UPDATE: For more information about Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, go to GettingJeffersonRight.com.
Recently, I have been writing about the First Amendment. In the process, I have been reading much about the religious views of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, all firm defenders of freedom of conscience. Jefferson is particularly interesting given claims made about him by historical document collector David Barton. Barton runs an organization called Wallbuilders, dedicated to finding God’s hand in American history.
Over the next several days, I plan to examine some of these claims. Given the blog format the examination will be brief but I hope sufficient to demonstrate that what is being claimed by Mr. Barton about Jefferson is often misleading. Barton has made several claims about Jefferson in a variety of places but I will use a recent audio file from his WallbuildersLive site as a springboard. On his April 11 podcast, Barton said:
And then there’s Thomas Jefferson. Not only did Jefferson recommend that the great seal of the US depict a Bible story and include the word God in the national motto, but as President, Jefferson negotiated treaties with the Indians in which he included direct federal funding to pay for Christian missionaries to evangelize the Indians. And these treaties were ratified by the US Senate. Furthermore, Jefferson closed Presidential documents with the appellation, “In the Year of Our Lord Christ,” thus invoking Jesus Christ into official government documents.
You know I have a lot of fun with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, because people think they know those two, but you take those two, and they are clearly the least religious of the signers of the Declaration. And by using their original documents, they look like a couple of radical right, Bible thumping evangelicals. And they’re the least religious, And I’ll give you a great example. We moved into the US Capitol in 1800, November of 1800. And when we moved in, one of the first acts of Congress was to approve the use of the Capitol as a church building. You can find that in the records of Congress, Dec 4 1800. Now, who did that? You had the head of the Senate and the head of the House, the speaker of the House was John Trumpbell, the president of the Senate who approved that was Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson approves church in the Capitol? Yep, he went there as Vice President, he went to the church at the Capitol for 8 years as President, and as President of the US, he’s going to church, and this is recorded in all sorts of members of Congress, their records, their diaries, because they went to church at the Capitol too. And so, Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, thinks, you know I think I can help the worship services at this new church at the Capitol, they met in the Hall of the House of Representatives, so Jefferson ordered the Marine Corp band to come play for the worship services, in the church services at the US Capitol. The worship band is the Marine Corp Band? Pretty good worship band. Thomas Jefferson did that. I thought he wanted separation of church and state. If you read his letter on separation of church and state, he said separation of church and state, he makes it very clear, separation of church and state will keep the government from stopping a public religious activity.
We’re not going to learn about what Jefferson actually did cause we’ve got a couple of his phrases where we can say he didn’t like religion. So we’re not going to look at the fact that in 1803, Thomas Jefferson, President of the US, signer of the Declaration, did a treaty with Kaskaskia Indians, where that he gave federal funds to send missionaries to the Indians, ratified by the US Senate. Now, I don’t know anybody on the radical religious right that would be comfortable with doing that today but Thomas Jefferson did. It was not a problem for him. So we look at the guys today and we look only what appears to be their non-religious or anti-religious side, and we think that is who they are…And You look at the rest of Jefferson and he would make most Christians today look embarrassingly shallow and yet Jefferson still had questions about the divinity of Christ and still so much further in promoting Christian principles.
The principle claims I plan to examine are that Jefferson:
- signed a treaty which provided federal funds to evangelize the Kaskaskia Indians
- closed Presidential documents with the statement: “In the Year of Our Lord Christ,” thus setting out Jefferson’s belief in Jesus as Christ.
- approved holding church in the US Capitol and ordered the Marine Band to play for the worship service.
- merely had questions about the divinity of Christ. In fact, he looks like a “radical right, Bible thumping” evangelical when one examines the original documents.
First, did Jefferson enter into “a treaty with Kaskaskia Indians, where that he gave federal funds to send missionaries to the Indians?”
When I first heard that claim, I thought I would find evidence that Jefferson authorized funds to give to a church organization or denomination for the purpose of sending missionaries to an unchurched tribe. The phrasing of Mr. Barton makes it sound like the government paid missionaries to spread Christianity and make converts.
I did not find that.
In 1803, a treaty was signed with the Kaskaskia tribe which contained the following reference to religion. This is the only treaty I can find in 1803 with the Kaskaskia tribe.
The annuity heretofore given by the United States to the said tribe shall be increased to one thousand dollars, which is to be paid to them either in money, merchandise, provisions or domestic animals, at the option of the said tribe: and when the said annuity or any part thereof is paid in merchandise, it is to be delivered to them either at Vincennes, Fort Massac or Kaskaskia, and the first cost of the goods in the sea-port where they may be procured is alone to be charged to the said tribe free from the cost of transportation, or any other contingent expense. Whenever the said tribe may choose to receive money, provisions or domestic animals for the whole or in part of the said annuity, the same shall be delivered at the town of Kaskaskia. The United States will also cause to be built a house suitable for the accommodation of the chief of the said tribe, and will enclose for their use a field not exceeding one hundred acres with a good and sufficient fence. And whereas, The greater part of the said tribe have been baptised and received into the Catholic church to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually for seven years one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for the said tribe the duties of his office and also to instruct as many of their children as possible in the rudiments of literature. And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church. The stipulations made in this and the preceding article, together with the sum of five hundred and eighty dollars, which is now paid or assured to be paid for the said tribe for the purpose of procuring some necessary articles, and to relieve them from debts which they have heretofore contracted, is considered as a full and ample compensation for the relinquishment made to the United States in the first article.
The United States gave money toward a church building and provided a stipend for a priest to continue work already begun, which included both religious and non-religious duties.
The Kaskaskia were already Catholic converts. Nothing is said directly about evangelizing, and is an inference. Nothing in the treaty required the priest to attempt to make converts. He certainly could have involved himself in numerous other pastoral duties to the already converted, in addition to his duties teaching literature. Apparently the funds were paid to the tribe for the listed purposes.
One reason why this treaty is important to those who want the government to establish Christianity as the nation’s religion is because funds were paid for religious purposes. However, it is very important to remember that the Indian tribes were considered sovereign nations. This treaty provides money for another, albeit very small nation of people, to pursue religious ends of their choosing. This is not the same as awarding money to a state government for the purpose of paying ministers. Some state governments debated those kind of proposals but eventually all of those initiatives were defeated.
In addition, it appears that Barton wants to make Jefferson look more evangelical than he was. He attempts to compare Jefferson’s action in signing the treaty to today’s evangelicals who would not be comfortable with such an arrangement, thus casting Jefferson as one who was willing to mesh political policy with religious practice.
In fact, the Kaskaskia tribe turned to Catholicism via the ministry of Father Marquette in the mid-1600s. By the time they signed the treaty with the United States, there were only about 200 members of the tribe. The United States government recognized their allegiances and responded accordingly. What Jefferson allowed was an acknowledgement of the practices of Kaskaskia tribe rather than an effort to convert them with government money.
Next: Did Jefferson sign official documents with the appellation, “In the Year of Our Lord Christ?”
Previously: Was the Jefferson Bible an evangelism tool?