Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Did Jefferson support public worship in federal buildings during his administration?

I'm not a fan of David Barton, for a variety of reasons.  To use a phrase from my grandmother, the kind of advocacy-oriented history that Barton (but not Barton alone!) engages in makes my feet itch.  That said, a question was raised in the comments to one of the posts below about a claim Barton made about the extent to which Jefferson supported public Christian worship in federal facilities.  Gordon Wood discusses this point about Jefferson in the latter part of Empire of Liberty and points out that Jefferson did in fact support such worship and even went so far as to specifically authorize church use in federal buildings controlled by the executive branch.  As Wood writes:
Jefferson very much wanted to win over to his Republican cause all those ordinary religious people who had voted for his opponent.  To do so he knew he had to offset the Federalist accusations that he was an enemy of Christianity.  Consequently, to the surprise of many Federalists, he had good things to say about religion in his first inaugural address.  He also knew very well that effect he as president would have when in January 1802 he attended a church service held in the chamber of the House of Representatives.  His attendance attracted wide public notice and astonished the Federalists.  Even though other churches were available, Jefferson continued to attend church services in the House chamber and made available executive buildings for church functions.  Sometimes the U.S. Marine Corps Band supplied music for religious services.  As president, however, Jefferson held to his vow never to call for any days of fasting and prayer as his two predecessors had done.  
Empire of Liberty, pgs. 586-87.  Now, as Wood points out, Jefferson did all this because he was trying to woo the mass of voters who were attached, with varying levels of devotion, to Christianity.  And there were limits to how far Jefferson was willing to pander -- he did not, as the end of the quote above indicates, call for national prayer and fasting on notable occasions.  However, Jefferson was quite willing to use federal facilities, and hence federal funds, to support public Christian worship. 

It was also around this time, according to Wood, that Jefferson began to work on his redaction of the Gospels, a work commonly known today as the Jefferson Bible.

As with most things involving Jefferson, he was not incapable of being duplicitous in order to get what he wanted.  Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, after all.

Related item:  don't forget Jefferson's letter to the Ursuline nuns upon taking over the Louisiana country.  He promises those nuns not just the protections of the Constitution, but the "patronage" of the U.S. government.  Here's a copy of the original letter, still treasured by the Ursuline religious community in New Orleans.  On an unrelated note, Jefferson had terrible handwriting...


Brian Tubbs said...

Nice post, Mark.

jimmiraybob said...

He promises those nuns not just the protections of the Constitution, but the "patronage" of the U.S. government.

Jefferson makes no “promise” of government patronage. Jefferson is assuring the nuns that by the virtue of their charitable and training activities (positive works), that they will ensure the support and encouragement (financial support is not specified) of their order “by the government they are under” regardless of the possible vicissitudes of religious opinions by their fellow citizens. They were a Catholic order and were concerned that they would no longer enjoy the protections of a Catholic State.

Jefferson is both asserting the right of religious autonomy with respect to the new government and support, to the extent possible, against religious discrimination at the hands of their fellow citizens. To the question of the Ursuline’s concern, “continued enjoyment of their revenues which will enable them to fulfill their obligations,” Jefferson makes no financial commitment of the U.S. government, and to the best of my knowledge, would not have had the authority to do so. The source of “the revenues” is not specified in the Ursuline’s letter and Jefferson asks for no clarification. At best he offers no interference of the status quo.

If there is evidence of a stronger commitment I will be eager to amend my understanding accordingly.

Phil Johnson said...

I have a photo taken of this morning's snow in the area where George Washington gathered troops some 234 years ago--Fort Washington Park, in New York City.

If you can publish it here, send me your email address and I'll forward it to you. It might help make history a little more personal.

bpabbott said...

I find the subject of religious services in the Capitol building interesting, but have never understood why it is occasionally a point of contention.

It has been my understanding (maybe more an inference) that services were held in the Capital building during the period when no local church was large enough to accommodate all wishing to attend service, and that the services eventually migrated to churches built later (the practice apparently ended soon after the Civil War, but I don't know the details).

I do no know why services were ended but would be surprised if such was due to a change in policy. For what ever reason the practice ended, that the Capitol building was used for religious services on Sunday, when it would otherwise be empty, was/is reasonable. I think to do otherwise would have been unreasonable.

