“I Have Sworn Upon the Altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” – Thomas Jefferson in a letter to his friend, Benjamin Rush, on Sept. 23, 1800, before he was elected president of the United States.
Jefferson wrote this comment out of his concern for the creation of a state church in the United States. He was especially concerned about the Episcopalians and Congregationalists controlling religious worship in the nation.
I remember reading these words for the first time at the age of 27 in 1974 when I visited the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are written on the walls of the rotunda above his statue. These words had a deep impact on me because I had just left a mind-controlling religious cult where I had been a member for seven years.
Ironically, I had joined the cult because I didn’t want to make any major mistakes. I felt that if I followed the thinking of a man of God, I could avoid any errors in judgment. How wrong I was!
Leaving was a shattering and very painful experience for me. Jefferson’s stirring words deeply resonated with me. However, as I ponder the sentiments of Jefferson today, I’m struck by the realization that he was under the tyranny of his own thinking. Here are three examples.
While Jefferson penned most of the words of the Declaration of Independence and made the stirring statement that “All men are created equal” in July 1776, he himself was in bond service to what Southerners called their “peculiar institution.” Enslaving one’s fellow humans also enslaves the slave owner. In the practice of slavery there is a perpetual belief in the superiority of one race over another. That is a form of tyranny.
As Lord Acton noted: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There are accounts of Jefferson coldly and calculatingly seeing his slaves as a business investment that brought him a yearly rate of 4 percent.
Jefferson especially took advantage of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who bore him several slave children. Jefferson, too, had feet of clay. Had the #MeToo Movement existed in that era, his name would have been bandied about, his reputation ruined. As it was, there was only one person in Jefferson’s time who brought this affair to life. Jefferson’s response was silence.
A second example of Jefferson being in bondage to the tyranny of his own mind was his demand that government remain small. His attitude was that if a power was not clearly stated in the Constitution then the government could not usurp that power and expand federal control. Yet, his first action as the new president in 1801 was to tell his Secretary of State, James Madison, to throw out a whole slew of letters containing judicial appointments. These individuals had been nominated by his predecessor, John Adams, and confirmed by a majority of the Senate. That action was a statement of power in direct contradiction to his strongly stated belief that national power should not be increased at the expense of the people and the states. With power in his own hands, rather than in his opposition’s, those principles were ignored. This, too, is form of tyranny over the mind of man.
A third example deals with Jefferson’s famous action of taking the New Testament Bible and, using a razor, cutting out all the passages that contained accounts of miracles because he didn’t believe in them. Unless the accounts of Jesus met his criteria, he purged what he didn’t believe in. This strikes me as the height of arrogance and pride. This, too, is an example of a form of tyranny over the mind of man. We are all in bondage to pride and arrogance. It is something we constantly need to be on guard against.
I’ve used Jefferson’s human foibles not to denigrate a great man who accomplished much for our country, especially being instrumental in writing the Declaration of Independence and successfully purchasing the Louisiana Territory for the United States, but to point out that all of us, great or small, find it difficult – if not impossible – to be free from the tyranny of our own thinking. We are, as Jefferson apparently was, oblivious to our own hypocrisy when our words do not sync with our actions.
We all need to be hostile to any form of tyranny over the mind of man. The only cure for our tyranny is humility and self-awareness.