I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
Thomas Jefferson was quick out of bed Thursday, July 4, 1776. The 33 year-old wordsmith of the Declaration of Independence had resolved never to let the sun catch him in bed. After rising Jefferson sat quietly for a good while soaking his feet in cold water and thinking on the day ahead. Then he took out a thermometer to record the first of three temperature readings he did daily for almost 60 years. Methodically he wrote in his Weather Memorandum Book, “68° at 6:00 a.m.” He was happy as that meant a relatively cool fourth day of July in Philadelphia.
Jefferson walked to the Graff House, where he had labored over the wording of the Declaration of Independence, and then proceeded to the Pennsylvania State House. On Tuesday of that week (July 2) he, along with other delegates of the Continental Congress, voted for independence from Great Britain. Today they would listen to his draft of the Declaration, make recommendations, and then vote on Jefferson’s draft. At 1:00 in the afternoon, while listening to delegates debate wording, Jefferson wrote down his second temperature reading for the day: “76°”. One can imagine Jefferson’s sigh of relief when the last delegate voiced a hearty “Aye” to the wording of the Declaration. But Jefferson’s work was far from over.
The delegates were so impressed by his work on the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain that they immediately appointed him, along with a more vocal John Adams and a more senior Benjamin Franklin, to design a seal for the new United States of America. The delegates were eager for the new nation to have a seal to tell the world what the infant nation stood for. Jefferson returned to his desk at the Graff House and started jotting down ideas for the Great Seal of the United States. Jefferson said that he thought it would be most appropriate for the Seal to show “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night.” As he thought back on the history of the thirteen colonies he believed that God had led them from bondage into a promised land of justice and freedom.
Ben Franklin liked young Jefferson’s thinking and suggested that the Great Seal show “a pillar of fire in the cloud, expression of the divine presence and command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore & extending his hand over the sea”. Both men thought they had seen the gracious hand of Providence guiding the nation from its beginning.
However, the Continental Congress tabled Jefferson and Franklin’s proposals and eventually adopted another design seen on the back of our dollar bill. Yet Jefferson and Franklin continued to hold to their belief that God was guiding the nation’s founding.
Today, while the name of Thomas Jefferson is frequently misused in debate over the “separation of church and state”, there is no doubt where Jefferson stood on the matter. When Jefferson was President he wrote to fearful Baptists of a Danbury, Connecticut congregation, about a “wall of separation”. He wanted them to know that there was a “wall” separating the government from the church which would prevent government interference in free exercise of their religion. President Jefferson reassured them that the “wall” was there for their protection from any governmental interference with their religious liberties.
It is surely not without significance that when construction of the nation’s capitol building was completed, President Thomas Jefferson approved the building’s use for regular Sunday worship. And the religiously eclectic Jefferson was a faithful attender of worship services in the House chamber.
On our nation’s birthday I tip my hat to ‘TJ’, I give a heart-felt thanks for him and for our other Founders. And, between bites of barbecue and ice cream, I intend to spend some time pondering some other powerful words by Thomas Jefferson:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
(Jefferson’s words are engraved on the North Portico of the Jefferson Memorial, and are taken from his “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII”)
America bless God!
P. S. Before Jefferson went to bed on the night of July 4, he recorded his last temperature reading for the day: “73 ½° at 9:00 p.m.”