Broadly recognized as a true Renaissance man and perhaps our most erudite president, the scope of Jefferson’s intellect may perhaps best be summarized by President Kennedy’s comment to a group of Nobel Prize laureates assembled at the White House on April 2, 1962:
“I think that this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Shown here is a very rare franking signature executed by Jefferson on a panel-size postal cover and addressed in his hand to James Dinsmore at “Monticello near Milton,” bearing a faint postmark and “FREE” ink stamp. This cover is particularly noteworthy because of the recipient: Dinsmore was the famed master carpenter renowned for creating most of the elegant interior woodwork at Jefferson’s beloved Monticello (1798 – 1809). He also built Montpelier, the home of President James Madison, and helped to build the University of Virginia.
There is an interesting “Jewish angle” on Monticello: When Jefferson died, he left behind substantial debt, forcing his heirs to sell his beloved home, which was already in a state of near ruin. It was purchased by Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy (1836), one of the most colorful figures in American Jewish history, who restored the property to its original condition and opened it for public visitation.
Though Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 – he was in France at the time – his ideas regarding the protection of religious liberty made it into our Constitution through his protégé, James Madison, who is credited with drafting the First Amendment, pursuant to which (among other things) “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Though he was one of the few political leaders in colonial America to passionately promote equal rights for Jews, he advocated for Jewish religious rights not out of any particular admiration for Judaism – quite to the contrary, as we shall see – but, rather, because he broadly supported religious liberty, in both belief and practice, for all.
When Jefferson became president in 1801 (he served until 1809), there were only about 6,000 Jewish Americans; he had limited contact with Jews; and his knowledge of them was essentially limited to what he had learned from studying the Bible. Nonetheless, he manifested extreme sensitivity to the Jewish condition.
In a famous letter he wrote to Joseph Marx, a prominent Jewish merchant who helped to found Richmond’s first synagogue, he expressed his “regret…at seeing a sect [the Jews], the parent and basis of all those of Christendom, singled out for persecution and oppression.” He stated his belief that the reading of the King James version of the Bible in public schools was a “cruel addition to the wrongs” that Jews had historically suffered “by imposing on them a course of theological reading which their consciences do not permit them to pursue.” In his biography, he wrote of his pleasure regarding the rejection of a proposed amendment inserting the words “’Jesus Christ . . . the holy author of our religion.”
While advocating Jewish liberty, however, Jefferson simultaneously held Judaism itself in low regard. Though broadly considered an atheist, he was actually an acknowledged deist, believing in God as Creator but not as a deity who involved himself in human affairs. As such, he opposed all religions based on divine revelation – for example, he characterized the divinity of Jesus as “a fable” – but he seemed to be particularly critical of Jewish theology.
Jefferson was deeply troubled that the Jewish God was “a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.” In his opinion, it defied rationality that Jews could believe that “the God of infinite justice would punish the sins of the fathers upon their children.” Ultimately, he agreed with John Adams that “the principle of the Hebrew is fear.”