Clay Jenkinson

In this cartoon, Thomas Jefferson kneels before the altar of Gallic despotism as God and an American eagle attempt to prevent him from destroying the United States Constitution. He is depicted as about to fling a document labeled “Constitution & Independence U.S.A.” into the fire fed by the flames of radical writings. Jefferson’s alleged attack on George Washington and John Adams in the form of a letter to Philip Mazzei falls from Jefferson’s pocket. Jefferson is supported by Satan, the writings of Thomas Paine, and the French philosophers.

The closest analogy to the Trump declaration that his opponent would “hurt God” came in the infamous election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged his old friend John Adams for the presidency. Jefferson kept his religious views mostly to himself, but he was (very privately) a unitarian, a Deist, an anti-Trinitarian, and a skeptic who had serious doubts about the divinity of Jesus. His only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, had provided some hint of his expansive and freethinking views, particularly with the words, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” This was thought by his detractors to reveal a dangerous glibness and even irreverence in Jefferson. No sentence that he ever wrote came back to haunt him as often as this one. Historian Edwin S. Gaustad said that the raucous election of 1800 represented “perhaps religion’s greatest visibility in a presidential race until the 1928 effort of Alfred E. Smith.”

The Federalists attacked Jefferson as a utopian, a radical who had spent too much time in French salons, a coward (during his governorship in Virginia), a slaveholder (and therefore a hypocrite), and an enemy to the central government, but they reserved their deepest savagery for what they believed were Jefferson’s religious views.

Then-Yale President Timothy Dwight worried that if Jefferson were elected, “our churches may become temples of reason.” Another Federalist propagandist declared, “If Jefferson is elected, those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin—which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence”—would be officially abandoned. A Federalist editorialist warned: “Look at your houses, your parents, your wives and your children. Are you prepared to see your dwelling in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on a pike and the halberd?” He was, in short, predicting an American version of the French Reign of Terror if Jefferson won in 1800. Jefferson learned that in some New England pulpits, pastors were advising older women to bury their Bibles in the garden or hide them in wells out of fear that the Jefferson administration would attempt to confiscate the Christian sacred text.

As the election neared, the Gazette of the United States asked repeatedly,

Shall I continue in allegiance to


or impiously declare for

Jefferson—and no god!!!

The Connecticut Currant asked, “whether Mr. Jefferson believes in the heathen mythology or, in the alcoran [Koran]; whether he is a Jew or a Christian; whether he believes in one God, or in many; or in none at all.” Here you see an echo of the controversial passage in Notes on Virginia.

Jefferson remained steadfastly silent in the face of all of this criticism. He never publicly divulged his religious views, no matter what the provocation. He trusted the American people to give the issues of the 1800 election their proper weight. He knew that people are more interested in public policy than in the religious sensibilities of the person who happened to be president. Just what the average American thought about all of this, if she or he was aware of what was for most a faraway debate, is unclear. The people of the United States in 1800 were almost infinitely less “connected” by media and social media than we are today. Probably most people reckoned that John Adams, the candidate from Calvinist New England, was likely to be more devout than the candidate from cavalier Virginia, where Jefferson’s famous Statute for Religious Freedom had been adopted in 1786, but the campaign turned on other issues and Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States in the fall of 1800.

If the American people had known the whole truth about Jefferson’s religious views — that he called the “idea of the trinity . . . the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus,” that he was steadily, at times severely anti-clerical, that he believed that Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived but probably not the son of God — they might not have elected him twice to the presidency. It is even doubtful that an individual espousing those views could be elected today.

Jenkinson, Clay. “Playing the Religious Card: A Long American History.” Governing. August 13, 2020.