The author of the Declaration of Independence, which was signed 228 years ago this Sunday, came to see the inalienable rights it enshrines in a remarkably different way by the time he became president, according to a new article written by a Brigham Young University professor in "The Review of Politics."
The article is the first to analyze in-depth Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address as a singular example of his mature political thought. It also sheds new light on why the third president changed his views on Christianity and how this new appreciation of religion shaped his later thinking.
"Jefferson came to see that the protection of fundamental rights alone is not enough to sustain a republic," said Matthew Holland, assistant professor of political science at BYU and author of the article. "Over time he came to see that America's fledgling democracy must rest on a national character grounded in, among other things, a religious ideal of love."
Walter Nicgorski, a senior political theorist at the University of Notre Dame and chief editor of The Review of Politics, praised Holland's scholarship.
"The article is a distinctive contribution," Nicgorski said, "because of its full-length and careful treatment of Jefferson's First Inaugural – something not found, as far as I know, in the existing scholarly literature."
Jefferson, who Holland says was skeptical of virtually all religions throughout his early career (including the summer of 1776 when he wrote the Declaration), began to re-evaluate Christianity in the years leading up to his election as president in 1800. During that time he studied the New Testament intensely and discovered in the gospels a notion of Christian charity that inspired him greatly, though he remained skeptical about a number of other Christian doctrines he felt violated principles of natural reason.
Besides the personal inspiration he took from Christ's teachings of love, Jefferson felt such ideals could unify a community. Such a force became more appealing to him after the highly partisan national election of 1800, when the two major parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, were deadlocked in a bitter campaign. When he finally emerged with a narrow victory, Jefferson drew upon his new-found ethic of love as he fervently pled for reconciliation between the two parties in his First Inaugural Address:
"Let us," he said, "unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things."
This line, Holland says, slightly modifies Jefferson's inalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Independence. While the rights to life and liberty may be guaranteed, the pursuit of happiness isn't likely to be achieved in a country with citizens who don't have some degree of sincere concern for one another. Jefferson saw religion as best providing this communal bond of love, shown toward the end of the First Inaugural where Jefferson praised the fact that America is "enlightened by a benign religion . . . practiced in various forms yet all of them include honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter."
Holland says "Jefferson realized that political differences, if allowed to boil into deep hatred, can jeopardize the American republic perhaps as much as or more than the particular policies of any one party we may individually oppose." He also stresses the significance of Jefferson's efforts as president to unite the country through a concept of love inspired by religious teachings do not appear to be a problem for Jefferson's own ideal of a "wall of separation between church and state."
"Jefferson obviously felt," Holland said, "that there was some kind of appropriate, nonlegislative role for political leaders to play in shaping the values and ideals of a nation necessary to support a healthy and happy democracy—even if those values are of religious origin."
Writer: Brad Jensen