Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800

My good friend Steve Becknall at the American Revolution Blog wrote a few weeks back about a radio program entitled, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. On this program, award winning Humanities scholar and Jefferson biographer, Clay Jenkinson, portrays our nation's 3rd president in an hour long discussion with the public. During the conversation, Jefferson (actually Jenkinson) takes calls, answers emails as if he were the sage of Monticello.

This past weekend, I decided to give the program a listen. I downloaded a couple of past episodes (which you can do at this link). It just so happens that the episode I downloaded dealt specifically with the presidential election of 1800. In the episode, Jenkinson states the fact that Thomas Jefferson was accused by the Adams campaign of being, "virtually an atheist."

Though hardly comparable to the all-out assault of modern campaigns, the election of 1800 did witness some severe attacks on the candidates. The most severe of these attacks were levied against the contender, Thomas Jefferson, and specifically centered on his religious views. In his infamous letter to the Reverend William Linn in 1800, Jefferson stated, "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." Along with this declaration, Jefferson went on to state the following about Christianity:

Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
In response to these comments, the Adams campaign wasted no time responding. Acting as if they had been handed a gift from the Divine, Adams' men pounced Jefferson in the public arena, accusing him of being "an enemy to his country and his God." Steven Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith sites a poem that was often used against Jefferson in the public:

I am the first of men in the ways of evil,
The truest, thriftiest servent of the Devil;
Born, educated, glory to engross
And shine confess'd the Devil's Man of Ross.
Here's three to one I beat even him in pride;
Two whores already in my chariot ride.
(Founding Faith, 170).
In his defense, Jefferson stated the following:

"I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians" (Jefferson to Charles Thompson, January 1801).
We often talk of religion during this era as if it played a secondary role in the lives of the public. Despite these allegations, I maintain that religion (in whatever form it was embraced) was at the heart of virtually every major decision or event in the lives of ordinary people. We often hear of recent studies that point out how only 17% of colonial Americans ever attended church. If that is true, (and I believe the study is more indicative of the difficulties in traveling during this era than anything else) then why was religion such a pivotal issue in politics?


Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Why was religion an issue in the 1800 presidential race?

Because John Adams's handlers thought making an issue of Jefferson's unorthodoxy would pick up the incremental votes needed to give Adams another term in the White House.

The attack was fundamentally disingenuous, for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were remarkably similar in their personal theology -- both were Unitarian Christians. If anything, Jefferson was more orthodox in formal affiliation than Adams, for Jefferson was a member of an Episcopal church, while Adams was a committed member of a theologically liberal congregation in Massachusetts.

John Adams's spin masters nonetheless decided to attack Jefferson -- because they figured that doing so would pick up votes for Adams.

Were they right to think religious orthodoxy mattered to America's voters? I think the American people sent a clear message -- by electing Jefferson.

The election results of 1800 tell us that religion wasn't such a pivotal issue after all.

bpabbott said...


I'm no expert on history respecting Presidential elections and the importance of religion.

Would the election of 1800 have been the first where religious sentiments were manipulated in the hopes of garnering votes?

Today manipulation of religious sentiments appears to be a normal part of the political process. The level of importance religion presently plays in Presidential politics seems to be a rather recent event, but such things have ebbed and and flowed over the last 200 yrs?

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Hi Ben,

I don't believe religion was an issue in the election of George Washington in 1789 and 1792.

Vice President John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were opponents in the election of 1796, then faced one another again in 1800. I believe the Adams camp made an issue of Jefferson's religious unorthodoxy in both races -- but am by no means an expert on such things.

In presidential race of 1908 William Jennings Bryan and his Demcratic Party supporters charged that the Republican candidate, William Howard Taft, was not a real Christian - - because he was a prominent Unitarian. Edgar Albert Hornig produced an excellent study on that contest, titled "The Religious Issue in the Taft-Bryan Duel of 1908," and published in Volume 105, No. 6, pp. 530-37 of the Proceedings of the American Philsophical Society (Dec. 15, 1961). Hornig quotes a Pentecostal paper, for example, that reported Taft as a Unitarian "does not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, but looks upon our immaculate Savior as a common bastard."

American voters responded by putting Taft in the White House.

I don't recall Adlai Stevenson's Unitarianism becoming a issue in the presidential election of 1956, in which Stevenson lost to Eisenhower, a Presbyterian.

Religion was an issue in the presidential election of 1928, when evangelicals attacked Al Smith for being a Roman Catholic. Smith, of course, lost to Herbert Hoover.

John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was an issue in the race of 1960 -- one that he obviously managed to overcome.

The Adams-Jefferson, Taft-Bryan, Hoover-Smith, and Kennedy-Nixon races come to mind as the most prominent instances in which candidates were attacked on the basis of their religion.

Of course, religious issues have been a factor in many other races. Consider how Mitt Romney's Mormonism became an issue for some evangelicals in the Republican Party's recent primaries. And, I dare say, some liberal Jews and Unitarian Universalists were offended that Romney openly sought to impose his own church's views on "the sanctity of marriage" by outlawing the weddings of same-sex couples performed by Reform rabbis and Unitarian Universalist ministers. I'll bet some Trinitarian Congregationalists were offended too.