The real Thomas Jefferson is the ACLU's worst nightmare?
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Oct 21, 2007 at 05:13:20 PM EST
Shortly after the death of D. James Kennedy, I posted a piece here entitled On the Loss of an Historical Revisionist. In that piece, I began an item by item debunking of a list of claims from Kennedy's sermon on "The Real Thomas Jefferson," a sermon repeated on a number of occasions between 2002 and 2007. (Watch the Coral Ridge Hour video from March 2006 here.) Much of this sermon also appears in Kennedy's 2003 book What If America Were A Christian Nation Again?, in a chapter entitled, like his sermon, "The Real Thomas Jefferson."

Part of Kennedy's sermon included a list, which also appears in What If America Were A Christian Nation Again? Over the next few weeks, I'll be continuing to debunk this list -- Kennedy's evidence that "The real Thomas Jefferson is the ACLU's worst nightmare!"

The following is the "Real Thomas Jefferson" list, as it appears in What If America Were A Christian Nation Again? (The items that are struck out are the ones already addressed in my previous post.):

...even as a nominal Christian, what Thomas Jefferson did is totally antithetical to everything the ACLU and others have told the American people. For example, summing up, author Mark A. Beliles has assembled an impressive list of some of Jefferson's actions as president:
  • Promoted legislative and military chaplains
  • Established a national seal using a biblical symbol
  • Included the word God in our national motto
  • Established official days of fasting and prayer -- at least on the state level
  • Punished Sabbath breakers
  • Punished marriages contrary to biblical law
  • Punished irreverent soldiers
  • Protected the property of churches
  • Required that oaths be phrased by the words "So help me God" and be sworn on the Bible
  • Granted land to Christian churches to reach the Indians
  • Granted land to Christian schools
  • Allowed government property and facilities to be used for worship
  • Used the Bible and nondenominational religious instruction in the public schools. He was involved in three different school districts, and the plan in each required that the Bible be taught in our public schools
  • Allowed and encouraged clergymen to hold public office
  • Funded religious books for public libraries
  • Funded salaries for missionaries
  • Exempted churches from taxation
  • Established professional schools of theology. He wanted to bring the entire faculty of Calvin's theological seminary over from Geneva, Switzerland, and establish them at the University of Virginia
  • Wrote treaties requiring other nations to guarantee religious freedom, including religious speeches and prayer in official ceremonies

No, my friends, the real Thomas Jefferson is the ACLU's worst nightmare!

Over the course of almost five decades, Thomas Jefferson was involved with a number of educational institutions and plans for education, beginning in 1778 with his proposed plan for public schools in Virginia in his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, and ending with the University of Virginia, which opened in 1825, a year before his death. In order to support their position that religion belongs in public schools, the revisionists have invented tales of Jefferson including, encouraging, and even requiring religious worship and religious instruction in every school and education plan he was connected with. Several of these lies appear in Kennedy's list, one of which is less common than the others -- the lie that Jefferson, by considering a proposal to move the Geneva Academy to the United States, was trying to establish a theological seminary.

The following is an excerpt from my book, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, addressing the Geneva Academy lie.

According to D. James Kennedy, in his book What if America were a Christian Nation Again?:

Jefferson "wanted to bring the entire faculty of Calvin's theological seminary over from Geneva, Switzerland, and establish them at the University of Virginia."

There are two things wrong with Kennedy's claim. The first is the time frame. Jefferson did consider a proposal to move the Geneva Academy to the United States, but this was in 1794 and 1795, thirty years before the University of Virginia opened. The second is that, although the Geneva Academy was originally founded by John Calvin in 1559 as theological seminary, by the late 1700s it had been transformed into an academy of science. The plan considered by Jefferson was not to import a religious school. It was to import a group of Europe's top science professors.

In 1794, François D'Ivernois, an economist and political writer from Geneva, wrote to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Political upheaval in Geneva had forced D'Ivernois into exile in England, and was threatening the future of the Geneva Academy. D'Ivernois, who had met both Jefferson and Adams when they were foreign ministers in Europe, wrote separately to each of them proposing that the faculty of the academy be relocated to the United States.

In a letter to George Washington, who was also anxious to establish a public university in America, Jefferson described the Geneva Academy and its faculty.