My understanding of the motivation of this accommodation may be off, especially since it ignores the possibility of political pandering of Jefferson who would have desired improving his religious reputation after the smear campaign waged by Adams during the election.

Recently I came across a some perspective on the services which I'd not read before. Margaret Bayard Smith (who Barton quotes several times here) made the comment below.

"[...] I have called these Sunday assemblies in the capitol, a congregation, but the almost exclusive appropriation of that word to religious assemblies, prevents its being a descriptive term as applied in the present case, since the gay company who thronged the H. R. looked very little like a religious assembly. The occasion presented for display was not only a novel, but a favourable one for the youth, beauty and fashion of the city, Georgetown and environs. The members of Congress, gladly gave up their seats for such fair auditors, and either lounged in the lobbies, or round the fire places, or stood beside the ladies of their acquaintance. This sabbathday-resort became so fashionable, that the floor of the house offered insufficient space, the platform behind the Speaker's chair, and every spot where a chair could be wedged in was crowded with ladies in their gayest costume and their attendant beaux and who led them to their seats with the same gallantry as is exhibited in a ball room. Smiles, nods, whispers, nay sometimes tittering marked their recognition of each other, and beguiled the tedium of the service. Often, when cold, a lady would leave her seat and led by her attending beau would make her way through the crowd to one of the fire-places where she could laugh and talk at her ease. One of the officers of the house, followed by his attendant with a great bag over his shoulder, precisely at 12 o'clock, would make his way through the hall to the depository of letters to put them in the mail-bag, which sometimes had a most ludicrous effect, and always diverted attention from the preacher. The musick was as little in union with devotional feelings, as the place. The marine-band, were the performers. Their scarlet uniform, their various instruments, made quite a dazzling appearance in the gallery. The marches they played were good and inspiring, but in their attempts to accompany the psalm-singing of the congregation, they completely failed and after a while, the practice was discontinued, -- it was too ridiculous."

bpabbott said...

While I find this subject interesting for historical reasons, I'm perplexed why so many take issue (pro or con) with services being held in the Capitol building on Sundays. I wish I had more time to examine the details. Unfortunately, I have little time to study history and/or blog at the moment.

For those interested, the Library of Congress had an article, THE STATE BECOMES THE CHURCH: JEFFERSON AND MADISON. There is some additional interesting info there.

p.s. the above comment is a rehash of one on another post, my apologies for the duplication.

Mark D. said...


If Jefferson meant "protection" when he wrote "patronage," why does he then mention "protection" in the next line of the letter?
Jefferson refers to "patronage" specifically to the "charitable objects" of the sister's order. He then states that the same works will be subject to the "protection which my office can give it." If he meant the same thing by "patronage" and "protection," why would he need to restate himself?

You may want to read the letter a bit more carefully...

jimmiraybob said...

Mark - You may want to read the letter a bit more carefully...

You're kidding, right? Are you actually making the case that Jefferson was promising to provide economic patronage from the U.S. Government? Do you really see a specific obligation rather than an obscure letter of encouragement?

Unknown said...

So much for the "wall of separation' at least the way that most rapid secularists understand it.

Mark D. said...


I'm asking you to read the letter critically, instead of seeking in the letter vindication for your own position. You still haven't addressed my point about Jefferson's use of language in the letter. Explain his particular use of language in a way that makes sense of the text.

jimmiraybob said...

What were the Ursulines asking for?

“Although no express mention has been made of it, they think that the cession and still more the spirit of justice which characterizes the United States of America, will certainly guarantee to those seeking your help the continued enjoyment of their present property. But, keeping in mind that this same property is a sacred trust which has been confided to them, they believe that they would certainly fail in one of their principal obligations were they to neglect to see to it that this right to their property be put officially in writing, confirming their rights to their property not only for themselves but also for those of their sisters who will succeed them; and, for this reason, to beg you, dear sir, to present our petition to the Congress in the manner and form which you will judge the most suitable.”

“…their time in the formation of youth, they cannot help but be anxious to know if they will be able with certainty to count on the continued enjoyment of their revenues which will enable them to fulfill their obligations.”

