Seven Freethinking U.S. Presidents

Allan Callahan

Freethinking Presidents

Since American Presidents now more and more seem to be admirers of Yahweh, it is refreshing to learn that most of our earliest Chief Executives had little use for the Jewish tribal god, or his “inspired word.” We tend to think that Rationalist works were as scarce as hens’ teeth in Colonial America, but apparently this is not so. Adams told Jefferson that he began to read them before he was twelve years old, which means that they were available in provincial Massachussetts as early as 1747 and that youthful boys could get access to them.

At a still earlier time, Benjamin Franklin tells us that he read the works of Shaftesbury and Collins when he was about fifteen, which means that the works of the English Deists were available at least by 1720. And while they may not have had much circulation among backwoodsmen, they were common enough among the intelligentsia, so that, by the time the Constitution was drafted, old Yahweh was not a particularly popular figure. In fact, a preacher of that era, a Reverend Dr. Wilson, said that “the proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, show that the question was gravely debated in Congress whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it.”

Wilson further stated that:

“The men whose arguments swayed to vote God out of the Constitution, to declare that there should be no religious test, and that Congress should make no law to establish religion, were atheists in principle; that among all our Presidents from Washington downward (to 1831) not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism; that among all the Governors of Pennsylvania and New York only two of the former and one of the latter were professors of religion.”

The seven freethinking Presidents I shall discuss were not necessarily heretics in an overall sense, but were so in orthodoxy. The deity they believed in resembled a giant watchmaker who created the world and “wound it up,” so that it has been running on by itself ever since. And most of them were circumspect about expressing themselves publicly on religious matters while in office with millions of orthodox eyes upon them. They could be more frank in private, and in their periods of retirement. Nevertheless, some of them were surprisingly bold, even while in office.

George Washington

It is common for highly placed freethinking public figures to put up a kind of front to appease the Faithful. Washington was understood to be a churchmember and attended services weekly. But he did not kneel in prayer and always left before the communion, even though his wife stayed. And many people have attended church without believing in the divinity of Jesus. As a military commander, Washington held religious services in camp, but this does not prove that he held orthodox views. It is not uncommon for some skeptics to feel that the best agency for keeping ordinary soldiers under control during wartime is the usual religious service.

The Writings of George Washington, in twelve volumes, are sprinkled with references to God, but are usually couched in Deistic, rather than Church, language.

Stories have grown up that, in private, Washington knelt morning and night for prayers. These had two sources. One was a pious nephew who claimed that he once saw his uncle kneeling in prayer, as a rather young man, and believed that he did it twice a day. Forty or fifty years later, an old gentleman believed that he once surprised Washington kneeling, and the whole legend of Washington’s daily prayers came about.

At one time the clergy attempted to pin Washington down as to whether or not he was a Christian. In commenting on this incident, Jefferson wrote in his Diary on February 1st, 1799, that:

“……when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not.

They did so. However……the old fox was too cunning for them.

He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice.”

According to the religionists, when Washington was dying, he asked everyone to leave the room, so that he could spend his last hour alone with his maker. Then they give us the exact words of his prayers. But how could they do this, after every witness had left the room?

We can assume that, if Washington reverted to orthodox religious views on his deathbed, he would at least have sent for a clergyman, but this he did not do. We can also assume that, as is usual in such cases, his wife and any other religious relatives present would have asked his permission to send for one. If they did so, Washington forbade them.

John Adams

Our second President had less theistic belief than even Voltaire or Thomas Paine. He retained some of the ethic of Christianity, but rejected its doctrines. His grandson and biographer was a devout Unitarian, and he believed that his grandfather’s theological opinions were “very much in the mould adopted by the Unitarians of New England.” On the other hand he admitted that Adams rejected the Trinity, the Atonement, and the divinity of Christ, so there was really precious little Christianity left in him. In Appleton’s Cyclopaedia, Professor Fiske said that “Later in life he was sometimes called a Unitarian, but of dogmatic Christianity he seems to have had as little as Franklin or Jefferson.”

