On the Loss of an Historical Revisionist
Part of Dr. Kennedy's "The Real Thomas Jefferson" sermon included the following list, which also appears in What If America Were A Christian Nation Again?
...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:
Kennedy's first mistake was to call these claims from Beliles's list "Jefferson's actions as president." This isn't what Beliles called them. He called them things that "Jefferson supported government being involved in." This doesn't make Beliles's original list any more truthful. It just shows that Beliles, unlike Kennedy, understood that half of the things he was lying about would have occurred either long before or long after Jefferson's presidency -- if they were true, that is.
Kennedy provided no sources for his version of this list, but Beliles sort of did, although making many of them as difficult as possible to check -- omitting little details like the page numbers of the books he was citing, providing only vague sources like the "Acts of the Tenth Congress," but no specific act or date, etc. But, since Beliles's lies are just variations of the standard fare found in many other revisionist history books, it's not too difficult, as sketchy as his footnotes are, to figure out what he was referring to.
The following is the first part of an item by item debunking of the Beliles/Kennedy "Real Thomas Jefferson" list.
Beliles provided two sources for this. In the first, he actually did list a volume and page number from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. The letter on this page, however, which is apparently supposed to support the part of the claim about Jefferson promoting legislative chaplains, doesn't. It is nothing more than a letter written in 1768, by a twenty-five year old Jefferson, to Colonel William Preston, putting in a good word for a family friend, Rev. James Fontaine, who was competing for the position of chaplain to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Obviously, Jefferson's promoting of one candidate over another for an existing legislative chaplain's position is far from evidence that he promoted legislative chaplains. Incidentally, Rev. Fontaine didn't get the job, in spite of Jefferson's opinion that "These small preferments should be reserved to reward and encourage genius, and not be strewed with an indiscriminating hand among the common herd of competitors."(1)
Beliles's second source is vague, indicating only that the evidence that Jefferson promoted military chaplains can be found somewhere among the "Acts of the Tenth Congress." Not finding any direct mention of chaplains in the Tenth Congress's military appropriations bills, which is the usual "evidence" that a president, by signing such a bill into law, endorsed government financial support of religion, I looked at all the other bills regarding the military, and finally found what Beliles must have been referring to. Facing a very real possibility of war in the near future, and recognizing the limitations of the state militias and of the federal government over the state militias, Jefferson saw the need to increase the size of the army, but knew that Congress would never authorize a large standing army in peace time. To make a long story short, Congress, in April 1808, ended up passing An Act to raise for a limited time an additional military force, which essentially created an Army reserve, to exist for no longer than five years.(2) This act, which spelled out in detail the organization of the eight regiments that would comprise this force, included a chaplain for each brigade. Jefferson signed this act, which, of course, in the religious right version of American history, means he "promoted" military chaplains.
The source for this claim is Jefferson's proposal while on a committee with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to design a seal for the United States in 1776, a story that does have some truth to it. Part of Jefferson's proposal did include "The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night." However, the story is turned it into a half-truth by most religious right American history revisionists by including only this part of Jefferson's proposal, and omitting the proposal of John Adams entirely.
The same two things are usually left out of this story. The first is that, while Jefferson did propose the children of Israel for the front of the seal, he also proposed Hengist and Horsa for the back. Hengist and Horsa, according to Anglo-Saxon legend, were Germanic heathens hired as mercenaries to protect Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. These two brothers tricked and defeated the King who had hired them, stopping the spread of Christianity and keeping most of Britain pagan for the next few hundred years. Regardless of whether or not Hengist and Horsa were actual historical figures, it was during this period of time, as Jefferson pointed out on numerous occasions, that the common law was introduced in Britain, making it impossible for the common law to have been based on the Bible. The second omission is that John Adams, by far the most religious of the three committee members, did not propose a Bible story, but proposed Hercules surrounded by a few pagan goddesses.
The following is from a letter from John to Abigail Adams describing these proposals, none of which, by the way, were ever "established" as the seal.