They were asking that the new American government provide assurance that their properties would remain secure. Apparently the revenue from these properties allowed them to operate. They are not asking for anything new or for financial support from the new government. Jefferson assures them that that continuation of their good works could not “fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under.” At best this seeks to assure them that they would remain secure in their properties under whatever governmental jurisdiction they held the properties. It seems to me he was affirming their claim to the properties; no more and no less. And that his office would provide all the protection which it could give it. I don’t know how one would get any more non-committal/non-specific than this. I certainly don’t know how someone would jump to the claim that a financial obligation was promised solely on the use of a word with a range of meanings, including:

• backing: the act of providing approval and support
• support, encouragement, privilege, or financial aid

The Ursulines were not asking for privilege or financial aid. They just wanted to retain what they already had. Clearly the context is the retention of property following the cession of the territory by Spain. Clearly Jefferson gives his assurance in providing approval, support and encouragement for their cause. To get much more creative than this is playing to a desired outcome

Anonymous said...

Wow-Jefferson attending services in the Capitol no less! I never knew that. This man is truly interesting. He was an adroit politician and could play his cards right.

Pandering is right...I wonder if Jefferson went to bed at night amused with himself for having put on this public front.

For a man who ardently supported the cause of the separation of church and state, attending services (however self serving) in a place of public lawmaking is a strong statement.

Fascinating post

Mark D. said...


I asked you about Jefferson's phrasing in his letter. Please explain his usage of the separate terms "patronage" and "protection." Your position conflates the two words. Please explain, given the text of Jefferson's letter, how that position makes sense.

What does the text say?

jimmiraybob said...

Please explain his usage of the separate terms "patronage" and "protection."

I have explained my take and have provided clear contextual support for my reading of Jefferson's intent. The only person that can make a convincing argument for having used the word "patronage" in one sentence and the word "protection" in another is the writer of the sentences. As for me I was taught not to be redundant.

I can only assume that you are making the case that Jefferson was promising some kind of financial patronage - obligating the U.S. government. I see this as an extreme, and I do mean extreme, stretch. Others will differ I'm sure. If that's your honest conviction then there's nothing more that I can offer to un-convince you.

Now, let me ask you to do something. Convince me that Jefferson's offering of official U.S. government financial patronage to a Catholic order of nuns would be consistent with his political views and/or be politically savvy.

It would be interesting to hear more people weigh in on this.

Unknown said...


I think this shows us the possibly the least "Christian" founder other than Paine thought about the wall of separation in a much different way then most secularists do today. Barton is off on some things but I agree with Tom and have stated this many times:

His core thesis is correct. The history taught(I was a history teacher) is slanted toward what Tom would call the "Harvard Narrative".

The man that coined the phrased that has been part of numerous Supreme Court decisions adamantly believed the religion should be left to the states and had no problem attending church services in the Capitol. I never knew this either and have a degree in History education!

Anonymous said...


That's very cool that you were a history teacher. I'm a journalist by day (it's not that exciting) and a historian by night...my point is that I admire anyone who has the patience to teach. Deadlines are everything in my world, late papers from students would just about kill me (as late articles just about kills my editor!).

Posts like this really force you to re-examine your perspective about the Founders, such as Jefferson. That's the joy of learning (not to sound cliche) things like this.

Mark D. said...


Are you asking me if I think that Jefferson could be inconsistent in the application of his principles? My answer is yes. Do I think that Jefferson was willing for political advantage to completely contradict his own stated positions? My answer is yes.

Jefferson was, in most things, a hypocrite.

As for the sisters in New Orleans, here are some questions for you: were they previously supported by the French government? How was the word "patronage" understood in Jefferson's day? If we are looking at parole evidence, and you have no recourse but to do so in order to support your argument, what did the words Jefferson use mean? You imply redundancy, but offer no evidence that in Jefferson's day "patronage" and "protection" were exact synonyms.

Mark D. said...

Joe and Oprah,

The world of the Founders is infinitely fascinating, particularly because the more one learns about it, the more one sees that many of the popular views of the Founders are grounded on myths or distortions of the actual historical record. It is a delightful exercise in shattering golden calves.

Brian Tubbs said...

I don't think Jefferson was being a hypocrite by supporting and attending church services in the Capitol Bldg.

A hypocrite is one who pretends to have certain virtues or beliefs that, in fact, he/she actually does not.

