Jefferson and the Spirit of '76

No event in our nation’s past was so improbable as the possibility of American success in 1776 and the continued preservation of the country. The upstart colonies were confronted by the British army and navy that constituted the world’s most powerful military and would continue to be a threat for many more years. In the world’s history a colony had never successfully rebelled. And, there had never been an example of the attempted republican form of government in such a large, diverse area. What form of magic allowed the impossible to happen? Hindsight allows for a number of objective explanations. But, there was also an intangible something that is known as the “Spirit of ’76.” This spirit was personified by the beliefs and actions of that almost mythical group known as the Founding Fathers, and is perhaps best exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.

This group shared many traits, experiences and philosophies. The Founding Fathers were male, entirely white, and usually well educated, sharing common teachings. They had a passion for reading and could be called omnivorous in their selections. There was a driving passion to succeed and stubbornness among these individuals. This has been explained by the fact that a great many of them had lost their fathers at an early age. Andrew Burnstein wrote of Jefferson: “He bore the responsibilities of a firstborn son without a father to guide him through adolescence…He developed a need to see things through. He soaked up the written word, found moral-philosophical grounding, and pursued a steady course to ensure his first place among the Virginia and then among the cosmopolites.” When this group came together in Philadelphia they shared a way of thinking, feeling and believing. This shared gestalt might be called the spirit of ’76.

These men did not start with a blank canvas in 1776. There had been a number of events prior to the Revolution that had affected them and all Americans. During the 1730s and 1740s there had been a large influx of immigrants. These new arrivals were not just English, but came from different cultures, bringing with them new customs and beliefs. As the colonies continued to grow in population and diversity, there was an increased interest in religion, in church attendance and sects. This time of religious fervor was known as the Great Awakening. During this period of the mid-eighteenth century (1740-1745), groups such as the Baptists experienced rapid growth in the number of congregations and individual enrollment. Pastors blanketed the colonies preaching revival and repentance. A spirit of brotherhood united the people, casting aside sectarian philosophies. This sense of unity, combined with the growing discontent toward England, influenced the men and women whose actions would sculpt the course of American history. Being born within ten years of this revival period, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams were all sons of this spiritual awakening. This not to say that their thought processes would have been directly affected by the Awakening (Madison was not even born until 1752), but it is possible to make the assumption that the societal climate in which they developed was effected by the religious unity and freedom of that period.

Added to this new spirit of religious freedom was the influence of the Enlightenment on the Founding Fathers. The dominant spirit of the Enlightenment was one of skepticism towards all former truths and of free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge. This philosophy did not reflect on this world or the hereafter, but stressed change. Reason and inquiry would lead toward those truths, laws, or spirit that came from nature. Nature’s laws were universal, unchanging, and beneficial to man. These laws, almost given the status of a faith, were secular and utilitarian. They directed all aspects of life be it political, scientific or theological. Jefferson felt the purpose of the Enlightenment was to increase freedom and happiness. He saw the Enlightenment as an optimistic faith preaching the goodness of humanity, that the future would be better than the past, and that if nature’s laws were applied the advance of freedom was irreversible.

There was a neoclassical component to the Enlightenment. The Founders studied ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and political structure. Jefferson admired the ancient Greeks and Romans. He could read and speak both languages. He agreed with many of the ancient precepts, such as the Greek idea that man is the measure of all things. This was the groundwork for his belief in humanism of one who recognizes no barriers to the use of the mind, and who sought to make all knowledge useful to man. Jefferson particularly admired the Greeks’ idea with respect to man’s relationship to himself. He felt their ideas about self-control, moderation and stoic behavior in the face of misfortune were paragons on how one should comport oneself.

While the ancients provided guideposts on how an individual should act, Jefferson believed that the teachings of Jesus would guide humanity on how it should conduct its relations with each other. According to Jefferson the duty of men toward each other was the most important aspect of morality, and Jesus was man’s greatest teacher regarding morality. Jesus’ moral ideas were needed for mankind to progress and ensure liberty, happiness and good government.

The Founders were unified in a basic belief in God. Though they held a common belief, the manner in which they worshipped and contemplated God’s attributes were as diverse as the group. Also, lacking in unanimity was the acceptance in the divinity of Christ. Their faith was analogous to the religious diversity that was a product of the Great Awakening. In Jefferson’s view, duty toward God was a matter of personal experience, not to be dictated or promoted by the thoughts of others. He explained his belief, grounded in the tenets of the Enlightenment, to a young friend:

Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of the consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you reason to believe there is a God, consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside prejudices on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything…Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but the uprightness of the decision...

Jefferson’s Enlightenment rationalism also dealt with the Bible. His view of scripture was not that it was the infallible word of God, but that man had corrupted it; that scripture needed to have separated “the gold from the dross.” To accomplish this separation Jefferson took the Gospels in the New Testament (which he called “the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man”) and combined them into a chronological condensation which he felt would allow Christ’s “genuine character” to be seen. Within this work, The Philosophy of Jesus Extracted from the Texts of the Evangelists (sometimes known as the “Jefferson Bible”), there is what could be considered a completely humanistic view of the life of Christ. Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1814:

The whole history of these books (the Gospels) is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their texts, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much about what parts of them are genuine.

Jefferson sometimes found his precepts at odds with those of Jesus and dubbed his own views “rational Christianity.” Jefferson explained his rationale: “I am a Materialist; he (Jesus) takes the side of spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards the forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc. It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, the beauty of his apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire…”

There is another factor that is interwoven with those previously mentioned. It needs to be studied because it runs counter to the beliefs of the Enlightenment and could explain why the Founding Fathers often seemed an inscrutable enigma or why their words, at times, run counter to their actions. The majority of the Founders had been born mid-way between the Age of Enlightenment and the Romanic Era with its unbridled passions. At times they found themselves at contradiction with their belief in rational thought. Jefferson feared excess of passion in him and at times had dialogues between his “head” and his “heart.” The “head” asserting itself and attempting to check the “heart’s” desire for intimacy or excess. The “heart” was often repressed by the Founding Fathers, but in spite of the rationalism that underpins their thought, there was often a quality of spontaneity and visceral joy in their beings that could be called spirituality.

H.J.C. Grierson explained the Founders dichotomy: “Classical and romantic are the systolic and diastolic of the human heart in history, representing alternately the need for order, for synthesis, and for a greater spiritual sustenance.” Perhaps this combination of rationalism, melded with the passion of romanticism, is what brought about the miracle of ’76 and could be called its spirit.