I am put upon a committee to prepare a Device for a Golden Medal to commemorate the Surrender of Boston to the American Arms, and upon another to prepare Devices for a Great Seal for the confederated States. There is a Gentleman here of French Extraction, whose Name is Du simitiere, a Painter by Profession whose Designs are very ingenious, and his Drawings well executed. He has been applied to for his Advice. I waited on him yesterday, and saw his Sketches. For the Medal he proposes Liberty with her Spear and Pileus, leaning on General Washington. The British Fleet in Boston Harbour, with all their Sterns towards the Town, the American Troops, marching in. For the Seal he proposes. The Arms of the several Nations from whence America has been peopled, as English, Scotch, Irish, Dutch, German &c. each in a Shield. On one side of them Liberty, with her Pileus, on the other a Rifler, in his Uniform, with his Rifled Gun in one Hand, and his Tomahauk, in the other. This Dress and these Troops with this Kind of Armour, being peculiar to America&emdash;unless the Dress was known to the Romans. Dr. F[ranklin] shewed me, yesterday, a Book, containing an Account of the Dresses of all the Roman Soldiers, one of which, appeared exactly like it....
It should be noted that mark Beliles actually does mention Jefferson's proposal of Hengist and Horsa in his popular homeschooling history book, America's Providential History, in his section on Common Law, drawing the following conclusion from a combination of an out of context Jefferson quote about the superiority of Anglo-Saxon land laws prior to the eighth century, and the reference to Jefferson's Hengist and Horsa proposal in the above Adams letter.
This is the excuse Beliles made for the Adams quote:
But on the other side Jefferson proposed images of "Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs...whose political principles and form of government We have assumed." This is true because of the Saxon's contact with the Celtic Christians (British natives), but the Saxon culture in Germany from which they originated provided no constitutionalism whatsoever. In the 800's the clergy began to serve as judges in England and build common law on the Bible.
This is one of the list items that D. James Kennedy decided to change a bit from Mark Beliles's version. Beliles's claim was that Jefferson "established religious mottos on coins, etc.," not that he included the word God in our national motto. Of course, Beliles's claim isn't true either. It's just not quite as obviously ridiculous as Kennedy's upgraded version.
Beliles provided two sources for his claim. The first is the same source, from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, that he provided for the claim about the national seal, apparently meaning that Jefferson's recording of Franklin's motto, "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God," officially "established" this motto in some way. It didn't. Although Jefferson would later use this motto on a personal seal, the motto chosen by the Continental Congress for the United States was, of course, E Pluribus Unum, which remained our national motto until 1956, when it was changed to In God We Trust.
Beliles's second source turns out to be a circular letter sent by the Continental Congress to the governors of the states in November 1780.(4) This letter contains absolutely nothing whatsoever about either coins or mottos. It was a letter informing the governors that the Continental Congress had stopped issuing currency and would need additional aid from the states to supply the Army. The copy of this letter sent to Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, was accompanied by a requisition for food.
The next three items on Kennedy's list are based on bills drafted by Jefferson as a member of the committee appointed to revise the laws of Virginia in 1777. In addition to his famous Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Jefferson's portion of this work also included several other bills related to religion. Obviously, Kennedy's claim that these Revolutionary War era bills were "Jefferson's actions as president" once again shows that he was completely clueless about the actual history behind the lies he was attempting to copy.
Beliles provides two sources for this one. The first is one was bill number 85 of the revisal, A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving.
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that the power of appointing days of public fasting and humiliation, or thanksgiving, throughout this commonwealth, may in the recess of the General Assembly, be exercised by the Governor, or Chief Magistrate, with the advice of the Council; and such appointment shall be notified to the public, by a proclamation, in which the occasion of the fasting or thanksgiving shall be particularly set forth. Every minister of the gospel shall on each day so appointed, attend and perform divine service and preach a sermon, or discourse, suited to the occasion, in his church, on pain of forfeiting fifty pounds for every failure, not having a reasonable excuse.(5)
This bill was never passed, possibly because by the time the revisal was reintroduced by James Madison in 1785, any authority to compel ministers to comply with such orders was soon to become a thing of the past. This was not the case, however, when Jefferson originally drafted the bill.
