Sunday, July 4, 2010

"to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves"

Happy Fourth, Dear Readers. I wasn't sure what to post today when I saw that my local newspaper ran this wonderful letter from Thomas Jefferson. So I am stealing it. In the letter an elderly Jefferson declines an invitation to visit Washington D.C. on the 50th anniversary of Independence, and reflects of the significance of the event. Jefferson would die a few weeks later--on July 4, 1826.

(Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman)

Monticello, June 24, 1826

Respected Sir-

The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.

Th. Jefferson

I copied the text of the letter from an older but still excellent Library of Congress web exhibit: Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents. The image of the letter is taken from the LOC Thomas Jefferson Papers.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of his statement "monkish", which at the time was usually directed against Catholics or Catholic governments? King Charles was obviously not Catholic, and the British Parliament obviously anti-Catholic. Since ostensibly our revolution was about freedom from the British, anti-Catholic govt., it seems strange that Jefferson would use this term.

Diana Pasulka

Larry Cebula said...

Diana: You are absolutely correct that in the 19th century "monk" and "monkish" were shorthand for anti-Catholic sentiments. But it seems for Jefferson and perhaps others of his era the term referred to any church that tried to influence political processes, usually for supporting monarchy.

Searching the The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the LOC for "monk" or "monkish" gets two hits other than the letter in this post. The first is this fascinating 1798 letter from Jefferson to Stevens T. Mason, a political ally in Virginia. Jefferson asks Mason to pay off Peter Callender for services rendered that Jefferson would rather not become public, and frets about the Alien and Sedition Acts. In reference to the latter he writes: "I consider those laws as merely an experiment on the American mind, to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the constitution. If this goes down we shall immediately see attempted another act of Congress, declaring that the President shall continue in office during life, reserving to another occasion the transfer of the succession to his heirs, and the establishment of the Senate for life. At least, this may be the aim of the Oliverians, while Monk & the Cavaliers (who are perhaps the strongest) may be playing their game for the restoration of his most gracious Majesty George the Third. That these things are in contemplation, I have no doubt; nor can I be confident of their failure, after the dupery of which our countrymen have shewn themselves susceptible." Clearly by "Monk" he means the conservative religious establishment of the day, particularly the Church of England.

The second hit is an 1816 letter in which Jefferson mocks the "pious young monks from Harvard and Yale" again not a Catholic reference. So I think that to Jefferson the term was a general one.

See the The Thomas Jefferson Papers here:

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry,

Wow, thanks and kudos for digital archives that allow us to contextualize a phrase that a few years ago would have been a timely endeavor indeed.

I know Jefferson was not anti-Catholic (or at least not virulently so), so I wondered about his use of the phrase. Now I know :) Diana P.