Jefferson’s Priorities

Today is the 214th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration as President of the United States. Jefferson’s intelligence, wide-ranging mind and superb writing skills remain untouched among all his successors. President Kennedy, hosting a dinner of United States Nobel Prize winners in 1962, famously said, “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.”

Jefferson's Tombstone

Jefferson’s Tombstone

Jefferson lived to age 83. One of the perquisites of living long and well is that you get to choose the words for your tombstone. Out of a truly monumental life, here’s what he chose:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.

No mention of being Vice President of the United States; no mention of two terms as President; no mention of the Louisiana Purchase, trebling the size of the country. The three items Jefferson thought were most important were the Declaration of Independence, helping create the University of Virginia and . . . wait, what’s the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom?

Here’s the final paragraph:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

When we were colonies, there was a state religion, the Anglican Church. You could be punished for not being a member; you could be denied civil rights for having another belief, or no belief. Jefferson abolished that. Jefferson authored the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. James Madison persuaded the Virginia House of Delegates to adopt the Statute, and then Jefferson and Madison put the sentiment of the Statute into the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Jefferson was a Christian, but on his own terms, rejecting most church teachings. Near the end of his life, he wrote that the Statute contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

The Christianist and Teabagger claimed reverence for the Founding Fathers always seems to overlook both the Statute and Jefferson’s strongly held opinions. And yet Jefferson felt strongly enough about the Statute that he made it one of the three things he put on his tombstone. The United States is not a “Christian Nation,” whatever the Christianists and Teabaggers may claim. Nor is it a theocracy, however much they might wish to make it one. We abolished a theocracy as a part of creating our nation.

And Jefferson regarded that as so important, so critical that he chose to put it on his tombstone.