Virginia's Assembly had always had the authority to appoint days of fasting and thanksgiving, so this wasn't something new that Jefferson was trying to establish with this bill. One of the main purposes of the revisal of the laws was to remove all references to the former royal government and bring the laws in line with the new republican form of government. Like many of the revised bills, the first part of this one merely clarifies who would have the authority to appoint days of fasting and how it would be done.
It's the second part of the bill that's interesting. Why would Jefferson have condoned something as anti-Jefferson as the government compelling ministers not only to preach on an appointed day, but dictating what they preached about? Well, this may have had something to do with a little problem he encountered a few years earlier.
When the Intolerable Acts were passed in 1774, the Virginia Assembly needed to make the people of Virginia understand that the actions of the British against the distant colony of Massachusetts affected all the colonies, not just Massachusetts. A committee, which included Jefferson, decided that proclaiming a fast day would be the best way to make people pay attention. While proclamations of fast days and thanksgiving days were common in New England, they were a rare occurrence in the south. The last time such a day had been proclaimed in Virginia had been twenty years earlier, when the Assembly needed to get out the word that the fighting of the French and Indian War had begun, although war had not yet officially been declared. Jefferson and his committee knew that if the Assembly called a fast day, something it hadn't done in decades, the people would take the situation seriously. Jefferson and the other committee members had no idea how to write a proclamation for a fast day, so they "cooked up" one, as he put it in his autobiography, by copying from an old book of New England proclamations and updating the language. The problem was that many loyalist Anglican ministers didn't heed the Assembly's request to preach a sermon "suited to the occasion." Some refused to comply at all, and some even had their congregations pray for the British. The second part of Jefferson's bill number 85, written while the Revolutionary War was still being fought, would certainly have been a deterrent to any remaining loyalist ministers in the event that the Assembly needed to appoint another fast day to get some important news out.
Belile's second source for this claim is completely irrelevant. He cites a page from the now obscure Henry A. Washington edition of Jefferson's writings, published in the mid-1800s. What appears on this page is Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists.
The source of this one is bill number 84, A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers.
Virginia, of course, already had Sabbath laws, so like the previous example, this was not something that Jefferson came up with. He was merely making the laws conform to the new state of things. Jefferson's bill, however, was much shorter and quite different from the previous laws. The new bill, which was enacted in 1786, protected ministers and congregations of all religions from being disturbed by the civil authorities or any other person during their worship services. It did prohibit work on Sundays, but, unlike the old laws did not contain a lengthy list of other prohibited sinful activities. But, the most important difference was that it did not compel anyone to attend church by law.
The title of the bill this one is based on makes it, for obvious reasons, a favorite of the religious right history revisionists -- bill number 86 is A Bill Annulling Marriages Prohibited by the Levitical Law, and Appointing the Mode of Solemnizing Lawful Marriage.
Jefferson included Levitical law in a bill? Sure. It was a quick way to say you can't marry your relatives! This had always been in Virginia's marriage statutes.
This was the 1730 version, from An Act for enforcing the Act, intituled, An Act for the effectual suppression of Vice; and restraint and punishment of blasphemous, wicked and dissolute Persons: And for preventing incestuous marriages and copulations:
V. Be it also enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if any person whatsoever shall hereafter marry within the levitical degrees prohibited by the laws of England; that is to say, if the son shall marry his mother or step-mother, the brother his sister, the father his son's daughter, or his daughter's daughter; or if the son shall marry the daughter of his father, begotten and born of his step-mother, or the son shall marry his aunt, being his father's or mother's sister, or marry his uncle's wife, or the father shall marry his son's wife, or the brother shall marry his brother's wife, or any man shall marry his wife's daughter, or his wife's son's daughter, or his wife's daughter's daughter, or his wife's sister, ever person or persons so unlawfully married, shall be separated by the difinitive sentence or judgment of the general court; and the children proceeding or procreate under such unlawful marriage, shall be accounted illegitimate...(6)
Jefferson shortened this to:
...marriages prohibited by the Levitical law shall be null; and persons marrying contrary to that prohibition, and cohabitating as man and wife, convicted thereof in the General Court, shall be amerced, from time to time, until they separate.(7)
The thing that Jefferson's bill actually did change, however, is completely ignored in the religious right history books. Jefferson's bill secularized marriage as far as the law was concerned. No longer would marriages have to be solemnized by a minister. A civil marriage license and a declaration by the couple before witnesses that they consented to be married was as good as a church wedding.