Jefferson DID have a problem with official presidential and/or congressional proclamations calling for prayer, fasting, etc. (Although the Congress passed such during the Revolutionary War, and I wonder how he voted on those). He had a problem with them, because he saw them as an active endorsement of religion by the government in a way that he perhaps felt SPOKE FOR the American people.

By contrast, he likely saw church services in the Capitol as more a PASSIVE accommodation. Opening up the Capitol Bldg to a church service wasn't the government endorsing everything the preacher said during said service. It was merely providing a service for those who wished to attend church!

The same rationale exists for military chaplains today. They are there as a SERVICE to our men and women in uniform.

jimmiraybob said...

Inconsistency, hypocrisy, boorishness, weaseltude, rudeness, poor penmanship, scoundrelhood and/or tardiness, as personal characteristics are not very convincing evidence.

If it is a case that you're making that Jefferson committed the U.S. Government to a financial obligation to provide patronage to the Ursulines then it's your burden to provide a convincing case and not nebulous speculation. You need to establish that Jefferson's use of "patronage" doesn't fit my contention of its use within the clear context of the letters.

Jefferson meant to provide as much assurance as possible to the nuns that there property claims were not in conflict with the principles of the new government or in jeopardy.

Here's another thought on the possible meaning of patronage. Perhaps he was amusing himself by referring to the patronage of the saints; a saint who is considered to be a defender of some group or nation. It's certainly a reference that the Catholic nuns could appreciate. Jefferson seeing himself in the role of patron saint? Defender/protector of the property rights of the Ursuline Order? Damned egotist.

Mark D. said...


My position is simply that the letter indicates that Jefferson used the words "patronage" and "protection" in a single sentence indicating different meanings behind those words.

You asserted that the words are synonymous within the text of the letter. But you have yet to produce any textual evidence in the letter itself to support your position. You have yet to introduce any parole evidence regarding the specific meaning of the disputed words according to their common meaning at the time Jefferson wrote the letter.

So I ask you again, looking at the letter itself, what is the textual basis for your assertion that the terms on synonymous?

Mark D. said...


First, I have to apologize for not thanking you sooner for your kind words regarding this post. I appreciate the compliment!

Second, I concede that a generous and charitable interpretation of Jefferson's actions is possible here. I am generally not a fan of Jefferson, and it is entirely possible that my own antipathy towards him as a person and as a politician led me to take a more critical view of him. I still tend to adopt Richard Brookheiser's view of Jefferson as a politician, but I will be the first to say that your more charitable interpretation is completely within the bounds of possibility.


Mark D. said...


Jefferson as patron saint? Interesting thought.

He have have been attempting some kind of double meaning in his letter, but that's just speculation. What does the plain language of the letter indicate? If the plain meaning provides an answer, that's the best place to start. How were words used in their ordinary and standard usage in the letter? Those are the critical questions to ask whenever interpreting a document. It is only when the plain meaning fails to resolve an ambiguity that resort to parole evidence is appropriate, and then only to ascertain the meaning of the words used.

bpabbott said...

Brian's last comment is much more accurate and accommodating than what would have rolled off my finger tips. Kudo's Brian!

jimmiraybob said...

Jefferson as patron saint? Interesting thought.

:) I should have posted a warning that I was being a bit tongue in cheek.

But seriously, parole evidence? I had to run this by my crack legal team and they seem to think that you might be making an assertion that Jefferson’s reply is intended to be a "final and complete expression of an agreement between the U.S. government and the Ursuline Sisters."

I said, "no, comeon, get out."

They said, "no, really."

I poured a glass of wine.

Mark D. said...

You need to send your crack legal team back to law school. The letter isn't a contract between there is no offer and no acceptance and no consideration. It is simply what it states: an affirmation by the president of patronage and protection to the nuns in question.

The parole evidence principle, though, applies in looking at documents to ascertain the document's stated intent. Look at the words in the document, and only look outside the document when: 1) the document itself refers to material outside the document; and 2) when the terms are ambiguous. If the plain language of a document can resolve the question in dispute, the plain language should be followed.

It is a sad day when only lawyers are bound to such an approach to understanding texts.

Keep drinking. You still haven't answered my questions.

jimmiraybob said...

