- Sons of Liberty American History
- Thomas Jefferson and "The Blood of Tyrants"
- CONTENTS OF VOLUME III
- Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist
Today, the spot where the Liberty Tree stood, at Washington and Essex streets in Boston, is marked by a bronze plaque lying at ground level in an underwhelming brick plaza. Across the street, an s wooden carving of the tree still adorns a building. Historian Alfred F. There is, however, a democratic argument for remembering the Liberty Tree.
Sons of Liberty American History
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Thomas Jefferson and "The Blood of Tyrants"
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The President was speaking in the aftermath of the destruction, apparently by American right-wing fanatics, of the Federal building in Oklahoma City and its occupants on 19 April The President was seeking to exclude such conspirators from what is called "the American civil religion. There is quite a copious literature about the American civil religion and, while there are differences about the exact nature of this powerful but nebulous concept, there is also a broad consensus about its general nature. The term "civil religion" was first used by Rousseau and refers to "the religious dimension of the polity.
Robert N. Bellah quotes a observer as noting that "the minds of the people are wrought up to as high a degree of enthusiasm by the word liberty as could have been expected had religion been the cause. In the American civil religion, liberty, nationalism, and faith are fused. As Norman Mailer put it: "In America the country was the religion.
And all the other religions of the land were fed from that first religion. James H. Smylie declared, around the same time: "Civil religion is the way we have identified ourselves as God's people and under his providence, the way we have invoked divine sanction in the use of power and in the support of civil authority and the way in which we justify our national actions.
Central to the American civil religion are two eighteenth-century documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Around these documents, and linked with them in the religion, is a limited number of historical figures; for all Americans, the Founding Fathers; for most Americans, also Abraham Lincoln. In the pantheon of the American civil religion, however, two holy personages stand out with larger halos.
As the authors of Civil Religion and the Presidency write:. There is no difficulty in seeing Jefferson as the prophet of the American civil religion if you think of him only as the author of its most sacred document, the Declaration of Independence, and leave it at that. Thomas Jefferson was indeed, in his day, a prophet of American civil religion. Indeed if his original draft of the Declaration of Independence had been accepted, the Declaration would have been more explicitly linked to the American civil religion than it is in its present form.
Where the Declaration, as we now have it, opens its second paragraph with the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," Jefferson's original draft had had "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable. Adams objected strongly to the mixing up of politics and religion.
Franklin was more consistently secular than Jefferson in his style. Carl Lotus Becker notes, on the change in the manuscript to "self-evident": "It is not clear that this change was made by Jefferson. The hand-writing of 'self-evident' resembles Franklin's. Anyone who rejects a "self-evident truth" is, by definition, either a fool or a knave. And that is precisely what the Founders wanted to say about anyone who opposed the Declaration. Jefferson himself appreciated the polemical force of this word, and often used it later. The Jefferson of the early s, the champion of the French Revolution, was an ardent believer in, and prophet of, civil religion in the sense adumbrated by Rousseau.
Of this religion Thomas Jefferson was more than a prophet, he was a Pope. As author of the Declaration of Independence he possessed the Magisterium of liberty. He could define heresy and excommunicate heretics. To fail to acknowledge for example that the French Revolution was an integral part of the holy cause of liberty along with the American Revolution was heresy, and the heretic had to be driven from public life. John Adams, classed as a heresiarch within this system, naturally resisted the Jeffersonian civil religion: "John Adams argued in his 'Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law' that the linking of the religious and civil authority was a wicked one, subject to the worst kind of abuses.
Thomas Jefferson ardently preached and energetically practiced his own version of civil religion. But is that civil religion compatible with the American civil religion as we know it today? Let us see. In investigating that question we have to begin by asking another question: What kind of American was Thomas Jefferson? He was a good American in the general sense; he held America and Americans to be vastly superior to Europe and Europeans, morally and socially speaking.
But he was not an American nationalist, politically speaking. He was not an "America firster. Nor was this an isolated trick of speech. The United States was not an object that engaged his emotions; Virginia was. The Declaration of Independence was for him a sacred document, part of the civil religion of liberty.
CONTENTS OF VOLUME III
The Constitution of the United States was not; it was a political document, just about acceptable, and no more, for pragmatic reasons, and remaining acceptable only as long as the Federal Government respected what Virginians regarded as the limits of its authority. Federal institutions, including the Presidency, were workaday things, not invested with the spiritual aura of the civil religion.
Virginia remained the holy land of Liberty. In his will Jefferson did not mention the fact that he had been twice President of the United States as among the significant events of his career. In political life, as in his personal emotional life, Jefferson's Head usually prevailed over his Heart; as in the case of the recall of Citizen Genet. But this was not always the case. When Virginia appeared to be threatened by an excess of Federal Government, in , under President John Adams, Jefferson encouraged Virginians to resist.
Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist
Virginians, and other Southerners, of later generations, in challenging what they perceived as the excessive claims of the Federal Government were, to that extent, in the Jefferson tradition. In the s, John C. Calhoun, the great propagator of the States Rights ideology in the antebellum South, claimed Jefferson's authority for his "Nullification" doctrine: that states could treat as null and void Federal laws they regarded as intruding on the proper sphere of the states. Calhoun invoked as precedents the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions rejecting the Alien and Sedition Laws passed by Congress in Calhoun noted that the Kentucky resolutions were "now known to have emanated from the pen of Mr.
Jefferson's authority was important to the leaders of the antebellum South, in the s, as validating the philosophy of Nullification: a philosophy that had within it the germs of the eventual Secession.