The two Jeffersons

Both failed as doers and as men

Issue: "Bible translation blues," Nov. 21, 1998

On Nov. 2, the day before the election, ABC, CBS, and NBC all featured stories and interview segments linking Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton, both connected by DNA evidence to unmarried sexual relations with women under their authority, intern and slave. (Some interns say, what's the difference?)

On the NBC Nightly News that day, Reporter Bob Faw explained that DNA testing shows Jefferson fathering at least one son by slave Sally Hemings, and then noted that "if Bill Clinton's favorite president could end up on Mount Rushmore and the $2 dollar bill despite being sexually active with a subordinate, it might put Mr. Clinton's conduct with a certain intern in a different light." When CNBC ran the same story later that night, Clinton flack Geraldo Rivera was moved to religious fervor: "Amen," he cried.

Liberal academicians also responded predictably. Professor Joseph Ellis, who had signed a resolution against Mr. Clinton's impeachment, proclaimed on NBC that the finding "gives Clinton additional cover and makes it more difficult to be as critical of this kind of behavior." Mr. Ellis made the rounds. On CBS This Morning he said flatly that the story will "help Bill Clinton in his impeachment hearings."

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Yes, it will, if we subscribe to the notion that Thomas Jefferson belongs in the pantheon of American presidents. But accurate historians should point out a hard-to-swallow truth: Mr. Jefferson was a great writer who penned an outstanding Declaration of Independence, but he hated Christianity, fathered at least one and probably several children out of wedlock, and had a second term so bad that it nearly broke up the United States.

Thomas Jefferson's anti-Christianity emerged during his teenage years. Born in 1743, young Thomas went through a hard time after he was 12 and his kindly father died: He was sent to live with and study under an arrogant, mean clergyman, James Maury. Hell had no fury like a Jefferson become fatherless and thrust into a then-corrupt Anglican church at a crucial time in his intellectual development. Thomas, identifying Christianity with the church at its worst, in the person of Maury, soon substituted enlightenment theory for the Bible.

Jefferson's private letters concerning Christianity became more and more tart as he grew older. He called the Gospel writers "groveling authors" who displayed "vulgar ignorance" and transmitted "superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications." He called the apostles a "band of dupes and impostors" and cited belief in the Trinity as proof that "man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous." Among Christians, Jefferson eventually complained, "gullibility which they call faith takes the helm from the hands of reason and the mind becomes a wreck."

But during his active career he kept such developing views quiet, and instead became famous for elegant declarations such as the great one of 1776, with resonating expressions like "endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights," and "the laws of nature and of nature's God." (In the exuberance of the revolutionary moment no one stopped to ask who Thomas Jefferson thought the Creator was, or to ask whether the expression "nature's God" almost made it seem that nature had created God and now owned him.) His literary fame, along with talent as a political strategist, propelled him into the presidency.

That strategic understanding led President Jefferson to soften up his Christian opponents through several small but symbolic public-policy actions. He authored a plan of education for District of Columbia schools and included as reading texts parts of the Bible that he did not consider dangerous. He signed treaties with Indian tribes that included the provision of federal money to build churches and support clergymen. He even showed up at services held almost every Sunday in the Hall of the House of Representatives.

One antagonistic minister and member of Congress, Manasseh Cutler, thought that Thomas Jefferson was giving up "the idea of bearing down and overturning our religious institutions." But letters the president wrote to friends and supporters show that he was purposefully disarming his opponents, based on his strategic sense that if he and other free thinkers did not "shock or revolt our well-meaning citizens who are coming over to us in a steady stream, we shall completely consolidate the nation in a short time...."

And he might have, except for a second term so disastrous that for many years the Jefferson name produced widespread groans. (Only after memories of Jefferson mismanagement-more about that another time-faded, while words on parchment retained their eloquence, did the failed president begin his march to Mount Rushmore.) But on the day before the election, when some asserted that Bill Clinton could be on the same level with Thomas Jefferson, they were not altogether wrong. One is a talker, the other was a writer, but-sad to say-both failed as doers, and as men.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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