July 4, 2014


The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams by Lester J. Cappon (Editor)

Adams to Jefferson (Montezillo, May 12th. 1820.)

The question between spirit and matter appears to me nugatory because we have neither evidence nor idea of either. All that we certainly know is that some substance exists, which must be the cause of all the qualitys and Attributes which we perceive: Extension, Solidity, Perception, memory, and Reason, for all these are Attributes, or adjectives, and not Essences or substantives.

Sixty years ago, at College, I read Berkley, and from that time to this I have been fully persuaded that we know nothing of Essences, that some Essence does exist, which causes our minds with all their ideas, and this visible World with all its wonders. I am certain that this Cause is wise, Benevolent and powerful, beyond all conception; I cannot doubt, but what it is, I cannot conjecture.

Suppose we dwell a little on this matter. The Infinite divisibility of it had long ago been demonstrated by Mathematicians--When the Marquis De L'Hospital arose and demonstrated that there were quantities and not infinitely little, but others infinitely less than those infinitely littles, and he might have gone on, for what I know, to all Eternity demonstrating that there are quantities infinitely littles, and he might have gone on, for what I know, to all Eternity demonstrating that there are quantities infinitely less than the last infinitely littles; and the Phenomena of nature seems to coincide with De L'Hospitals demonstrations. For example, Astronomers inform us that the Star draconis is distant from the Earth 38. 000, 000. 000. 000. miles. The Light that proceeds from that Star, therefore, must fill a Sphere of 78. 000, 000, 000, 000, miles in diameter, and every part of that Sphere equal to the size of the pupil of the human Eye. Light is Matter, and every ray, every pencil of that light is made up of particles very little indeed, if not infinitely little, or infinitely less than infinitely little. If this Matter is not fine enough and subtle enough to perceive, to feel and to think, it is too subtle for any human intellect or imagination to conceive, for I defy any human mind to form any idea of anything so small. However, after all, Matter is but Matter; if it is infinitely less than infinitely little, it is incapable of memory, judgement, or feeling, or pleasure or pain, as far as I can conceive. Yet for anything I know, it may be as capable of Sensation and reflection as Spirit, for I confess I know not how Spirit can think, feel or act, any more than Matter. In truth, I cannot conceive how either can move or think, so that I must repose upon your pillow of ignorance, which I find very soft and consoleing, for it absolves my conscience from all culpability in this respect. But I insist upon it that the Saint has as good a right to groan at the Philosopher for asserting that there is nothing but matter in the Universe, As the Philosopher has to laugh at the Saint for saying that there are both Matter and Spirit, Or as the Infidel has to despise Berckley for saying that we cannot prove that there is anything in the Universe but Spirit and Idea--for this indeed is all he asserted, for he never denied the Existence of Matter. After all, I agree that both the groan and the Smile is impertinent, for neither knows what he says, or what he affirms, and I will say of both, as Turgot says of Berkley in his Article of Existence in the Encyclopedia: it is easier to despise than to answer them.


Oh delightful Ignorance! When I arrive at a certainty that I am Ignorant, and that I always must be ignorant, while I live I am happy, for I know I can no longer be responsible.

We shall meet hereafter and laugh at our present botherations. So believes your old Friend,


Jefferson to Adams (Monticello. Aug. 15. 20.)

[L]et me turn to your puzzling letter of May 12. on matter, spirit, motion, etc. It's croud of scepticisms kept me from sleep. I read it, and laid it down: read it, and laid it down, again and again: and to give rest to my mind, I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne, 'I feel: therefore I exist.' I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need. I can conceive thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by it's creator, as well as that attraction is an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone. When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tracts of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will, put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us indeed that 'God is spirit,' but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter. And the antient fathers generally, if not universally, held it to be matter: light and thin indeed, an etherial gas; but still matter. [...] All heresies being now done away with us, these schismatics are merely atheists, differing from the material Atheists only in their belief that 'nothing made something,' and from the material deist who believes that matter alone can operate on matter.

Rejecting all organs of information therefore but my senses, I rid myself of Pyrrhonisms with which an indulgence in speculations hyperphysical and antiphysical so uselessly occupy and disquiet the mind. A single sense may indeed be sometimes deceived, but rarely: and never all our senses together, with the faculty of reasoning. They evidence realities; and there are enough of these for the purposes of life, without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. I am sure that I really know many, many, things, and none more surely than that I love you with all my heart, and pray for the continuance of your life until you shall be tired of it yourself.