It is simply what it states: an affirmation by the president of patronage and protection to the nuns in question.

Exactly. I would only add that the patronage and protection applied to the area of property rights/claims.

That being settled, what do you make of the terms patronage and protection?

I'm sad to say that I've let the crack legal team go. I'm sure they'll land on their feet.

Mark D. said...

Before we continue, do you concede that patronage and protection refer to two different thing?

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

So Mark DeForrest thinks that Jefferson responded to the Ursuline Sisters by promising to have the federal government cut them checks as part of an early nineteenth-century faith-based initiative? Okay. Fine. Whatever.

My Black's Law Dictionary says that "patronage" means "1. The giving of support, sponsorship, or protection."

Assuming the word might have meant something like that in 1804, I think that Jefferson's letter to the Ursuline Sisters is most naturally read as assuring the them that they'll receive ordinary protection of the government, without discrimination against them because they happen to be Catholics.

That appears to be how the Ursuline Sisters understand the letter today -- for their web page links the letter to the doctrine set out by Justice Samuel Freeman Miller (an active Unitarian) in Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 (1871).

To suggest that either Thomas Jefferson, or Justice Miller for that matter, thought that the federal government should provide Catholic orders with special governmental "patronage," in the sense of financial support and endorsement of their peculiar doctrines, strikes me as more than a bit daft.

Oh, but Mr. DeForrest says that "patronage" can't mean "protection" in Mr. Jefferson's letter, because the letter employs the word "protection" in the very next line. Jefferson simply COULDN'T have used two different words to mean much the same thing.

Yet there's nothing at all unusual about employing synonyms in composing a letter. Some of us actually keep a thesaurus handy because we think it's good style to avoid monotonous repetition of the very same word from one sentence to the next.

On Mr. DeForrest's logic, moreover, it would seem that I can't possibly mean to refer to the same religious body if I speak of the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in one sentence, and of "the Mormon Church" in the next. For why would I use different terms from one line to the next if I don't mean to convey dramatically different ideas with each of them?

Jefferson's letter should be understood for what it is -- an assurance to the Ursuline Sisters that they had nothing to fear from the federal government to which they were newly subject following the Louisiana Purchase.

That, again, is how the Ursuline Sisters themselves appear to understand the letter.

jimmiraybob said...

Mark - Before we continue, do you concede that patronage and protection refer to two different thing?

I'll go even further and concede that "patronage" and "protection" could and very well may refer to two different things....or less or more.

Mark D. said...

Mr. Isaccson,

Aside from speculation and an appeal to your own writing style, do you have any other references to support your reading of the letter?


Thanks for the concession.

Mark D. said...

And Mr. Issacson, if you actually read any of my posts -- something I doubt given the tone of your comment -- you might actually have noticed that I didn't make any of the arguments about funding of the nuns that you attribute to me. Nice setting up of a straw man, there.

My basic point is simple: what does the letter say? I am looking at the text of the letter and trying to understand its words. The separate and distinct words used by its author.

If you want to argue ideology and take the opportunity to push some kind of secularist agenda, that's fine. But that doesn't have anything to do with my point. My point regards what the letter says.

Mark D. said...

One more note: the reason why it is important to look at evidence like the actual phrasing of the letter, rather than just relying on what "everybody" knows about Jefferson's views on a given topic is that Jefferson often did not act in ways that were consisted with many of his more philosophically expressed views. Let me provide two examples:

1) Jefferson did not believe that the executive possessed the power to effectuate the Louisiana Purchase. His strict constructionist approach to the Constitution simply was not consistent with such an exercise of executive power, and he recognized that. He did it anyway.

2) In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson expressed abhorrence for the notion of interracial relationships and mixed-race offspring, at least regarding African-Americans and whites. It was precisely Jefferson's well-known and uncontested philosophical views on the issue that kept many very well-established historians, like Joseph Elis, from accepting the possibility that Jefferson may have fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. It was only when DNA offered proof of an overwhelmingly likely Jefferson-Hemmings relationship that the scholarly community shifted.

With any historical figure, but particularly with somebody as shifty and mercurial as Jefferson, relying on their generally known statements is risky. What does the evidence say? Particularly evidence that doesn't fit into the narrative about what "everybody" knows...

