SAN JOSE, Calif., April 13, 2015 — Although many Americans would not remember the date of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday (today), and many might be clueless about what he accomplished during his two terms as president, most citizens who have studied the history of the United States will know Thomas Jefferson wrote the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence. The exception to such conjecture may be those high school students who studied the newly developed APUSH material. Mr. Jefferson’s words formulated a framework and a premise for all people to declare their alliance with freedom and aversion to tyranny.
The words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence still represent quite powerful ideals and controversial concepts even today. It is quite heartening that several of the more reflective Americans, as well as conscientious citizens of the world, remember specific words of wisdom he embedded in the Declaration. Much more than an outline of reasons for separation from Great Britain, Jefferson’s words formed a premise for all people to declare their affirmation in the belief that all men are created equal and the belief that all were endowed by the Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson’s intent, however, was not simply to generate a philosophical treatise; the Declaration was undeniably a call to action. While the ideals of democracy had been initiated by ancient Greek philosophers and ancient Roman writers who denounced the decadence of the Roman Empire, the fundamental ideals initially inscribed by Jefferson were substantially woven into the fabric of the Declaration of Independence and were designed to provoke action. Beyond a stimulation of genuine belief in the ideals, Jefferson also intended the Declaration of Independence a call to people of conscience not to simply accept or believe in such ideas, but to fight for them.
The irony in this is that it is likely that a majority of Americans are not aware of Jefferson’s complete original text because he offered his work to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to be edited, and then to the other two members of the committee of five; and, before the members of the Continental Congress signed their names on the Declaration of Independence, they made change after change. Few realize that the original document was amended 88 times. Only after the language was deemed satisfactory and expressed the essence of what the delegates could agree upon, did they vote their acceptance on July 4, 1776.
Jefferson sat in the chamber where his colleagues argued and debated and shredded his fundamental phrases. Even the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident…” was the outcome of Franklin’s intervention. Jefferson had originally penned, “We hold these truths to be sacred and divine…” Also, the parts that would have likely committed the infant nation to the abolition of slavery, which John Adams considered to be the best parts, were deleted in order to appease the Southern landowners. It was they who also later altered “all men are created equal” to the politically correct, slave owner-acceptable version: “All freemen are created equal.”
Thomas Jefferson one year later submitted the proposed bill for religious freedom in Virginia. His intent was to break the tyrannical hold the Church of England had over the religious convictions of his fellow Virginians. For this action, as well as others, Jefferson’s enemies labelled him an atheist. However, his concern was with organized religion and, more important, a state-controlled religious authority over the people. In essence, the Declaration of Independence was a political proclamation to separate from the British crown, while the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the equivalent proclamation for separation from the Church.
The concepts outlined in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom for all practical purposes formed the core of the First Amendment to the new Constitution, as the Bill of Rights became formulated by James Madison. Jefferson, who was serving as minister to France in 1787, had been regularly corresponding with Madison during and after the Constitutional Convention. He had expressed his serious disagreement with the absence of a bill of rights. In a letter to Madison dated Dec. 20, 1787, Jefferson stated, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.”
Jefferson advocated that a bill of rights should include “freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact.” In the end, Madison went back to work to draft such a document to ensure the survival of individual freedoms in a world filled with tyranny. Today in the United States of America the very issues Jefferson and Madison feared are being revived within the social and political realms. Those Americans who are paying attention, those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, are aware of how fragile freedom is.
Fundamentally, Jefferson was at the eye of the storm in the battle for independence, not only for freedom from the British monarchy and all its political entourage, but also from the Church of England. For this he was branded an atheist by those he referred to as the “New England divines,” who coincidentally included many Federalists. Jefferson simply believed that one’s faith was between a person and God: “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself.” He believed that people should enjoy freedom of thought and freedom of conscience to worship God in their own way – without force. This is why he is so misunderstood regarding his relationship with God. This is what he willingly fought for in his time, despite personal cost.
Today Jefferson is looked upon for the most part as an atheist or a Deist, depending upon what one may read about him. And although much has been written about him, there is a tendency to focus on an alleged affair with Sally Hemings, one of his house servants. The juicy gossip, typically, takes precedence over the ideals he espoused and fought to establish for the future generations of Americans. However, it is never simple to easily sum up a man as complex as this man from Virginia. In fact, as is possible for any man, Jefferson moved through life and grew and developed as he aged. Some ideals he gave up, some he grasped more tightly as he neared his time to pass from the earth.
Thomas Jefferson was indeed complex, but despite his evolution of faith, one of the greatest points of consistency was his sincere adherence to the ideals of religious freedom. It is evident that over time his relationship with Jesus and God matured, and it shaped more of his thought after he left the political arena. He corresponded more with friends on matters of faith. An amazing book, The Faiths of our Fathers, by Alf Mapp Jr., published in 2003, sheds light on the faith of several of the Founding Fathers. It is worth reading for those people of faith who are struggling with the political reality today.
Mapp reveals quite a bit about the Thomas Jefferson Americans should come to know for a more thorough understanding of this man who helped to change the course of human history. One particular quotation from Jefferson stands out in the chapter devoted to him. Apparently,just over a year before he died, in a letter he wrote to his namesake, Thomas Jefferson Smith, a letter to be read when the boy was old enough to comprehend it, he advised: “Adore God… Love your neighbors as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence.”
Americans definitely need to rediscover Thomas Jefferson. He lived in the eye of the storm, and yet he shared incredible values and ideals for the sake of the future. The ideals he shared were not just his own, and not just from men. They were good enough then; will they be good enough for now? will they be there for America’s future generations?