Though Adams' skepticism is quite obviously right, it is Jefferson's closing lines that are the kicker, for no man will deny that he loves and is loved and that this love is something quite real and independent of the world of mere material. That's not a reasoned argument, just an assertion (an expression of faith) but it is sufficient and just as sufficient now as it was then. And so, ultimately, we all groan with the Saint.

[originally posted: 9/24/03]

Posted by at July 4, 2014 8:00 AM


But I thought there was a book that said Jefferson was a deist? I know I read it somewhere.

Posted by: RDB at September 24, 2003 7:44 PM

Charles Beard and the Arthur Schlessingers wrote it so it must be true.

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 7:51 PM

Deism (n). A system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe.

In what way are these examples not Deistic?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 24, 2003 9:19 PM

These are (1) a belief in the existence of the Deity, (2) the obligation to reverence such a power, (3) the identification of worship with practical morality, (4) the obligation to repent of sin and to abandon it, and, (5) divine recompense in this world and the next.


Posted by: oj at September 24, 2003 9:26 PM


I would not take issue with a statement that proposed an influence by Locke on Jefferson. Nor would I argue that Locke was not a deist. I would however, argue that Jefferson cannot be justifiably categorized as a deist simply because he was influenced (without a determination of extent) by Locke. If you wished to say that Jefferson was anti-clerical I would answer that there is certainly evidence to substantiate that point.

Locke's influence on American thought at the time of the Revolution is vastly overstated by many historians. In America, the most influential thinkers and writers in the field of government at that time (or just before) were Montesqieu and Burke, who cannot conceivably be labeled as deists. The imputation of Locke's influence as being greater than either of those men rests upon a very thin reed. It is a necessary reed if you wish to construct a theory determing the Founders to have been deists. It is simply nonpersuasive based upon source documents.

Posted by: RDB at September 24, 2003 11:39 PM


You give a bit too much away there. Locke not only wasn't a deist himself, but, more importantly, his philosophy of government was explicitly Christian (Protestant Christian) rather than Deist.

Here's one of many pieces you'll find:


Here's an even better one, by my favorite Robert Kraynak, but you may need an educational account to access it:


I'd be happy to send you a pdf of it though.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 12:20 AM

Thanks OJ,

Always ready to take another look. I made my last tuition payment in 73 so I would appreciate the PDF. There is something nagging me about why I understood Locke that way. I seem to remember it from something Kirk wrote but I'm not sure it's worth the digging to find.

My high school teacheers and college profs were all heavily influenced by the Beard - Schlesinger point of view. Getting rid of that took quite a while. Perhaps my resistance to thinking of Locke as a Christian comes from reaction to their holding him up as an influence to the Founders. I'll still stick with my statement that Monteqieu and Burke were more influential - at least in the nuts and bolts sense of balance of power and proper limitations of government actions.

Posted by: RDB at September 25, 2003 1:55 AM

The operative sentence in the definition is the last one:

"...in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe."

If you asked Jefferson, et al, whether they believed in miracles, what would the answer be?

From everything I have read, both here, in a Jefferson biography, and in "The Godless Constitution" the answer for Jefferson, and many of his compatriots, would be no.

If that is the case (unlike, say, OJ--and I'm being completely serious here, my knowledge is far from encyclopediac), then despite their belief in a creator, and Jesus' role as a prophet, they couldn't be classified as Christian.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 25, 2003 7:12 AM

No, they didn't believe in miracles, who does? Jefferson's Bible tried to rewrite the whole thing without miracles. Big deal? You need only read what they wrote to see they beli4eved in God and Christ. What more is needed?

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 7:49 AM


One need not be a believer in miracles to see the "hand of a benevolent Providence" at work vis a vis the outcome of the revolution and the constitutional convention. A distinct contra-indication of deism. They were an ecumenical bunch but christian nonetheless.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 25, 2003 11:07 AM

Not believe in miracles? How did you come to that conclusion - through, dare I say it, reason? And yet, miracles are stubborn things.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 25, 2003 11:14 AM

Maybe my weakness is in believing words have meanings.

To be Christian implies certain things, like the virgin birth, divinity of Christ, that he rose from the dead to absolve our sins, and performed miracles such as loaves, fishes and walking on water etc. etc.

My point is that while they certainly believed there was a Deity, and very possibly a life hereafter, that is insufficient to make them Christians.

I am not interested in whether miracles occur, only whether many of the founding fathers believed they did. It appears they did not.

They believed in a Creator, but apparently neglected to use the Christian's term God in writing the Declaration. There basis for the Declaration was "natural law". They didn't believe in miracles, so they couldn't believe in Christ's divinity, as opposed to acknowledging Him as an historically significant figure.

