234 Years Later, No One's Doubting Thomas

January 16, 2020

"...By these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered." --Thomas Jefferson

He was a president -- a man who doubled the size of our country, abolished the international slave trade, even developed the plans for West Point. When the Library of Congress was demolished in the War of 1812, he single-handedly restocked it. He invented the polygraph, swivel chairs, the dumbwaiter, message encoders, a form of the pedometer, even the macaroni noodle. He was America's first secretary of state, its father of intellectual property rights. But as impressive as those accomplishments are, they weren't what mattered to him. When Thomas Jefferson died, not one of these things appeared on his tombstone.

"On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more," Jefferson instructed. His legacy, he decided, would be three things: the Declaration of Independence, his founding the University of Virginia, and a local law that would become the foundation for our First Amendment -- the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. When visitors walk the garden path to his gravesite at Monticello, they realize that Jefferson -- whose face is on Mount Rushmore, the two-dollar bill, and carved into a giant marble likeness under the Tidal Pool dome -- was most proud, not of leading his infant country, but of his contributions to liberty.

When the memorial was made, Jefferson wanted it to be of "course stone... that no one might be tempted to destroy it..." To be fair, no one wanted to harm it, but shortly after it was put in place, people couldn't help themselves. Little by little, the granite was chipped away. Grateful Americans were breaking off tiny pieces of the stone -- not because it was worth anything, but because they wanted something to remember the president by.

Jefferson's legacy, it turns out, was not so easy to whittle away. A full 234 years after the 43-year-old Thomas dipped his pen in ink and wrote the words that separate America from the world, we still live by them. "Almighty God," the eventual president wrote, "hath created the mind free... [A]ll attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do."

The statute wasn't taken seriously at first. It took a whole 10 years for Jefferson's revolutionary idea to even pass the general assembly. By then, he wasn't even there -- he was in Paris, serving as a U.S. minister. But, as historians point out, he "watched anxiously" from afar, as James Madison championed the bill through its decade-long journey. When it finally passed, Jefferson was so convinced of its significance that he had it translated into French and Italian and "distributed as widely as possible."

Asked later why he was so passionate about it, Jefferson said his Virginia statute "is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier against usurpations on the rights of conscience. As long as it is respected & no longer, these will be safe." While the story of America was still being written, he was determined to give his new country the freedom England would not. And that determination led to one of his greatest inventions: a way for every American -- believing and unbelieving -- to live an authentic life.

He understood then that without religious liberty, there is no freedom. Maybe that's why, despite all of his other accomplishments, the words that inspired the First Amendment are what he's most proud of. More than two centuries later, they're still stirring countries to fight for the liberties that set America apart. And while he didn't live to see how the Founders' experiment turned out, Jefferson would be gratified to know that in a world where three out of every four people live in places hostile to faith, America is still one of the brightest lights on freedom's shore.

Today, on the anniversary of the signing that made that possible, we celebrate that -- and the men and women of courage who keep the torch burning.

For more on Religious Freedom Day, check out David Closson's new piece in Townhall, "Religious Freedom Still Deserves Our Respect."