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Social Epistemics


American Delusions: Managing Myths in the USA

Jefferson’s monumental quote

G J Boris Allan

Amongst American conservatives, a fear of atheism is a common psy­chosis, and a fear of atheism is often coupled with a need to assure people that their country is Christian, and has always been Christian. Things feared (say, homosexuality) or people feared (say, Arabs) are condemned as un-Christian. For example, a Republican Representa­tive from Georgia, giving a speech around the time of Independence Day 1997, was reported in the Congressional Record as saying:

We always hear about Thomas Jefferson being a deist, which seems almost a buzz word for atheist, yet on his monument Thomas Jefferson says: “Can the liberties of a Nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever”. End of quote.

Very explicit words, Mr. Speaker, and indeed a warning.

Jack Kingston, Congressional Record (8 July 1997).

If we note that Jefferson said nothing on his monument (he was dead) but that others selected his words to appear on an inscription, we can examine which words were chosen to represent his thoughts. Repre­sentative Kingston did not give the full quotation from the inscription on the wall of the Jefferson Monument, and the full quotation is:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between slave and master is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate that these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.

Attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Monument: Wall Inscription (1943)

According to an official guide, the inscription is taken from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, with the last two sentences being from a letter to George Washington. These are “very explicit words” indeed, but Kingston (as you can read) left out the beginning in which God gave us life and liberty, and left out the portion regarding slavery and educating the people. These omissions are difficult to explain, unless we postulate that liberty and slavery do not sit together well with God, or that Kingston did not want to waste words.

Another person who has used some of the words in the quotation, but who has not given all of them, is Newt Gingrich, again in the con­text of Christianity in the development of America. Gingrich says:

When the nation was faced with the scourge of slavery, those who argued that blacks could not legitimately be enslaved in a free country called again and again on the power of the Deity as final witness to this judgment. Thomas Jefferson expressed it best when he said: “God who gave life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism.”

Newt Gingrich, To Renew America (1995)

Gingrich does not say he used the inscription, so perhaps he used a quotation directly from Jefferson’s writings. It is clear, however, that he uses the inscription and not original sources, because the quotation on the wall was fabricated by the monument’s designers, and bears lit­tle relationship to what Jefferson actually wrote. Some relevant quota­tions from Jefferson are:

The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin [separate] them.

Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)

Note that Jefferson said “The god who...” and not “The God who...” and this implies that Jefferson did not particularly mean the Christian God (which elsewhere he gives with a capital G). Jefferson seems to be a deist (a believer in a god but not the Christian God). Furthermore, the source of the quotation is not Notes on the State of Virginia , but A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In 1983, President Rea­gan gave an address to the Annual Convention of the National Associ­ation of Evangelicals in which he quoted Jefferson (“The God … time:”) using an capital G, to support his assertion that “freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and hum­bly accepted”. In his statement, Jefferson claimed that people could not separate the fact of life from the idea of liberty, even though they might enforce a temporary separation, and he certainly did not claim that god was necessary for the presence of freedom.

If we give the two quotes from the Notes in the order they appear in the Notes, this reverses the order of the matching sentences on the monument wall:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other…

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: That his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1782)

The fabricators of the inscription rewrote both the statement about the commerce between master and slave, and the statement about Jef­ferson trembling for his country. The changed words might be more pithy, but they are certainly less pungent, and certainly are less reveal­ing of Jefferson’s thought, particularly Jefferson’s observation that the tables could be turned (a revolution of the wheel of fortune). Jefferson was worried that at some point slaves could replace their masters as the dominant group, and exact retribution. Here is one more quota­tion from Jefferson (this time, from his autobiography):

Nothing is more certain written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers.

Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (1781)

The first sentence is that appearing as part of the inscription, and the other sentences show that Jefferson did not think that freed slaves should remain in America. Partly because he was frightened of slaves turning the tables on their masters, Jefferson wanted the slaves freed, but he did not want them in his country, because he wanted them deported (back to the Africa none of them knew?) and their place as workers taken up by new white immigrants. (The final two sentences on the wall (about education) are common thoughts Jefferson expressed in many of his letters and other writings.)

The inscription is convenient, though almost totally fabricated, and the quotation is an example of blatant deception by those who planned the monument. This deception has not fooled those who are willing to question. For example, white supremacists use the quota­tion from the Autobiography to justify their racialist beliefs (they include “Nor is it less certain...”) and thus they can claim support from the revered Thomas. This is no esoteric or privileged knowledge, and Garry Wills in his Inventing America (1978) comments on the same fabrication (“a bad habit of partial quotation”), though he is not particularly concerned with the reasons why the quote was fabricated.

Possibly, what is more important than Kingston and Gingrich not giving the full text of the inscription, is the question of why the quota­tion itself is so deceptive. The answers are probably connected to the time the monument was constructed, and 1940s versions of political correctness at a time of war – the US Armed Forces were segregated throughout World War II.