And despite all this they were Christian and not Deist?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 25, 2003 12:07 PM

Jeff -

If, as Jefferson suggests, we give up dualism, the problem of miracles would seem to vanish - if God is a material actor in the Universe, his actions need not be a violation of Natural Law.

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 25, 2003 12:21 PM

If nothing else, and we're really only speaking of Jefferson here, they believed in Christ's God.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 2:03 PM


To put it as simply as possible, Deism entirely discounts the idea of an interested God or divine intervention as per the affairs of men. The revolutionary generation believed, nearly without exception, the opposite. Aside from the fact that almost all were active members of local churches or congregations of a Christian sect the most that could be said would be the "given" nature of their personal beliefs and the generaly theistic quality of their time.

BTW, where do you reckon the concept of natural law comes from?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 25, 2003 2:04 PM

Jeff -- I can point you to Bishops who don't believe in any of those points, but would damn you as judgmental for suggesting that their disbelief made them less than Christian.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 25, 2003 3:22 PM

I thought natural law in general is the functioning of observed reality. Specifically, it is that plus whatever gloss a particular religious sect chooses to put upon it. Some Anglicans think homosexuality contradicts natural law, others think it is part of natural law. Some fundamentalists think natural law includes the sun literally stopping in the sky. So far as I know, the Catholics don't.

So, I don't know. You tell me, what is natural law, and where does it come from.

I'll bet most of the Founders went with the unadorned version. Which is part of the definition of a Deism.

For example, evolution is an example of natural law. It works the way it does because the Creator set it up that way.

So the Founders felt that the Creator intended all humans to be equal before the law. Not all Christian humans, all humans.


Your answer seems far too convenient. Miracles imply momentary suspension of the physical rules governing observed reality. Virgin birth, ascension, etc are all momentary suspensions. If the Founders believed those things occurred, then you are right, and they are Christians. If they didn't, then they are not. Unitarians maybe, but not Christians.


Now it may be that Christ's God includes the qualities of a Deist Creator. But if the correspondence is exact, why didn't they use the word God instead of Creator?


Do you really think the Founders believed God--sorry, the Creator--would intervene on their behalf?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 25, 2003 3:27 PM

I would be the last person to tell a man who says he is a Christian that he is not.

Concerning Jefferson, the question should be, is the Christian church a desirable thing, and his answer was, no, but you have to tolerate it anyway.

If you do not accept the miracles in the NT, you cannot use any of the rest of it to define rectitude, can you? If the miracles part is a hoax, then the rest is no more than human opinion and the ideas there have no more claim to attention than mine.

Like mine, they stand or fall based on their utility.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 25, 2003 3:48 PM

All one needs to do is read the correspondence of most of the men involved in actual hostilities durinf the revolutionary war to determine the simple fact that, as in most wars, they saw God as interested and intervening to some extent in the cause. Washington's orders regarding discipline and military justice have a moral sensibility based on respect for God and the belief that such respect and discipline would lead to more cohesion and the best results in the field. The theistic sensibility was encouraged. The correspondence is there and represented all levels of the service. Hamilton, Madison, Adams,Jay, Washington and practically all the others save possibly Jefferson, Franklin and Paine, of course, were practicing Christians. The habits of the so-called deists of the time would look almost devout by today's standards.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 25, 2003 4:48 PM
In conformity with the principles of our Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing, with the jealousies of the different sects in guarding that equality from encroachment and surprise, and with the sentiments of the Legislature in favor of freedom of religion, manifested on former occasions, we have proposed no professor of divinity; and the rather as the proofs of the being of a God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics; to which adding the developments of these moral obligations, of those in which all sects agree, with a knowledge of the languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, a basis will be formed common to all sects. Proceeding thus far without offense to the Constitution, we have thought it proper at this point to leave every sect to provide, as they think fittest, the means of further instruction in their own peculiar tenets. -Thomas Jefferson, Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia
Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 4:54 PM

Heck, I don't believe in any of the Miracles. Christ can't have been a Man and worked miracles. Only God can, thus the Conception and the Resurrection, which are by God, not by Christ.


Found a religion and see who follows. When you get to 2 billion you'll have proven its utility.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2003 5:01 PM

Fine, but don't go telling the Chinese they weren't Christians. You'd be denied a pew at any Christian church in East Tennessee, Orrin.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 26, 2003 3:56 PM


Not if I conformed to their beliefs.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 4:34 PM

They don't take Arians.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 26, 2003 9:01 PM

Then I won't be one.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2003 9:02 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus