- Barbara Clark Smith, Curator, Division of Political History, National Museum of American History
- Harry Rubenstein, Chair and Curator, Division of Political History, National Museum of American History
The first presidential candidate to be attacked for his supposed religious views was Thomas Jefferson, in the election of 1800. Clergymen and writers in newspapers suggested that Jefferson was a heretic, an atheist, and an opponent of all religion. What was the fact of the matter? And what can Jefferson’s beliefs—and the controversy about them—tell us about Jefferson’s America?
Curators Harry Rubenstein and Barbara Clark Smith discuss Jefferson’s personal beliefs, based on his writings and the book that he made, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. They explore the broad impact of Enlightenment ideas on many Americans in the age of revolution. They will explain why Jefferson never publicly replied to attacks on his religion. Most important, the curators examine Jefferson’s views of the American Revolution as a way to understand his idea of the place of religion in the new republic.
The topic offers a rich opportunity for discussing the careful use of historical evidence in understanding past individuals and the debates of their times. It illuminates social, economic, and religious aspects of the American Revolution.