Because "everybody" has a tendency to be wrong when it comes to history.

jimmiraybob said...

Mark, any chance of you clarifying your position sometime soon on the meaning of "patronage" and the significance of the Ursuline Affair* as derived from your plain text reading? Surely you wanted us to take away some understanding by its inclusion as an afterthought. And you appear to unsatisfied with what I and Mr. Issacson have offered so I assume** that there's an alternative.

*I'm writing a screen play as we speak.

**Yes, yes, I know what this breaks down to.

bpabbott said...

I did a quick transcription of the letter, in question.

"To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St Ursula at New Orleans.

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in you institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which may office can give it. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect.

It seems to me that Jefferson is communication his expectation that the virtue of the Nuns work will ensure the patronage (as in loyalty, protection, more?) of the Louisiana state government, which their institution was under, and that Jefferson personally assured them equal protection under of the laws of the Nation (perhaps implying that if their state government did provide equal protection, he'd take action?).

Seems like a good example of how Jefferson understood the principle of separation ... am I missing something more?

Is anyone suggesting that Jefferson offered the financial support of the Nation to the sisters? ... If so, is there any record that such support was rendered. If not, either Jefferson did not intend to imply such support was forthcoming, or he lied (I like the guy, but ... he is a politician. I don't think such a falsehood is beyond even the best of all politicians).

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm with the contra side on this. First, there's no evidence of said financial support, and second that the Ursaline matter is a one-of-a-kind. Theses should be built on a multiplicity of evidence, not just an incident here or a quote there.

Mark's main argument, about religious services in public buildings has been left untouched, however. Apparently David Barton was far more correct than incorrect, based on Mark's [and Ben's] evidence.

At least one of the litigants in this thread here owes an acknowledgment of that.


We must keep our eye on the ball, lest we get hit in the head.

Mark D. said...

I never asserted financial assistance to the nuns. I simply quoted Jefferson as offering "patronage."

My initial point, as Tom has pointed out, remains unrefuted.

I have no opinion about whether Jefferson did offer financial aid to the nuns or not. My only opinion has been to dispute, without further evidence, that "patronage" in the letter necessarily means the same thing as "protection." From a plain language reading of the letter, it appears that the two terms are not synonyms. That's all I have asserted.

I have made no claims about what Jefferson meant or not. All I have pointed out is the plain language of the letter.

It is the secularist folks commenting on my post who have been asserting meanings to the words and meanings to my post and my comments, creating what are in effect straw men that detract both from my main point and from the simple fact that Jefferson uses two different words.

I agree with Tom that it is necessary for us to keep out eyes on the main points of this debate. And it is important to have controversial points substantiated by evidence. Undergirding my points here has been that we need to be guided by evidence, not ideological presuppositions and "what everybody knows."

Tom, I don't assert that Jefferson was necessarily promising financial assistance when he used the word "patronage." I am simply asserting that he probably meant something different than simply "protection."

Anonymous said...

This is off topic

Mark in Spokane wrote:
In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson expressed abhorrence for the notion of interracial relationships and mixed-race offspring, at least regarding African-Americans and whites. It was precisely Jefferson's well-known and uncontested philosophical views on the issue that kept many very well-established historians, like Joseph Elis, from accepting the possibility that Jefferson may have fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. It was only when DNA offered proof of an overwhelmingly likely Jefferson-Hemmings relationship that the scholarly community shifted.

I just read "Notes on a State of Virginia" for the first time and I didn't make that connection. His statements about slavery were unsettling to my 2010 mind (the obvious white superiority complex going on) but I didn't catch the whole Sally Hemmings connection. This is yet again, like attending services in the Capitol or buying the L Purchase even though it went against his views, an instance of Jefferson's humanity/falliability.

He was a sly man!

Anonymous said...

I should clarify that when I say I didn't make the connection that I wasn't saying you were wrong...only that it completely went over head when reading that particular query in "Notes..."

Tom Van Dyke said...

straw men that detract both from my main point

Well, it kind of hit me that way, Mark. Some acknowledgment of your main point would seem to have been in order.

I would say the "patronage" Jefferson refers to would be similar to the "patronage" shown to the churches that wanted to borrow the government buildings for Sunday services while their own churches were under construction. A friendliness rather than a hostility: both Jefferson's attitude toward the good work of the nuns and Washington's Farewell Address approbation for religion in the new republic.

In fact, I recall Hutson finding a contemporary reporting Jefferson saying it was his duty [perhaps not that word] to show face at these services as a good example to the nation. If anybody can help me with that---I can't relocate it, although I found some mentions on Google.

And this is the larger thesis, supported by a lot of evidence across the board. It's OK to quibble on minor details, but not at the price of losing focus on the larger truth, which should be the good-faith aim of all of us. I do sometimes think that there's a technique at work sometimes to harp on a minor error as if that disproves the larger truth being offered.

And frankly, when I think that's what's going on, I get annoyed.

Such "patronage" that Jefferson speaks of, and that the nation exhibited in the early days of the republic by allowing the use of public buildings for "religion" is the larger truth. I think it would meet with a lot of resistance today as a lack of separation between church and state, which is why this issue is so instructive:

It's clear that the government could accommodate religion without it being seen as endorsement, and it was not seen as any establishment of religion.

I think it's a rather clean point.

bpabbott said...

Re: "religious services in public buildings"

I expect that this assertion was not contested because such services were common from the founding until to day.

As such services were/are held is not a newly discovered fact, I'm surprised that their existence is the main focus of the post. Using my excellent hind-sight, the discussion above would have been more civil if the "secularist folks [...] who have been asserting meanings to the words and meanings", had enough information to infer the intended point and meaning of the words.

Re: "I don't assert that Jefferson was necessarily promising financial assistance when he used the word "patronage." I am simply asserting that he probably meant something different than simply "protection."

I agree that it is likely that Jefferson intended to communicate something more than "protection". However, for clarity, his comment of patronage, appears to me, to be associated with the government of the state of Louisiana. Since the states were free to patronize religion in any way they choose, I don't see anything unusual with Jefferson's words.

"Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under [i.e. the state of Louisiana]. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect."

To summarize, my reading indicates an expectation, on Jefferson's part, that Louisiana would continue its patronage, as well as an assertion that the government of the United States, and the principles, it was founded upon would ensure them equal protection under the law.

I'll also reiterate that this, for me, gives a proper context to Jefferson's understanding of the concept of separation.

Mark D. said...

When Jefferson writes of "patronage," he refers to "the government it [the nuns' charitable works] is under." Which government is he referring to, Louisiana or the federal government. I would the federal government, because Louisiana was not yet a state when Jefferson wrote the letter. It was a federal territory, and thus under the federal government. The letter was written in 1804. Louisiana did not become a state until 1812. The government over Louisiana until statehood was territorial, and thus federal.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - I would say the "patronage" Jefferson refers to would be similar to the "patronage" shown to the churches that wanted to borrow the government buildings for Sunday services while their own churches were under construction. A friendliness rather than a hostility: both Jefferson's attitude toward the good work of the nuns and Washington's Farewell Address approbation for religion in the new republic.

I'd agree that there was a neighborliness quality to opening up the federal buildings to religious services at a time when DC wasn't much more than a bleak swampy wilderness wasteland inhabited by blood sucking insects and all manner of roaming vermin. (can I set em up or what?) And at a time when the federal buildings were the biggest and the best....barely (here, here, here and here).

Excerpts: Abigail Adams in a letter to her sister (Nov 21, 1800):

“I arrived in this city on Sunday the 16th. Having lost my way in the woods on Saturday in going from Baltimore, we took the road to Frederick and got nine miles out of our road. You find nothing but a forest & woods on the way, for 16 and 18 miles not a village. Here and there a thatched cottage without a single pane of glass, inhabited by Blacks... I set out early, intending to make my 36 miles if possible : no traveling however but by day light; We took a direction as we supposed right, but in the first turn, went wrong, and were wandering more than two hours in the woods in different paths, holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass, …”

“In the kindest, and politest manner he [Major Thomas Snowden] urged my return to his house, represented the danger of the road, and the impossibility of my being accommodated at any Inn I could reach: A mere hovel was all I should find.”

“[Georgetown] is the very dirtiest hole I ever saw for a place of any trade, or respectability of inhabitants. It is only one mile from me but a quagmire after every rain. … There must be a worse place than even George Town, that I would not reside in for three Months.”