...the revolution which has taken place at Geneva has demolished the college of that place, which was in a great measure supported by the former government. The colleges of Geneva & Edinburgh were considered as the two eyes of Europe in matters of science, insomuch that no other pretended to any rivalship with either. Edinburgh has been the most famous in medicine during the life of Cullen; but Geneva most so in the other branches of science, and much the most resorted to from the continent of Europe because the French language was that which was used. a Mr. D'Ivernois, a Genevan, & man of science, known as the author of a history of that republic, has proposed the transplanting that college in a body to America. he has written to me on the subject, as he has also done to Mr. Adams, as he was formerly known to us both, giving us the details of his views for effecting it. probably these have been communicated to you by Mr. Adams, as D'Ivernois desired should be done; but lest they should not have been communicated I will take the liberty of doing it. his plan I think would go to about ten or twelve professorships. he names to me the following professors as likely if not certain to embrace the plan.

Monchon, the present President, who wrote the Analytical table for the Encyclopedists, & which sufficiently proves his comprehensive science.

Pictet, known from his admeasurements of a degree, & other works, professor of Natural philosophy.

his brother, said by M. D'Ivernois to be also great.

Senebier, author of commentaries on Spallanzani, & of other works in Natural philosophy & Meteorology; also the translator of the Greek tragedies.

L'Huillier} both mathematicians, and said to be inferior to nobody in that line except La Grange, who is with out an equal.

Prevost, highly spoken of by D'Ivernois.

De Saussure & his son, formerly a professor, but who left the college to have more leisure to pursue his geological researches into the Alps, by which work he is very advantageously known.(1)

Like many of D. James Kennedy's lies about Thomas Jefferson, the version of the story about the Geneva Academy in What If America Were A Christian Nation Again? is borrowed from Mark Beliles's introduction to his version of the Jefferson Bible, and then changed a bit. In his chapter about Jefferson, Kennedy paraphrases dozens of lies from Beliles's book, changing them just enough to reveal his complete ignorance of the actual events on which Beliles based the original versions of the lies. In his version of the Geneva Academy story, Beliles does connect John Calvin with this school to imply that Jefferson wanted to import a theological seminary, but Beliles claims only that the proposed relocation was to "form the foundations of a state university," not that the decades away University of Virginia was the destination. Kennedy's addition of this anachronism makes it pretty clear that he has no idea that the lie he is copying is about something that happened thirty years before the University of Virginia opened. This doesn't make Beliles's version of the story any less of a lie. It just shows that, unlike Kennedy, Beliles knows what he's lying about.

According to Beliles's version of the story:

Jefferson "attempted to move the entire faculty of John Calvin's University of Geneva to form the foundations of a state university (but was thwarted by the legislature)."

Beliles mentions that the plan was thwarted by the legislature, but the truth is that it never even got as far as being proposed to the legislature. Of course, since the Geneva Academy was not a religious school, this had nothing to do with religion.

Jefferson wanted to find out if the Virginia legislature would be receptive to the plan before actually proposing it, but didn't want his name associated with it, so he asked Wilson Nicholas, a friend and member of the legislature, to run the idea by a few of his colleagues to see if they thought it stood any real chance of passing.(2) Nicholas reported back to Jefferson that, although the members he spoke to liked the idea, they didn't think the majority of the legislature would go for it. Nicholas gave three reasons for this, which Jefferson listed in his reply to D'Ivernois.

The reasons which they thought would with certainty prevail against it, were 1, that our youth, not familiarized but with their mother tongue, were not prepared to receive instructions in any other; 2, that the expense of the institution would excite uneasiness in their constituents, and endanger its permanence; and 3, that its extent was disproportioned to the narrow state of the population with us. Whatever might be urged on these several subjects, yet as the decision rested with others, there remained to us only to regret that circumstances were such, or were thought to be such, as to disappoint your and our wishes.

I should have seen with peculiar satisfaction the establishment of such a mass of science in my country, and should probably have been tempted to approach myself to it, by procuring a residence in its neighborhood, at those seasons of the year at least when the operations of agriculture are less active and interesting.(3)

After Jefferson informed D'Ivernois that the plan would not succeed in Virginia, he pursued one more possibility. This was the reason for his letter to George Washington describing the Geneva Academy's faculty. Washington had been given shares in the James River and Potomac Companies by the Virginia Assembly, and had previously discussed with Jefferson the idea of using these shares to fund a public university.

