Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, following one of the most bitterly contested presidential elections in American history. He had faced the unpopular incumbent, Federalist John Adams of Massachusetts—his confrere in the independence struggle and longtime rival. The electorate was deeply divided along regional, partisan, and ideological lines. Acrimonious campaign rhetoric punctuated the polarized political landscape.

In few, if any, presidential contests has religion played a more divisive and decisive role than in the election of 1800. Jefferson's religion, or alleged lack thereof, emerged as a critical issue in the campaign. His Federalist opponents vilified him as a Jacobin and atheist. (Both charges stemmed from his notorious sympathy for the French Revolution, which in the 1790s had turned bloody and, some said, anti-Christian.) In the days before the election, the Gazette of the United States, a leading Federalist newspaper, posed the "grand question" of whether Americans should vote for "GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT [John Adams]; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!"

Jefferson's Federalist foes did not invent the stinging accusation that he was an infidel. Years before, his ardent advocacy for disestablishment in Virginia had led many pious Americans to conclude that Jefferson was, if not an enemy of religion, at least indifferent towards organized religion's vital role in civic life. The publication of his Notes on the State of Virginia in the mid-1780s exacerbated these fears. He wrote, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket ...

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