Deism and the founding fathers
Deism was a religious philosophy in common currency in colonial times, and some Founding Fathers (most notably Thomas Paine, who was an explicit proponent of it, and Benjamin Franklin, who spoke of it in his Autobiography) are identified more or less with this system. Thomas Jefferson became a deist in later life, and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Tyler are often identified as having some degree of deistic beliefs. Washington in particular maintained a lifelong pattern of church membership and attendance, and there is conflicting testimony from those who knew him.
Jefferson The religious views of Thomas Jefferson diverged widely from the orthodox Christianity of his era. Throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, religious studies, and morality. Jefferson was most closely connected with Unitarianism. He was sympathetic to and in general agreement with the moral precepts of Christianity, believed in an afterlife and in the active involvement, or guidance, of God in the affairs of mankind. He considered the teachings of Jesus as having “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” yet he held that the pure teachings of Jesus appeared to have been appropriated by some of Jesus’ early followers, resulting in a Bible that contained both “diamonds” of wisdom and the “dung” of ancient political agendas.
Yet he had slaves…and never gave them their freedom even upon his death.
Throughout his life, the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, owned hundreds of African-American slaves, and his position on slavery has been studied and debated by his biographers and by scholars of slavery. Starting in 1767 at the age of twenty-one, Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land and fifty-two slaves by his father’s will. In 1768 Jefferson began construction of his Monticello plantation. Through his marriage to Martha Wayles in 1772 and his father-in-law John Wayles inheritance in 1773 Jefferson inherited two plantations and 135 slaves. By 1776 Jefferson was one of the largest planters in Virginia. However, the value of his property (land and slaves) was increasingly offset by his growing debts, which made it very difficult to free his slaves and thereby lose them as assets.
Adams never bought a slave and declined on principle to utilize slave labor, saying, “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap.” Adams generally tried to keep the issue out of national politics, because of the anticipated southern response during a time when unity was needed to achieve independence. He spoke out in 1777 against a bill to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts, saying that the issue was presently too divisive, and so the legislation should “sleep for a time.” He also was against use of black soldiers in the Revolution, due to opposition from southerners. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts about 1780, when it was forbidden by implication in the Declaration of Rights that John Adams wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution. Abigail Adams, on the other hand, vocally opposed slavery.