The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Thomas Jefferson on seeking God's favor


Will Baude's post, quoting Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation and Jefferson's message criticizing such Presidential proclamations, reminded me of this passage from Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address:

I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.

I think Jefferson's position in making this statement could certainly be reconciled with his position regarding Thanksgiving proclamations. Still, I think it's worthwhile for us to remember—and especially those of us who, like me, are not religious—that even Jefferson (who was somewhat unusual in his reticence to use religion in public life) was quite willing to include religious messages in his public statements as President, or in state legislation such as his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, …

There may be justification for a legal rule excluding religious symbolism or text from government speech, whether the addresses of individual officials, albeit on governmental occasions such as inaugurations, or the statements of state legislatures. (Will didn't advocate such a rule, but of course many people have.) But I don't think Jefferson's actual practice does much to support that position.