &, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh.
His motto for the new nation would have been: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Even more remarkable, two days after Jefferson penned his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he attended church services in the U.S. Capitol where he heard John Leland, the great Baptist minister and himself an opponent of established churches, preach. As president, Jefferson permitted church services to be held in the Treasury and War Department buildings.
To be sure, Jefferson opposed religious establishments, and his Statute for Establishing Religious Liberty (1786) is an important milestone in the development of religious liberty in the United States. But it is simply bad history to pretend that he was committed to the principle that the state must have nothing whatsoever to do with religion.
Jefferson and Slavery
Any moral biography of Jefferson must include the fact that he owned enslaved humans. Kidd treats this reality with fairness and tact, agreeing with John Boles that “if we are to judge historical figures, we should judge them by the standards of their time.” Indeed, we may even judge Jefferson by his own standards, and find him wanting.
Like most founders, Jefferson deplored the evils of slavery and refused to defend it as a positive good. He condemned King George for forcing slavery upon the colonists in his draft of the Declaration of Independence (a provision eventually removed) and proposed that slavery be prohibited in the Northwest Territories after 1800 (a provision improved upon by the Confederation Congress, which banned it immediately in the Northwest Ordinance).
Jefferson was a lifelong opponent of slavery, but he feared that simply manumitting enslaved Africans would be dangerous. His solution was to free them and then ship them elsewhere. In an 1820 letter, Jefferson reiterated his support for “gradual emancipation and expatriation” (emphasis original). The notion that freed slaves should be “colonized” elsewhere was surprisingly popular among southern leaders, but it was never a realistic possibility. Jefferson likely recognized this fact, which may be why in the same letter he observed that being a slave owner was similar to holding a “wolf by the ears, we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation on the other.”
We may give Jefferson credit for recognizing the evils of slavery and making some attempt to limit its spread. But unlike other founders, including Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, John Jay, and James Wilson, he did not free his own slaves, nor did he expend much political capital to end slavery at the state or national level. And no defense can be made for having a sexual relationship with a woman he “owned.”
Kidd has written an excellent moral and spiritual biography of Thomas Jefferson. Contrary to those who claim Jefferson was a secular rationalist, he shows that the Sage of Monticello took Christianity seriously even as he rejected key tenets of orthodoxy. He also demonstrates that Jefferson was not a deist, and that he did not act as if there was a wall of separation between church and state. Although Jefferson was troubled by slavery, Kidd makes it clear that he was not troubled enough.
Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh is an excellent example of how a twenty-first-century scholar can think and write in a morally serious way about a brilliant but flawed American founder. Despite his flaws, we should continue to honor the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the third president of the United States, and the father of the University of Virginia as one of America’s leading founders.