America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Thomas Jefferson: Americans “Enlightened by a Benign Religion”
by Robert Morrison
January 15, 2009
March 4, 1801
Thomas Jefferson would wear no ceremonial swords to his simple swearing-in ceremony. He would ride in no stately coach-and-six, as President George Washington had enjoyed. “Mr. Jefferson,” as the simple Virginia republican preferred to be called, took breakfast at his Washington boarding house with all the other diners on Inauguration Morning, 1801. Then, he walked to the still unfinished Capitol, where he took the oath of office. He was the first President to take office in the new national capital. He was the first sworn in since the death of George Washington in 1799. Jefferson spoke in a barely audible voice (he was never the orator John Adams or Patrick Henry had been). Still, his listeners appreciated the way we soothed the ruffled feathers of a hard-fought election campaign. “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” Jefferson had been elected only after weeks of balloting in the House of Representatives when the Electoral College failed to designate a clear winner. He spoke of religious liberty as one of the great achievements of the young republic. He and his close friend James Madison had blazed that trail with their work on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom fifteen years earlier, in 1786. Now, Jefferson described God as “an overruling Providence [who] delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…” He closed his inaugural address with a question: “[W]ith all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens-a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” These wise words can certainly be treasured by us two hundred years later, when national administrations of both parties are planning to add trillions to the national debt that will weigh down our children and our children’s children. Another point jumps out from Jefferson’s first inaugural address: It’s pretty hard to square his words about God’s “overruling Providence,” His delight in our happiness here and hereafter, with the scurrilous charges thrown at Jefferson during the 1800 campaign. It’s hard to see this man as an “atheist” of any kind.