Because Jefferson had resigned as Secretary of State and returned to Monticello, he was unaware that Washington was already working on a plan to establish a national university in the District of Columbia, and had promised the revenue from his shares in the Potomac Company to Congress for this purpose. Washington had also written to the Virginia legislature, offering his shares in the James River Company to fund a university in that state. Washington was actually hoping that the Virginia legislature wouldn't take him up on this offer, but felt obliged to make it because the shares had been given him to by Virginia. He thought it would be better to apply the shares from both companies to the university in the District of Columbia, knowing that it would be difficult enough to establish one university, let alone two at the same time.

Nowhere in any of the letters written by Jefferson or Washington about either of these early plans for a public university is religion mentioned even once.

The Geneva Academy lie has been around for a long time. Mark Beliles didn't invent this one -- he only revived it. Beliles's source is William Eleroy Curtis's 1901 book The True Thomas Jefferson. Although Curtis is long gone, the lies from his highly inaccurate biography of Jefferson are included here because a reprinted edition of this book is currently being recommended and sold on many Christian American history and homeschooling websites. Curtis's version of the Geneva Academy story is found in two places in his book -- first, in a chapter about the founding of the University of Virginia, and again in a chapter about Jefferson's religious views. Curtis, like today's Liars for Jesus, completely disregarded the fact that the Geneva Academy had become a scientific institution, and that the proposal was to import science professors, not theologians. He even claimed that religious opinion was one of the reasons the plan failed in the Virginia legislature, although, as already mentioned, the plan was never proposed to that body. Curtis also added a concern about religious differences to George Washington's objections to the idea, although this was not among the objections Washington listed in his reply to Jefferson's letter.

The following are two excerpts about the Geneva Academy proposal from Curtis's The True Thomas Jefferson.

From the chapter about the founding of the University of Virginia:

"Jefferson's first idea of a university for Virginia was to transform his venerable alma mater, William and Mary College, which was under the care of the church, into a non-sectarian State institution, and in 1795 he corresponded with Washington on the subject. He also asked Washington's coöperation in bringing the faculty of the Calvinistic Seminary of Geneva en masse to the United States, and proposed the plan to the Legislature. It was considered too grand and expensive an enterprise for the feeble colony, and Washington's practical mind questioned the expediency of importing a body of foreign theologians and scholars who were not familiar with the language or the customs of the people. Jefferson then suggested the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, but similar objections were heard from every direction, and the plan was reluctantly abandoned."

From the chapter about Jefferson's religious views:

"In 1794, as related in another chapter, he endeavored to arrange for the removal to America of the Calvinistic college of Geneva, Switzerland, and planned to establish the entire faculty at Charlottesville as the nucleus of a States university. This was the first step in the development of the idea that afterwards found form and substance in the present University of Virginia. But French Calvinism did not commend itself to the practical-minded Virginians. Jefferson appealed to General Washington for support and encouragement, and urged him to dedicate the property presented to him by the Legislature as an endowment for such an institution. Washington's practical mind questioned the expediency of importing a faculty of theologians unfamiliar with the language and unsympathetic with the religious opinion prevailing in Virginia, and suggested to Jefferson that if teachers were to be brought from abroad it would be better to seek them in the English universities. Acting upon his advice, Jefferson turned to Edinburgh, and endeavored to obtain a faculty there. This, however, was only one of his many inconsistencies, and those who are familiar with the incidents of his life will not be surprised to learn that in a letter to a friend he commended a nursery of the gloomiest and cruelest sort of Presbyterianism and a seminary of Calvinists as the two best institutions of learning in the world."

By the time Washington received Jefferson's letter about the Geneva Academy, he had already heard about the proposal from John Adams, and had already decided against it. The following is the part of Washington's reply to Jefferson in which he listed his objections, none of which had anything to do with religion.

