Features

Placating the religious right (1796-1800)

Politics

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 presidential campaign, and the rematch four years later was particularly intense. Yale president Timothy Dwight thought that Jeffersonians were "blockheads and knaves" intent on severing "the ties of marriage with all its felicities." Jeffersonians countered with a question aimed at Alexander Hamilton, who had lost his chance for the presidency when caught in adultery but was still politically active: "What shall we say of a faction that has at its head a confessed and professed adulterer?"

Jefferson ran on a small-government platform that resonated with American voters. He summarized well his campaign theme in one August 1800 letter: "The true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best, that the States are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations. Let the general government be reduced to foreign concerns only ... and our general government may be reduced to a very simple organization and a very inexpensive one-a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants."

Jefferson's opponents were suspicious. One sharp attack on Jefferson came in September 1800, in a pamphlet written by Rev. John Mason of New York and titled "The Voice of Warning to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States." Mason accepted no compromises in his ministry-during one sermon, when a blood vessel burst in his nose and blood spurted out, he continued preaching-and his pamphlet was equally tough. Jefferson, Mason wrote, denied the divinity of Christ and intended to grasp power as the French revolutionaries had. He predicted that Jefferson would use federal authority to hinder churches in large and small ways.

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President Jefferson , however, wooed 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. He signed treaties with the Kaskasia, Wyandotte, and Cherokee tribes that included the provision of federal money to build churches and support clergymen. He extended three times a congressional act from 1787 that designated federal lands "for the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren missionaries for use in civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity." He told Lewis and Clark that one of their goals was to learn about Indian religions so as to help "those who may endeavor to civilize & instruct them."

Jefferson even showed up at services held almost every Sunday in the Hall of the House of Representatives, with the chaplain or some visiting minister in charge. A typical 1801 entry in the diary of Manasseh Cutler, a minister and member of Congress, shows that Jefferson's attendance was noted and appreciated: "Attended worship at our Hall. Meeting very thin, but the President, his two daughters, and a grandson attended, although a rainy day."

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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