Jefferson Letter to Robinson, 1801


Thomas Jefferson Letter to Moses Robinson, 1801

From this letter, it is evident that following the ratification of the Bill of Rights, many of the clergy still had hopes of establishing religion in this country. This seems to have been particularly true in eastern states where the clergy were powerful and prideful; able to persuade their congregations that a union between church and state was the best way to ensure the survival of both. Jefferson, however, writes that such ideas can no longer be sustained in the country’s “present state of science.” By “science,” Jefferson refers to concepts of political science and the advances made in political thought and theory in recent years that had enabled the founders to “ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Apparently, many of the clergy in the eastern states had fought long from the pulpit to persuade their people that these changes and advancements were dangerous tinkerings with a political machine that already worked well. However, as Jefferson indicates, the great tide of liberty and religious freedom sweeping the country was turned against them. Jefferson closes these remarks by expressing his hope that the clergy will put off their pride and understand that true Christianity, as taught by Jesus Christ — which Jefferson apparently thought was more pure than these men had been teaching — embraced liberty, science and all other freedoms of expression of which the human mind is capable.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

Washington, March 23, 1801

DEAR SIR,–I have to acknowledge the receipt of your favor of the 3rd instant, and to thank you for the friendly expressions it contains. I entertain real hope that the whole body of your fellow citizens (many of whom had been carried away by the X. Y. Z. business) will shortly be consolidated in the same sentiments. When they examine the real principles of both parties, I think they will find little to differ about. I know, indeed, that there are some of their leaders who have so committed themselves, that pride, if no other passion, will prevent their coalescing. We must be easy with them. The eastern States will be the last to come over, on account of the dominion of the clergy, who had got a smell of union between Church and State, and began to indulge reveries which can never be realised in the present state of science. If, indeed, they could have prevailed on us to view all advances in science as dangerous innovations, and to look back to the opinions and practices of our forefathers, instead of looking forward, for improvement, a promising groundwork would have been laid. But I am in hopes their good sense will dictate to them, that since the mountain will not come to them, they had better go to the mountain: that they will find their interest in acquiescing in the liberty and science of their country, and that the Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.

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Source: Thomas Jefferson: writings 1087-88 (Merrill D. Peterson ed., 1984).