Hence you will perceive that I have, in a degree, anticipated your proposition. I was restrained from going the whole length of the suggestion, by the following considerations: 1st, I did not know to what extent, or when any plan would be so matured for the establishment of an University, as would enable any assurance to be given to the application of Mr. D'Ivernois. 2d, the propriety of transplanting the Professors in a body, might be questioned for several reasons; among others, because they might not be all good characters; nor all sufficiently acquainted with our language; and again, having been at variance with the levelling party of their own country, the measure might be considered as an aristocratical movement by more than those who, without any just cause that I have been able to discover, are continually sounding the alarm bell of aristocracy. and 3d, because it might preclude some of the first Professors in other countries from a participation; among whom some of the most celebrated characters in Scotland, in this line, I am told might be obtained.(4)

Curtis's claim that "Jefferson then suggested the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, but similar objections were heard from every direction, and the plan was reluctantly abandoned" is completely untrue. Curtis took the reference to Scotland in Washington's reply to Jefferson, and Jefferson's mention of Edinburgh in his letter to Wilson Nicolas, the "letter to a friend" referred to by Curtis, and twisted them into a claim that Jefferson "commended a nursery of the gloomiest and cruelest sort of Presbyterianism." Jefferson's reason for mentioning Edinburgh had nothing to do with its religious affiliation. Because he was writing to people who were unlikely to be familiar with the Geneva Academy, he made the comparison to point out that this was an institution as advanced in science as Edinburgh, a school they would be familiar with.

Jefferson did attempt to recruit one professor from Edinburgh, but this was thirty years later, when he sent Francis Gilmer to Europe to recruit professors for the University of Virginia, giving him very specific instructions as to which particular professors were to be sought out at which particular universities. Jefferson's only interest in Edinburgh was its medical school, and the only professor Gilmer was instructed to look for there was a professor of anatomy.(5) There actually was a fairly widespread objection at that time to Jefferson importing professors from Europe, but, like the objections to the Geneva Academy proposal, this had nothing to do religion. The objections came from members of the American academic community who considered it an insult to all American universities that Jefferson didn't think qualified professors could be found in the United States. In an 1825 letter thanking British Parliament member John Evelyn Denison for a donation of books for the university, Jefferson mentioned the objections to his recruitment of European professors.

Your favor of July 30th was duly received, and we have now at hand the books you have been so kind as to send to our University. They are truly acceptable in themselves, for we might have been years not knowing of their existence; but give the greater pleasure as evidence of the interest you have taken in our infant institution. It is going on as successfully as we could have expected; and I have no reason to regret the measure taken of procuring professors from abroad where science is so much ahead of us. You witnessed some of the puny squibs of which I was the butt on that account. They were probably from disappointed candidates, whose unworthiness had occasioned their applications to be passed over. The measure has been generally approved in the South and West; and by all liberal minds in the North.(6)

1. Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, February 23, 1795, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, #16799.
2. Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, November 22, 1794, Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 9, (Washington D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), 291-293.
3. Thomas Jefferson to François D'Ivernois, February 6, 1795, ibid., 298-299.
4. George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, March 15, 1795, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, vol. 34, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931), 147-148.
5. Agenda for the University of Virginia, April 26, 1824, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, #40400.
6. Thomas Jefferson to John Evelyn Denison, November 9, 1825, Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 16, (Washington D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 129.

Dr. Kennedy tried to twist history to make it appear that the Founders were not just religious (many actually were), but evangelicals or in the case of Michael Novak, (as Garry Wills points out in Head and Heart), crypto-Jews and cyrpto-Catholics. Obviously, this was not the case. Founders such as Jefferson and Madison were Unitarian Deists, not merely tolerant (which insinuates a top-down granting of liberties), but actively advocating individual freedom of conscience.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Oct 22, 2007 at 10:13:28 AM EST

While I agree with Frank that many founders were only marginally Christian at best, I think that the attempt by conservatives to prove that they were devout Christians actually weakens the Theocratic argument. If they were not very religious, of course they would want separation of church and state. But if you could show they were devout Christians and still wanted separation of church and state, it gives even greater emphasis of how important they considered this fundamental Constitutional principle to be.

by Dave on Wed Oct 24, 2007 at 11:17:22 PM EST

Dave, I agree with you. I think that many play unwittingly accept the claim that if devout the founders would not support separation ... Even though Jesus' life can be viewed as consistent with the concept.

by bpabbott on Thu Oct 25, 2007 at 09:00:29 AM EST

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