As a young man Adams at first even studied for the ministry, but, said Fiske, “soon found himself too much of a freethinker to feel at home in the pulpit of that day.” By his 21st year he was decidedly anti-clerical, and steadily developed what seems to have been almost the Agnosticism of Herbert Spencer.

After taking up the study of law he started to keep a diary, and here he freely expressed himself. On the second page he speaks of religion and says: “Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity.” If he went to church and heard some particularly disturbing nonsense, he would come home and pen an attack upon it. Two days after writing the above, Adams was highly critical of bishops, and the day after that he jibed at “the influence of ignorant or wicked priests.”

When writing for public consumption, Adams might speak of God, in Deistic terms, but when writing to a man like Jefferson, who was on his own level, the statements were somewhat different. For example, in a letter of January 22, 1825, he scoffed at the notion that the “Great Principle” which produced the universe could come “down to this little ball to be spit upon by Jews.” (Works of John Adams, X, 414-15).

In the same letter he pretty well summed up his religious feelings when he said:

“Incision-knives will never discover the distinction between matter and spirit or whether there is any or not. That there is an active principle of power in the universe is apparent, but in what substance this active principle resides is past our investigation.”

Thomas Jefferson

Our third President was not merely an Infidel Father, but the most scholarly of all our nation’s leaders. He was even such a Materialist that he held to the notion that spirit is an impossibility and matter the only reality. He believed in a Creator, but, like the Stoics, felt that even God himself is material, in an ethereal form.

Jefferson denied the divinity of Jesus as flatly as Adams did, believing that his teachings were not only full of absurdities but probably spurious as well. He thought him a blameless enthusiast with delusions, believed Paul was an impostor, and felt that Athanasius and Calvin were enemies of the human race.

Jefferson once called the Book of Revelation “the ravings of a madman.” About half of the distinguished Americans who corresponded with him seem to have been skeptics like himself, and when writing to them he could really “let down his hair,” if he chose. But, like the two predecessors before him, whenever his words were meant for the public he was very careful; so much so that Christian scholars today can glean through his statements and make a case, of sorts, that Jefferson was a pious man.

Oscar Wilde said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” Jefferson’s private statements and letters to his trusted friends were, I think, his mask, reflecting his true feelings; while in his public words he was least himself.

James Madison

Madison grew up in a strict religious family, but not much of it seemed to have rubbed off on him. A pious tutor prepared him for Princeton, and he stayed an extra year, after graduation, to learn Hebrew and theology. He had a first class knowledge of religions and his family wanted him to enter the ministry, but he refused.

A chronicler of that era, R. D. Owen, talked with an Albany preacher named Wilson who had tried to draw Madison out on his religious beliefs. “He inquired himself,” said Owen, “of Madison what were his opinions on religion, and Madison evaded any expression whatever of his religious faith.” Wilson said from his pulpit that all the Presidents up to Jackson were Deists.

Like the three who preceded him, Madison could have sprinkled his addresses and letters with a few “God Almightys” to keep up appearances, but he disdained to do so. He was a little more anti-clerical than the others, while still cautious enough to avoid any open discussion of underlying religious precepts.

His private correspondence seldom mentioned religion. However, in a letter to Edward Everett on March 19, 1823, Madison urged him to oppose all theological encroachments in education, so that their university would not become “an Arena of Theological Gladiators.”

In the History of the Life and Times of James Madison, (2 vols., 1859), biographer W. C. Rives relates how Madison was able to keep down the influence of the clergy in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. And there was one instance where a clause referring to “God and Nature” was struck out, which appears to have been Madison’s work.

James Monroe

There is little concrete evidence of Monroe’s religious opinions, but not much room for reasonable doubt. Like his four predecessors, he died without prayer or religious ministrations. John Quincy Adams gave the obituary oration, and in it refrained from using any of the religious expletives with which he was otherwise quite liberal.