I would also guess that it was more than a coldly calculated political ploy on Jefferson's part to attend some of the services, although I don't completely discount this idea. Jefferson (and most in the capitol) would have found these gatherings of interest in a social/community sense (as bpabbott posted in earlier comments on a previous post) and as a place in which ideas were discussed and exchanged. And many no doubt more pious than Jefferson would have found sustenance in the religious message from the various denominations represented.

An interesting source on early church history in DC is found here.

So yes. Federal buildings, such as they were, were used to house religious services and social gatherings and Jefferson did attend at least some. Jefferson did not start a church in the Capitol.

Just as some get rightly upset when religion in the early founding is slighted, some find it equally annoying when attempts are made to over represent by using misleading methods and language.

With this I bid Barton a hearty so long. If I ever let myself comment on Barton again may lightning strike, may a thousand thousand fleas fill my tent, may.....um, nevermind.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

On "patronage," I took a quick look at the definitions of "patron" and "patronage" in my unabrideged OED 2d. It looks to me like Jefferson used "patronage" to mean "protection," the nuance perhaps being "protection by a superior."

On religious services in federal buildings, I recall that during the Japanese internment, when the federal government forcibly relocated 120,000 Japanese Americans to War Relocation Camps, it permitted Shinto and Buddhist religious services under governmental supervision in those federal camps.

I would not infer from this that the Roosevelt administration meant to promote either Shintoism or Buddhism. Neither would I take from it that the United States is a Shintoist or Buddhist nation.

I'll note in passing that Shintoism generally is deemed to be a polytheist religion, which acknowledges two co-creator gods (and many lesser deities). Buddhism, on the other hand, generally rejects the notion of any creator god.

I do not think that the fact the federal government accomodated Shintoist and Buddhist services in federal buildings means that ours is a polytheist nation or an atheist nation, any more than the fact that Christian services have occasionally been held in federal buildings means that the American Republic is a Christian nation.

It is a nation that comprises many Christians, and that is by no means hostile to Christianity in its many forms. But it comprises many people of other faiths too -- who are every bit as American as our Christian citizens. Or so it seems to me.

jimmiraybob said...

To give some context to Jefferson's phrase, "...ensure it the patronage of the government it is under," it might be helpful to consider the mess of entanglements in play.

In addition to what I would imagine were local/municipal governments there appears to have been a rather rapid development of a territorial government, all of which would likely have had some level of competing jurisdictional claims on property decisions:

Claiborne and Wilkinson [William Charles Cole Claiborne the first territorial governor and General James Wilkinson] arrived in Louisiana with 400 regular troops and about 100 Mississippi militiamen to take possession of the new American territory in December 1803. Claiborne faced a task never before encountered by an American. All previous United States territories had been inhabited in the main by English-speaking Protestants who shared a British tradition of self-government. Claiborne for a time became virtual dictator over people from radically different cultures who spoke different languages, practiced a different religion from the vast majority of U.S. citizens, and had no experience whatsoever with representative government” (Wall, p. 89).

In Louisiana, a territorial government with an elected legislature was established in 1805.

In 1807, the Legislature created nineteen parishes as the unit of local government. A Civil Code was promulgated in 1807 that was modeled on Spanish law and the French Napoleonic Code.

As a lawyer, politician, diplomat and all around well read guy, I'm guessing that when Jefferson replied to the Ursulines he no doubt understood the complexities involved and likely realized that the federal government wouldn't necessarily have a primary role in sorting things out at the local level - at least in the early going.

bpabbott said...


Thank you for correctly my oversight regarding the Louisiana Territory not yet being a state.

Regarding "[...] the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under [...]"

If your understanding is that "patronage" is not synonymous with equal protection under the law, what is it you understand it to mean?

I'm also interested in why you think Jefferson's implied more than equal protection ... and by "why" I'm hoping for evidence of what Jefferson meant.

jimmiraybob said...

EAI - "Neither would I take from it that the United States is a Shintoist or Buddhist nation.

And if it's correct that "the cornerstone [of the Capitol building] was laid by President Washington in the building's southeast corner on September 18, 1793, with Masonic ceremonies,*" I do not believe that we are a Masonic Nation.

* Architect of the Capitol