GoogleIt Mail IT Print IT PermaLinkMy Favorite Thomas Jefferson Quotation
12:37:25 AM
Written By : Richard SchwartzCategory : 1. Life
Location : Nashua, NH

The occasion for this post is two-fold. I had posted this particular quotation in a recent response on Damien Katz's blog, but Damien's domain has apparently expired and his blog is down (as pointed out by Pete and Mika). Secondly, I just read that a Pew Forum survey conducted in July found that 64% (plus or minus a margin of error of 2.5%) of the American public favors teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools. The full report is available here. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so I don't know if the questions were worded in a way that would distinguish between teaching creationism in the context of science (which I vehemently oppose), or the context of comparative religion (which I would not oppose), but in the meantime...

I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives, and by this test, my dear Madam, I have been satisfied yours must be an excellent one, to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.

Letter to Mrs. M. Harrison Smith, 6 August 1816

The world would be a much, much better place if everyone embraced the philosophy so clearly stated in those four sentences.

Although, with the exception perhaps of Franklin, Jefferson was probably the one of the founding fathers who was most knowledgeable in matters of science, this particular quotation has nothing to do with the issue of scientific versus religious world views. I've posted it here to make a point about the founders. Although they were all flawed men, Jefferson perhaps even more so than most of the rest, and although they did not produce a perfect Constitution or a perfect Union, they were still awfully smart, and they were not afraid to lead. Jefferson was particularly smart about the issue of religion and public life, and there are lots of pages of his writings on the subject, which I recommend very highly to anyone interested in the history of the American tradition and fundamental principle of separation of church and state.

Of all the quotations of his that I have read, this is the one that tells me that he was a great man, far ahead of his time; a man who was willing to lead, but unwilling to impose; and a man devoted to the idea that every individual's intellect is capable of understanding fundamental truths without reliance on indoctrinated faith, and should be allowed to do so. How do I get all that from such a simple declaration? It's mostly from the words "nor wished to change another's creed." Jefferson was singularly devoted to the idea that his faith was his, and his alone; and that his faith should not be influenced by others' faiths, and that it was morally wrong for him to try to influence anothers' faith. He drew a sharp distinction between faith and reason. Reason was fair game for influence. Faith was not.

One of the smartest things Jefferson and the other founders did was to not create a democracy. They created a constitutional republic instead, and they made it awfully hard to change the fundamental tenets that they established as the supreme law of the land. The Pew data show that a clear majority would favor a position that Jefferson himself would never have abided by had he lived in the post-Darwin age. In fact, it's a hair's breadth less than 2/3ds if the margin of error swings toward the creationists. Why do I say that Jefferson would never have abided by this despite overwhelming public support? Why do I not even qualify this with an IMHO despite the obvious fact that he died well before Darwin published his theory? Because of the following additional quotes.

When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject them as fables not belonging to history. In like manner, when an historian, speaking of a character well known and established on satisfactory testimony, imputes to it things incompatible with that character, we reject them without hesitation, and assent only to that of which we have better evidence. […] So again, the superlative wisdom of Socrates is testified by all antiquity, and placed on ground not to be questioned. When, therefore, Plato puts into his mouth such paralogisms, such quibbles on words, and sophisms as a schoolboy would be ashamed of, we conclude they were the whimsies of Plato’s own foggy brain, and acquit Socrates of puerilities so unlike his character. (Speaking of Plato, I will add, that no writer, ancient or modern, has bewildered the world with more ignis fatui, than this renowned philosopher, in Ethics, in Politics, and Physics.…But Plato’s visions have furnished a basis for endless systems of mystical theology, and he is therefore all but adopted as a Christian saint. It is surely time for men to think for themselves, and to throw off the authority of names so artificially magnified. But to return from this parenthesis.) I say, that this free exercise of reason is all I ask for the vindication of the character of Jesus. We find in the writings of His biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms, and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be inventions of the grovelling authors who relate them.…Can we be at a loss in separating such materials, and ascribing each to its genuine author? The difference is obvious to the eye and the understanding, and we may read as we run to each his part; and I will venture to affirm, that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from the chaff [with the Jefferson Gospels], will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay.

Letter to William Short, 4 August 1820

Ministers of the Gospel are excluded [from serving as Visitors of the county Elementary Schools] to avoid jealousy from the other sects, were the public education committed to the ministers of a particular one; and with more reason than in the case of their exclusion from the legislative and executive functions.

Note to Elementary School Act, 1817

No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced [in the elementary schools] inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination.

Elementary School Act, 1817

Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.

Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1785)

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush (Sept. 23,1800)

It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason.

Letter to N. G. Dufief, Philadelphia bookseller (1814) who had been prosecuted for selling the book Sur la Création du Monde, un Systême d'Organisation Primitive by M. de Becourt, which Jefferson himself had purchased.

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Comments :v

1. Mika Heinonen08/31/2005 03:29:44 PM

I take it that Damien didn't reply to your inquiry about his Blog yet?
I hope he is OK, and gets a new domain soon up. His Blog was always a joy to read.

2. Richard Schwartz09/01/2005 12:14:00 AM

Actually, I did hear from Damien. He is working on getting his domain back in service.

Blocked Response!05/01/2008 09:06:03 AM

This response from IP Address was blocked by the owner of this blog.

Blocked Response!11/25/2008 02:42:26 PM

This response from IP Address was blocked by the owner of this blog.

5. Richard Schwartz02/24/2009 10:02:04 PM

Another page of relevant Jefferson quotes is here:

6. cialis09/12/2016 06:18:56 AM

Hello! , ,

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