The Revolution of 1800

Gregory W. Hamilton March/April 2001

The Threat

One of the lessons arising out of this particular election involved the priceless constitutional value of keeping one’s personal religious freedom intact in the midst of heated political debate. Candidates were to be free of having religious tests imposed upon them as a prequalification for public office.

The Framers believed that anything less constituted harassment—puritanical harassment—and was of such a personal nature that it was not in the best interests of the country. Article VI, section 3, clearly stated—as it does today—that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

While there were no Christian Coalition voter guides to speak of in those days, or a Federal Elections Commission to monitor such activities, many were not ready to concede that it was unlawful to put candidates running for public office under the scrutiny of litmus tests over matters of “faith.” To trash a candidate’s particular set of core beliefs or nonbeliefs in an effort to alter the outcome of the election, was a tactic freely used, and without apology, by religious leaders sympathetic to the Federalist Party.

On this point Jefferson perceived a critical threat to the Constitution. Partisan squabbles that manifested themselves in the development of two rival political parties was one thing. But to let Puritans control elective outcomes through the use of religious tests and the use of the Federalist Party as its mouthpiece was another. It was not only a questionable violation of Article VI, section 3, of the Constitution, but it essentially sanctioned a return to the Calvinist model of encouraging the clerical supervision of the civil magistrate for religious, cultural, and legislative purposes.

The Challenge

In his first inaugural address President Thomas Jefferson skillfully reflected on the need for Americans to be vigilant in preserving freedom of religious and political expression.

Americans had gained little, he said, if, after “having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered . . . we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.” Then, as if speaking to the Federalists and their Puritan allies, he said: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated and where reason is left free to combat it.”

For Jefferson, this was the best check against those who might at any time in the nation’s history interpret the new Constitution in a manner that favored their own religion at the expense of the people’s choice for religious pluralism and democracy.

The Assault

During the election of 1800 Jefferson had his own encounter with the Religious Right. According to Eugene Sheridan, in his classic introduction to Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, “the Federalist Party and their ministerial allies arraigned Jefferson before the bar of public opinion as an unbeliever who was unworthy to serve as chief magistrate of a Christian nation.”

Pastor Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University, was a prime example of those detractors. During the campaign Dwight took advantage of his pulpit to rain fire and brimstone on Jefferson. He said, “Can serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt that, if Jefferson is elected, those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin, which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence, defend our property from plunder and devastation and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon? For what end? That our churches may become temples of reason, the Bible cast into a bonfire, and that we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution?”

The written attacks were just as vicious. For example, the Gazette of the United States, the flagship paper of the Federalist Party, urged voters to lay their hands on their hearts and ask themselves: “Shall I continue in allegiance to God, and a religious president, or impiously declare for Jefferson and no God!”

Curiously, John Adams, the incumbent president, had once castigated the idea of Christ’s divinity as an “awful blasphemy.” Yet Adams—favorite son of Massachusetts—was given a pass. It was Jefferson who was accused of being an infidel unworthy of the office. For some, to vote for Jefferson was to sin against God and be forever lost! Using the “God” card, along with rumor and innuendo, was justified if it kept Jefferson out of office.

As Jefferson historian Willard Randall puts it, no presidential campaign “has more brutally combined these tactics than the 1800 campaign, which left Jefferson stunned and the country deeply divided for years.”

The Man

Even though Jefferson was called a “scoundrel” and an “atheist,” he was neither. Late in his life Jefferson actually ended up professing that he was a “Unitarian” Christian.

Like Adams, Jefferson rejected the divinity of Christ. This was because of his view that Christ’s miracles were not possible and likely were embellishments of the Gospel authors. But Jefferson read the Bible daily and even composed his own commentary of the four Gospels from the Greek, French, Latin, and English. He wrote “The Philosophy of Jesus” during his first term as president in 1804, and then “The Life and Morals of Jesus” in 1820. In the midst of the campaign in 1800 Jefferson expressed in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush that he possessed “a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deist; and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected.”

Jefferson had repeatedly read Joseph Priestly’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity and as a result would never fully accept the doctrines of the Trinity, soul immortality, the divinity of Jesus, and eternal punishment. He abhorred the pagan concept of a nonmaterial immortality because he believed it encouraged a reckless lifestyle and laundered a corrupt payoff for priests. Jefferson admired Jesus for teaching a literal resurrection, because it meant that someday he would be reunited with his beloved wife and children. In sum, while Jefferson obviously held religious views unacceptable to many, he was a religious man and much attracted to the moral principles of Christianity.

The Exchange

Jefferson’s religious growth, combined with his experience in establishing religious freedom in Virginia, seemed to make him more keenly aware that a quiet hostility continued to flourish against the idea of religious freedom, even among the ruling class.

In a letter to Jefferson dated August 22, 1800, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote that he had “always considered Christianity as the strong ground of Republicanism.” He then suggested that it was “necessary for Republicanism to ally itself to the Christian religion [in order] to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world.” Appalled that his physician friend would equate Christianity with Republicanism and advocate an unholy alliance between church and state—with the motive of overthrowing religious and political institutions whose practices Dr. Rush disagreed with—Jefferson responded by reminding him that such an alliance already existed in America and was working its ill effects on the Constitution and its citizens.

Jefferson pointed out that the opposition he was receiving involved the joint efforts of Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party, and specific New England clerics who fostered a “very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.” This led Jefferson in the same letter to express eloquently his now-famous line: “For I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Dumas Malone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Jefferson, points out that “the long-lived conflict which the dominant clergy of that region waged against this apostle of religious freedom” continued because Jefferson refused to disclose his personal religious views in a manner that satisfied their insatiable appetite for religious and political power, and because he believed that his religious views were an entirely private matter.

The Barrier

To many New England clerics, the idea that American citizens were free to worship or not worship, and to hold views in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences, remained unacceptable and bordered on blasphemy! So during the election of 1800 the Puritan ideals of the past rose up in seeming desperation to challenge a new egalitarian age of enlightenment, tolerance, and freedom of conscience. Here, the most sacred values of the past—faith, family, community, and the rule of law—were about to merge with secular and liberal notions of individualism. But not without a fight!

The Lesson

This perhaps explains why the presidential election of 1800 was such an important turning point in our nation’s history. Successful constitutional processes were at stake, especially when adapting to (1) an emerging two-party system, and (2) the ban on religious tests for those seeking public office, as expressed in Article VI, section 3, of the Constitution.

In the new democratic republic, Jefferson understood that the Constitution must be entrusted with the people and not just with theologians who might claim to speak on behalf of God. Indeed, America’s constitutional experiment was founded on the “We the people,” and not on God’s expressed authority. This is the fundamental difference between the Puritan and Constitutional foundings. That is why the Constitution remains the fundamental obstacle to the present and future success of the Religious Right in the twenty-first century.

For an interesting “in their own words” view of the tensions and issues leading up to the election of 1800, see Richard N. Rosenfeld, American Aurora (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

Article Author: Gregory W. Hamilton

Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). Established in 1906, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Hamilton wrote the seminal work, "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," published in 1998 by Baylor University. From time to time, Greg publishes Liberty Express, a journal dedicated to special printed issues of interest on America's constitutional founding, church history and its developmental impact on today's church-state debates, and current constitutional and foreign policy trends. He is available to speak in North America and internationally about these subjects and related issues. To become familiar with the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, please visit