From Jefferson's bill:
Persons who having obtained such license, as before directed, shall, in presence of witnesses, declare or yield their consent to be married together, shall, without further ceremony, be deemed man and wife, as effectually as if the contract had been solemnized, and the espousals celebrated, in the manner prescribed by the ritual of any church, or according to the custom of any religious society, whereof they are members.(8)
This claim is based on nothing more than an exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison during the summer of 1824 regarding the selection of books on religion for the University of Virginia library.
Although no religion would be taught at the university, Jefferson obviously wouldn't have considered an academic library complete without a section on religion. But, while he didn't think anyone was as qualified as himself to compile a catalog for the library, Jefferson made an exception when it came to the religion section. He seemed to think that Madison, who had at least had some theological education at Princeton fifty years earlier, would be better qualified for this task.
On August 8, 1824, Jefferson wrote the following to Madison.
I have undertaken to make out a catalogue of books for our library, being encouraged to it by the possession of a collection of excellent catalogues, and knowing no one, capable, to whom we could refer the task. It has been laborious far beyond my expectation, having already devoted 4. hours a day to it for upwards of two months, and the whole day for some time past and not yet in sight of the end. It will enable us to judge what the object will cost. The chapter in which I am most at a loss is that of divinity; and knowing that in your early days you bestowed attention on this subject, I wish you could suggest to me any works really worthy of a place in the catalogue. The good moral writers, Christian as well as Pagan I have set down; but there are writers of celebrity in religious metaphysics, such as Duns Scotus etc. alii tales [and others of such kind] whom you can suggest.(9)
Jefferson apparently overestimated Madison's knowledge of the subject, as Madison noted in his reply.
I will endeavor to make out a list of Theological Works, but am less qualified for the task than you seem to think...(10)
After receiving a letter from Jefferson a few weeks later asking him to hurry up and finish the list, Madison realized that Jefferson hadn't meant for him to compile anything as extensive as what he was working on.
On the rect of yours of Aug. 8, I turned my thoughts to its request on the subject of a Theological Catalogue for the Library of the University; and not being aware that so early an answer was wished, as I now find was the case, I had proceeded very leisurely in noting such Authors as seemed proper for the collection. Supposing also, that altho Theology was not to be taught in the University, its Library ought to contain pretty full information for such as might voluntarily seek it in that branch of Learning, I had contemplated as much of a comprehensive and systematic selection as my scanty materials admitted; and had gone thro the first five Centuries of Xnity when yours of the 3d instant came to hand which was the evening before last. This conveyed to me more distinctly the limited object your letter had in view, and relieved me from a task which I found extremely tedious; especially considering the intermixture of the doctrinal and controversial part of Divinity with the moral and metaphysical part, and the immense extent of the whole.(11)
Madison's list included the Koran, works by the leading Unitarian writers, and books by all the authors that John Adams claimed in an 1812 letter to Benjamin Rush had influenced the young Jefferson and Madison to abolish the religious establishment in Virginia.(12)
Mark Beliles, in his original version of this claim -- that Jefferson supported government being involved in "purchasing and stocking religious books for public libraries" -- and Kennedy, whose version of this had Jefferson funding religious books for public libraries while he was president, both pluralized libraries, implying that Jefferson made some sort of effort to get religious books into many public libraries. Jefferson did nothing of the sort. In fact, while he did think books on religion had a place in a university library, he listed them among the least necessary when establishing a library for the general public. In 1823, when the town of Charlottesville was planning a library, Jefferson recommended that they limit their purchases to "books of general instruction," and exclude professional books, theological books, and novels.(13) Jefferson didn't think novels were worthy of a place in any kind of library.
To be continued...
1. Thomas Jefferson to Colonel William Preston, August 18, 1768, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, (New York and London, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904), 23.
On the Loss of an Historical Revisionist | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)
On the Loss of an Historical Revisionist | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)