Monroe was extremely friendly with that outcast of the Church, Thomas Paine, and it was while living in Monroe’s house that Paine wrote the second part of his Age of Reason. He lived there for a year and a half. As the new minister at Paris, Monroe had rescued Paine from prison in France during the French Revolution. Here the latter had had a near brush with death; only by a fluke was he not guillotined. Not only did Monroe step in to save the best known American heretic of that era (no doubt many Christians wished Paine dead and in hell), but he was also very cordial with the Deistic and Atheistic leaders of the Revolution; so much so that his government felt he was compromising America and recalled him.

A biography (Life of James Monroe, 1921) by George Morgan is significantly silent about Monroe’s religion, but it is probably pretty well summed up by a New York clerical informant of that period, who said that he “had always thought Monroe an easy sort of infidel.”

Abraham Lincoln

Although John Quincy Adams was a freethinker also, denying the divinity of Christ, I will pass over him to a President who is of much more interest.

There is probably more dispute about Lincoln’s religion than there is about the religion of any other President. In W. M. Stephenson’s biography, Lincoln (1924), the author makes a very careful study of it and could come up with nothing that could really lay the matter to rest. Probably his most significant finding was that Lincoln’s close friend and law partner, W. H. Herndon, was himself an Agnostic and said that Lincoln belonged to the same “noble army of doubters.”

The most substantial work on the orthodox side is H. B. Rankin’s Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (1916). As for Lincoln’s religious beliefs (Ch. XIV), it seems that Rankin had very little in the way of personal recollections at all, and what little he did have was flatly contradicted by others. He was a naive man, apparently considering it proof enough that Lincoln was a Christian because he went to church!

Rankin brought forth a few witnesses, but their testimony is not very convincing. For instance, a man named Irwin said that Lincoln was certainly a Christian, but “although I was personally acquainted with him for twenty-five years, and often in his office, I never heard him say a word on Christianity and religious belief.”

Another witness, Menter Graham, said that Lincoln let him read a pro-Christian essay he had written in 1833, and to show how Christian it was, Graham stated that it rejected the doctrine of hell!

The other witnesses are no more impressive.

Lincoln was very cautious in his public statements on religion – as befitted a politician needing Christian votes – and very polite, but how much faith, if any, did he really have? His own wife said herself in 1866 that, although she felt he was a religious man by nature, he “had no faith” and “was never a technical Christian.”

In 1846, while running for office against a preacher named Cartwright, the cry of “infidelity” was raised against Lincoln. He was asked to say whether or not he was a Christian, but refused.

In the course of a debate, as a young man, Lincoln said that, if we take the gospels literally, Jesus was “a bastard.” The “Great Emancipator” attended church, but never joined one, saying he could subscribe to no creeds. Also, in his younger years, three or four men (quoted by Herndon) who knew him well specifically testified that he denied the divinity of Christ.

Lincoln seems to have been a little more of a heretic in his earlier years than he was later in life, but he never basicly altered his views. Colonel W. H. Lamon, who knew him intimately, stated that “He was not a Christian.” (Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1911 ed., p. 335). Lincoln emphatically denied the Atonement. It might be said that he believed in the ethic of Christianity but not its dogmas.

Ulysses S. Grant

Our eighteenth President did not try very hard to cover up his skepticism, so there is less controversy about his religious position. Hamlin Garland, his principal biographer, says flatly that Grant “subscribed to no creed.” (U.S. Grant: His Life and Character, 1898, p. 522). The Reverend M. J. Cramer tried vainly to get from him some explicit avowal of faith, and was reduced to weakly concluding that Grant “believed the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion.” Another Christian spokesman, however, biographer E. D. Mansfield, made no attempt to refute the charge of skepticism.

Quite a bit has been made of Grant’s drinking as a military man, but General Halleck said that he was remarkably sober for “a man who is not a religious man.” About the most the orthodox can claim is that Grant was baptized on his deathbed; but even this is meaningless in his case, because it was done while he was unconscious! When he later rallied for a time and learned of the deed, he declared his surprise that such a thing was done.

SOURCE: The Liberty Bell, July 1985

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