Jefferson – Arch Priest of Atheism

Chris Riegg

Video 1: Jefferson – Arch Priest of Atheism

The United States presidential election of 1800 was remarkable in its astonishing viciousness. While President John Adams and his challenger Thomas Jefferson both refrained from public demagoguery to preserve the semblance of an honorable campaign, their supporters decried the opposition as illegitimate. At best, the other candidate was hopelessly incompetent; at worst, he was positively satanic. Rancor and hyperbole defined the nation’s electoral discourse. This propaganda was disseminated by proxy through partisan newspapers and other political organs, allowing the candidates to fulfill society’s expectations of civility by keeping their hands clean while zealous followers executed their dirty work.

The Federalist Party assailed Jefferson’s character on three fronts. First, Adams’ camp accused Jefferson of atheism and idolatry. This charge was particularly damning in the context of America’s hardy religiosity at the turn of the century. Second, Jefferson’s support for the French Revolution was attacked as evidence of “Jacobin” tendencies and a sign of sinister hopes for a similarly bloody uprising in America. Third, the Federalists criticized Jefferson for promoting faction in his role as leader of the opposition party.

My campaign advertisement is intended to reflect the vitriol of the 1800 election by delivering the Federalist case against Jefferson in its original ad hominem form. The advertisement primarily attacks Jefferson’s religious beliefs. It also presents criticisms of his French ties and factionalism. My goal in creating the advertisement was to frame Jefferson as a radical infidel who threatened to divide the nation and bring divine judgment. The quotations I selected are almost completely devoid of substance. They are representative of the baseless invective that dominated the 1800 campaign.

A slide-by-slide explanation of the advertisement follows.

Slide 1 (Over black): “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation, and…a rebellion against God.” (1800)[1]

Explanation: This quotation implies a question: does such an “enemy to the religion of Christ” exist in America? The article’s broader context argues that Jefferson is just such an enemy. This hanging question is answered by the second slide. However, the ambiguity of the passage in the advertisement creates anticipation that is only resolved in the next slide.

Slide 2 (Over black): “I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.” (1787)[2]

Explanation: This quotation, taken from Jefferson himself, answers the question implied by the first slide: Jefferson is a rebel against God and an enemy of Christ. In addition, the quotation’s allusion to the French Revolution begins to link Jefferson to the Reign of Terror—a connection that is cemented in the fourth slide.

Slide 3 (Portrait of Jefferson): “Thomas Jefferson…has always had the character of an infidel…” (1800)[3]

Explanation: This straightforward indictment explicitly states the implications of the previous two slides: Jefferson is an enemy of Christianity.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Wilson Peale (1791)[4]

Explanation: Peale’s portrait was the most brooding of the available options. Jefferson is looking to the left—an orientation typically associated with the past rather than the future in Western art—and his eyes are hazy and hooded. The portrait fades into the next slide to establish a direct tie between Jefferson and the French Revolution.

Slide 4 (Execution of Louis): “[We must] prevent an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of the State.” (1800)[5]

Explanation: Hamilton’s attack on Jefferson includes the new accusation that he is a fanatical in addition to heretical. Accusations of fanaticism were grounded in Jefferson’s alleged Jacobin sympathies.

Image: “Hell broke loose, or, The murder of Louis, vide, the account of that unfortunate monarch’s execution” by William Dent (1793)[6]

Explanation: Dent’s illustration of Louis’ execution at the hands of French revolutionaries is juxtaposed with Hamilton’s accusation of fanaticism to connect Jefferson with the Reign of Terror. Together with the slide’s quotation, the image conveys a warning that Jefferson will unleash “Hell Broke Loose” in America just as the Jacobins did in France.

Slide 5 (Portrait of Jefferson): “[Jefferson] has been systematically opposed to the measures of the government, and has allowed himself to be held up, latterly, as the chief of the party opposed to it.” (1800)[7]

Explanation: This quotation builds on the previous slide’s characterization of Jefferson as a political radical, attacking even his domestic public service as blindly fanatical service to factional interests.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786)[8]

Explanation: Jefferson appears aristocratic and grave in Brown’s portrait. The red background and the shadows over Jefferson’s eyes lend an unsettling air to the piece.

Slide 6 (Same portrait of Jefferson): “Indeed, nothing but the madness of party could ever have held up Mr. Jefferson as a candidate—a man who has…very little sound philosophy and still less practical knowledge” (1800)[9]

Explanation: Jefferson’s reputation as a great intellectual was an important political asset. This quotation is included to recast Jefferson’s intellect as a liability by portraying him as a naïve theorist with his head in the clouds. The only possible explanation for the nomination of such a candidate is the “madness or party” that Jefferson is linked to by the previous slide.

Slide 7 (Photo of Constitution): “Mr. Jefferson has deeply imbibed the atheistical philosophy of the French…he has assiduously labored to destroy the happy Constitution under which we live…” (1798)[10]

Explanation: This quotation echoes the fourth slide and its warning to prevent “an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics” from taking office. The argument that Jefferson somehow sought an end to the Constitution is, of course, absurd, but it may have seemed faintly plausible in light of Jefferson’s well-known affection for the French Revolution and all of its institution-toppling mayhem.

Image: Constitution of the United States[11]

Explanation: This photograph of the Constitution serves as a simple backdrop for text while simultaneously reminding viewers of the significance of Jefferson’s alleged offensive against the Constitution.

Slide 8 (Same photo of Constitution): “The whole strength of open and active infidelity is on the side of Mr. Jefferson.” (1800)[12]

Explanation: Mason’s indirect attack on Jefferson frames the election as a battle royal between pagans and people of faith. Needless to say, the heathens in this narrative are all Democratic-Republicans, and this cannot reflect well on their paladin.

Slide 9 (Wreathed portrait of Jefferson): “the great arch priest of Jacobinism and infidelity” (1800)[13]

Explanation: Parsons’ epithet imagines Jefferson as the founder of an entire political order based on sacrilege and revolution. The choice of the word “priest” infuses this imaginary movement with religious fervor and implies that Christianity and Jefferson’s ideologies are incompatible and mutually exclusive.

Image: “Thomas Jefferson, a philosopher, a patriote [sic], and a friend” by Tadeusz Kościuszko (1799)[14]

Explanation: This portrait is included to subtly reinforce pagan associations through the prominent Greek laurel wreath with which it crowns Jefferson.

Music: “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky (1874), performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (1987).[15]

Explanation: “Night on Bald Mountain” sets an ominous tone for the advertisement through dissonance and an unstable melody that threatens to collapse at any moment—in other words, a musical analog for the advertisement’s caricature of Jefferson. I realized tonight while reviewing sources that “Night on Bald Mountain” was written well after the election of 1800. I would be very grateful for amnesty on this count given that I was able to independently identify the error and that the inclusion or replacement of “Night on Bald Mountain” does not significantly affect the advertisement’s fidelity to the spirit of the age.

[2] Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, Paris, February 22, 1787, published in The Adams Papers Digital Edition, ed. C. James Taylor (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)

[5] Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, New York, May 7, 1800, published in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton Digital Edition, ed. Harold C. Syrett (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2011),

[12] John Mitchell Mason, “The Voice of Warning to Christians, 1800”, published in William Emerson, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, 2 vols, (2nd ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).,Vol. 2

[13] Theophilus Parsons to John Jay, May 5, 1800, published in The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry Johnston, 4 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), 4:270

[15] Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain, July 14, 1987, Sony Classical