The north face of the Rotunda
Lifetime Learning

A Thankful Thomas Jefferson

By John Ragosta
Faculty Director, Summer Jefferson Symposium

I just received a very nice electronic wish for a happy and healthy Thanksgiving season from UVA’s Lifetime Learning. I always appreciate such cards, electronic and otherwise, bringing my thoughts back, if only briefly, to people, places, and times that are very fond memories.

I was also asked today what Thomas Jefferson might think of the government’s proclamation of a day for national thanksgiving. After all, as president, Jefferson adamantly opposed proposals that he issue a proclamation for a day of fasting and prayer during a time of national crisis or any other proposal for an official call to prayer. Writing one correspondent, Jefferson not only insisted that such a presidential proclamation would violate the First Amendment but made it clear that it would also be a bad idea: “I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; . . . Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. . . . Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, . . .”

Jefferson could quickly deflate proposals that he found ill-founded.

That, though, leaves us with several questions: First, when governor, Jefferson did issue a proclamation for a day of prayer and thanksgiving in 1779. True, but in that case Jefferson was simply implementing the policy of the General Assembly as it reacted to a request from the Continental Congress. Similarly, he referred to a 1774 call for a day of fasting and prayer to support Boston as something that he and some political allies “cooked up,” hardly a robust endorsement. In any case, Jefferson’s views on religion and government evolved considerably before he took the emphatic position as president that any such government proclamation was an unacceptable violation of the First Amendment.

Second, in both of his inaugural addresses, Jefferson specifically prays for divine guidance and asks that his fellow citizens pray for his success as president. “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are,” he wrote in his second inaugural, “to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications.” Yet, Jefferson obviously saw this as different, an acceptable act for the president whereas an official presidential proclamation of thanksgiving and prayer was not. The difference lay in his role: His inaugural address was a personal statement, not an official declaration to which anyone must, or was even asked to, conform. James Madison made this point expressly, observing that government officials, “[i]n their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, . . . might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever; in the same manner as any other individuals might do.” Madison cautioned, though, that “then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate.” Jefferson would agree. A separation of church and state was never intended to prevent officials, in their private capacity, from behaving religiously, including public prayer or worship. Jefferson was strongly committed, though, to making sure that this religiosity did not invade their official functions.

Still, that leaves us with the uncomfortable question of whether Jefferson would have opposed the official Thanksgiving holiday – the turkey industry and football promoters are waiting on pins and needles. Of course, in the modern era, the holiday has lost much of its religious connotation – commercialism and consumption (Black Friday and over-indulgence) being the real object of devotion. Still, there is a lingering religiosity to the event. In fact, President Obama’s Thanksgiving speech in 2011 was heavily criticized in some circles for not being adequately focused on God. Jefferson (and Madison) would have provided another caution: President Obama should be clear that he is making a personal statement of thanksgiving, not a public call to worship. I suspect that Obama understands that; whether his critics understand the centrality of separation of church and state to American religious freedom is another matter. (I take up all of these issues in considerable more detail in Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (forthcoming UVA Press, 2013).)

Still, what about the holiday itself? Perhaps Jefferson would distinguish between a call to fasting and prayer (which he emphatically rejected in his official capacity) and a general call to thanksgiving – giving thanks to whomever or whatever you believe appropriate for the many blessings that we receive individually and as a nation. I certainly hope so.

 Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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