April 13, 2009
Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Born in 1743, Jefferson was described at age 32 as a young man who could “could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.”
Jefferson referred to his election as President as “the revolution of 1800.” It was even more hazardous than the famous “hanging chads” of the Florida recount in 2000. His two terms as President were followed by two terms for his closest friend and political lieutenant, James Madison. These two terms were followed by two terms-almost uncontested-for Jefferson’s second closest political ally, James Monroe. By the time John Quincy Adams was elected President in 1824, this son of an old political rival also counted himself a Jeffersonian.
As President, Jefferson doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase. He ordered Lewis & Clark on a Expedition of Discovery that was the nineteenth century’s version of the Apollo Moon program. It would be hard to accept the view of one leading Evangelical scholar that Jefferson left office “in disgrace.”
This American renaissance man was incredibly gifted. His birthday ought to be a national holiday for defenders of religious liberty. Jefferson famously vowed “upon the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” His Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) set a world standard for religious liberty and is one of the three achievements Jefferson asked to have inscribed on his tombstone.
Jefferson was a famous man of science. He served, after Benjamin Franklin, as the President of the American Philosophical Society, the new republic’s leading scientific organization. In his mind, religious liberty and science did not clash. Nor should they.
But they do clash in Pennsylvania. There, two and a half years ago, a federal judge banned the teaching of Intelligent Design in the Dover public schools. Claiming that ID is a thinly veiled attempt to introduce impermissible creationism into public school classrooms, the judge predictably cited Jefferson’s “wall of separation” in his opinion. Even in the U.S. Supreme Court had not hopelessly confused the meaning of that famous phrase from President Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptists, it is certainly odd to cite Jefferson in clamping down on freedom of inquiry.
If Judge John Jones knew his man, he might have considered the strange fact that Jefferson was himself an advocate of Intelligent Design. He actually used the phrase “intelligence in the design” in rejecting the atheism of his French philosopher friends. In a long letter to his reconciled political foe, former President John Adams, Jefferson was at pains to describe what he had learned, not from Holy Scripture, but from his scientific studies about the origins of the universe. (Let’s preserve Jefferson’s eighteenth century spellings and punctuation. It’s still less fraught with error than that judge’s ascerbic opinion.)
On the contrary I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in it’s parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to percieve and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it’s composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with it’s distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms. We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in it’s course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos. So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.
Design, cause and effect, superintending power, restoring power, a fabricator of all things-not the kind of fabrication we see in the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence-but a Maker, oops, a maker. How many ways could he have said it? This ain’t all an accident, folks.
So, today, in the service of the Supreme Court’s rendering of the First Amendment, we have a chapter-and-verse denial of the worldview that Thomas Jefferson and his dear friend James Madison thought was fundamental. Well, you have to watch out for those fundamentalists, you know.
Judge Jones said that Intelligent Design was just a subterfuge to sneak creationism into the classroom. The horror!
Perhaps Judge Jones should read Daniel Boorstin’s Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. There, he would learn that Mr. Jefferson-and all the most advanced scientific minds of the early republic-believed fervently in a Creator. Perhaps that’s why they thought we also had unalienable rights-endowed by our Creator.
“The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” Jefferson wrote in his famous 1774 pamphlet “A Summary View of the Rights of British North America.” That pamphlet was his audition for the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Delegate John Adams was so taken with Jefferson’s ideas-and with his “peculiar felicity of expression”-that he drafted the draftsman to pen America’s founding document.
One wonders whether in Pennsylvania’s public school history classes it would be permissible to teach that the founders of this republic-without exception-believed in a Creator God. Or that the Declaration and Constitution are suffused with their enlightened understandings.
Pennsylvania has other constitutional oddities. In their Supreme Court chambers in Harrisburg, you can see Moses carving the Ten Commandments. The famous Violet Oakley mural lists each item of the Decalogue and even refers to these Judeo-Christian tenets as “Revealed Law” (capital R, capital L).
Until they were caught in the act, Pennsylvania Supreme Court officers had intentionally blurred the Oakley text in pamphlets they printed for visitors. How strange that Alabama’s elected Chief Justice Roy Moore was forced off the bench for bringing into his courtroom a marble monument of the Ten Commandments. Yet, Pennsylvania’s seven justices have sat placidly for a century under a full-color representation of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments-replete with fire and lightning!
Jefferson knew what he meant when he pledged eternal hostility to all forms of tyranny over the mind of man.
I had the honor for several years of taking groups of students to Mr. Jefferson’s amazing home at Monticello. There, I would note what columnist George Will’s famous quote about Jefferson: “He lived as a free man ought to live.” No, I would emphasize. Honest John Adams lived as a free man ought to live. He never freed his slaves because he never had any.
Even so, Jefferson should be honored by all. As President Kennedy memorably said in 1962 when he hosted a dinner for forty-nine American Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary [collection of] talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”