[Back to Homepage | Back to Literature Links Homepage]

Letter from Thomas Jefferson

Letter To Dr. Thomas Cooper - Monticello, November 2, 1822


        _To Dr. Thomas Cooper_
        _Monticello, November 2, 1822_


        DEAR SIR, -- Your favor of October the 18th came to hand
yesterday.  The atmosphere of our country is unquestionably charged
with a threatening cloud of fanaticism, lighter in some parts, denser
in others, but too heavy in all.  I had no idea, however, that in
Pennsylvania, the cradle of toleration and freedom of religion, it
could have arisen to the height you describe.  This must be owing to
the growth of Presbyterianism.  The blasphemy and absurdity of the
five points of Calvin, and the impossibility of defending them,
render their advocates impatient of reasoning, irritable, and prone
to denunciation.  In Boston, however, and its neighborhood,
Unitarianism has advanced to so great strength, as now to humble this
haughtiest of all religious sects; insomuch that they condescend to
interchange with them and the other sects, the civilities of
preaching freely and frequently in each others' meeting-houses.  In
Rhode Island, on the other hand, no sectarian preacher will permit an
Unitarian to pollute his desk.  In our Richmond there is much
fanaticism, but chiefly among the women.  They have their night
meetings and praying parties, where, attended by their priests, and
sometimes by a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of
their love to Jesus, in terms as amatory and carnal, as their modesty
would permit them to use to a mere earthly lover.  In our village of
Charlottesville, there is a good degree of religion, with a small
spice only of fanaticism.  We have four sects, but without either
church or meeting-house.  The court-house is the common temple, one
Sunday in the month to each.  Here, Episcopalian and Presbyterian,
Methodist and Baptist, meet together, join in hymning their Maker,
listen with attention and devotion to each others' preachers, and all
mix in society with perfect harmony.  It is not so in the districts
where Presbyterianism prevails undividedly.  Their ambition and
tyranny would tolerate no rival if they had power.  Systematical in
grasping at an ascendency over all other sects, they aim, like the
Jesuits, at engrossing the education of the country, are hostile to
every institution which they do not direct, and jealous at seeing
others begin to attend at all to that object.  The diffusion of
instruction, to which there is now so growing an attention, will be
the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism; while the more
proximate one will be the progress of Unitarianism.  That this will,
ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have
no doubt.


 
        In our university you know there is no Professorship of
Divinity.  A handle has been made of this, to disseminate an idea
that this is an institution, not merely of no religion, but against
all religion.  Occasion was taken at the last meeting of the
Visitors, to bring forward an idea that might silence this calumny,
which weighed on the minds of some honest friends to the institution.
In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the
constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any
religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the
different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a
professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university,
so near as that their students may attend the lectures there, and
have the free use of our library, and every other accommodation we
can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of
each other.  This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an
institution professing to give instruction in _all_ useful sciences.
I think the invitation will be accepted, by some sects from candid
intentions, and by others from jealousy and rivalship.  And by
bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other
students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize
their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace,
reason, and morality.


        The time of opening our university is still as uncertain as
ever.  All the pavilions, boarding houses, and dormitories are done.
Nothing is now wanting but the central building for a library and
other general purposes.  For this we have no funds, and the last
legislature refused all aid.  We have better hopes of the next.  But
all is uncertain.  I have heard with regret of disturbances on the
part of the students in your seminary.  The article of discipline is
the most difficult in American education.  Premature ideas of
independence, too little repressed by parents, beget a spirit of
insubordination, which is the great obstacle to science with us, and
a principal cause of its decay since the revolution.  I look to it
with dismay in our institution, as a breaker ahead, which I am far
from being confident we shall be able to weather.  The advance of
age, and tardy pace of the public patronage, may probably spare me
the pain of witnessing consequences.


        I salute you with constant friendship and respect.