Nature’s God And The Founding Fathers

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Jefferson’s vital disposition toward freedom of thought was strengthened by his five years in France. Not only was he there a first-hand observer of the moral and material degradation resulting, as he saw it, from the combination of religious persecution and tyrannical government. In that cosmopolitan air he also made familiar contact with many of the most brilliant figures of the age. The political, philosophical, and religious ideas of the Enlightenment now reached him not just in books, but in absorbing conversations across his own dinner table. Voltaire had written that atheists, deplorable as they might be, would still make better neighbors than religious fanatics. Jefferson came to know some of the leading French atheists as friends and acquaintances, and he found them anything but monsters. “Diderot, D’Alcmbert, D’Holbach, Gondorcet,” he wrote to a friend years later, “are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”

This crucial question of the basis of human morality, bearing as it does on the relation between religion and government, intrigued Jefferson all his life. He early formed an opinion consistent with the natural religion of the Enlightenment, and from it he never swerved throughout the remainder of his eighty-three years. Its essence was natural morality. “Man was destined for society,” he wrote to his nephew in 1787. ”… He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality.… The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” And while Jefferson firmly believed that this moral sense was the gift of a divine Creator, he was equally certain that acknowledgment of its source was not necessary to its function. If young Peter Carr, having fully considered the evidence, were to become an atheist, still, Jefferson assured him, “you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”

Jefferson’s theory of natural morality was for him the cornerstone of the democratic faith which he did so much during his lifetime to make a living reality. The church doctrine of original sin was anathema to him. Human nature could be trusted: all normal men were endowed by their Creator not only with unalienable rights, but with unalienable instincts, including a natural moral sense. Except under bad social conditions—ignorance, poor education, poverty—the mass of men, he felt, would surely gravitate toward what was right on fundamental issues, if only they were allowed complete freedom of conscience. The principle of majority rule—a sacred principle to Jefferson—depended on the premise of a well-informed public, each member of which could choose among moral or political alternatives with absolute freedom from mental coercion.

This is the key to Jefferson’s lifelong insistence on complete separation of church and slate. While it was a matter of democratic principle with him to champion full freedom of voluntary association, so that any number of divergent sects could thrive without government interference, he had no sympathy for their dogmatic approach to questions of moral truth. An organized church, he thought, was unlikely to leave men’s minds completely free. Whatever the denomination, each claimed a special revelation of God’s will, imparted directly to its prophets or priests, or recorded in the Bible. (Franklin, whose views were much like Jefferson’s, said that religious sects reminded him of “a certain French lady who, in a dispute with her sister, said, ‘I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that’s always in the right!’ ”) Few were therefore willing to relinquish moral (and, by implication, political) choices to the untrammelled conscience of the individual citizen.

Jefferson had the good fortune to live long and to compose his own epitaph after much deliberation. It was a modest statement for a man who had been among the foremost in establishing the American nation. He wished his tombstone to cite him in three capacities only: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom; and Father of the University of Virginia.” The order was chronological, but in a most important sense the three accomplishments were one and indivisible. The Declaration of Independence envisaged a free society ruled by consent of the governed. But informed decision and consent could be based only on good public education; and good education, in turn, could be based only on complete freedom of the mind. In the history of the new republic the first fundamental challenge to freedom of the mind came in the area of religion.