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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Thomas Jefferson: A third of his legacy

(Jefferson's Tombstone)
Most people who invent a host of ingenious devices would probably want to be best remembered for that.  Not Thomas Jefferson.  Although he improved polygraphs, bookstands, chairs, clocks, sundials, beds, dumbwaiters, doors, and even macaroni – the three things that he preferred to be remembered for were the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Religion is something that Jefferson particularly grappled with for much of his life. and report that Jefferson was born an Anglican, became an Episcopalian, was later influenced by English Deists such as Bolingbroke and
Shaftesbury, was further influenced by Unitarians such as Price,
identified with the moral aspects of Christ’s teachings, was an ardent champion of multi-faith religious rights, and eventually stated:  I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.

As stated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson
believed that religious freedom was one of the “natural rights of mankind,” and to limit it would be “an infringement of natural right.”  He expressed this time and time again, such as in his now-famous 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Conntecticut.  In that letter, Jefferson strongly asserted:  … I
contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

This pivotal association of the First Amendment with “separation of church and state” was in keeping with views that Jefferson had earlier expressed in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  This statute (first drafted in 1777, first introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779, and finally enacted into Virginia state law in 1786) was based upon these three Jeffersonian premises:  Almighty God hath created the mind free; our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; and all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion…

So dear to Jefferson’s heart were these beliefs that he made sure to highlight the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as a prominent third of his self-designed tombstone epitaph.      


Copyright April 10, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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