Editor’s note: Two of our nation’s Founders — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — died on the same day: July 4, 1826. A two-part series by veteran writer and freethinker James A. Haught examines their lives and their skepticism toward organized religion.
Virtually none of America’s most prominent Founders was a traditional Christian. Most were Deists (sort-of forerunners of science-minded Unitarians) who speculated that a Creator had formed the universe and nature but had nothing to do with churches or Jesus.
One was John Adams, who was sent to Harvard College and pressured to become a clergyman. However, Adams chose law. He told a friend that he respected lawyers, but saw in the clergy the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” In a 1756 letter to his brother-in-law Richard Cranch, he explained why he rejected the ministry: “The frightful engines of ecclesiastical councils, of diabolical malice and Calvinistical good-nature never failed to terrify me exceedingly whenever I thought of preaching.”
When Britain imposed the Stamp Act on the colonies in 1765, Adams became a leader of colonial resistance. After his election to the Massachusetts Legislature, he attacked British policies. Then he went to Philadelphia in 1774 as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, where he became a chief advocate of independence. Adams proposed the creation of a Continental Army, with George Washington as commander.
Two years later, he seconded the motion to break with Britain, and was named to the committee to write a Declaration of Independence. Adams worked with his younger colleague from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, who called him “the colossus of that debate.”
Adams served as envoy to France and Britain, and helped negotiate an end to the Revolutionary War in 1783. In the first elections in 1788 and 1792, he received the second-highest number of electoral votes, making him vice president under President Washington. He displayed his secular views during this time.
“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature,” he wrote in A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in support of various state constitutions around the country. “It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven.”
In the 1796 election, Adams got three more votes than his fellow thinker from Virginia, so he became president of the United States, with Jefferson as his vice president. “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” famously proclaimed the Treaty of Tripoli that Adams signed on June 10, 1797.
In the 1790s, political parties began taking shape. Populist-minded Jefferson and James Madison led the incipient Democrats. Aristocratic Alexander Hamilton and half-aristocratic Adams headed the Federalists. Hamilton turned the 1800 election vicious. He half-heartedly supported Adams as the Federalist nominee for president while leading a Federalist slander campaign that branded Jefferson an atheist. Jefferson narrowly won, and Adams bitterly went home to retirement. In his post-presidential years, Adams remained committed to freedom of thought.
“Let the human mind loose; it must be loose; it will be loose,” he counseled his son (and future president) John Quincy Adams. “Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.”
Years later, after Jefferson also had retired to his farm, a remarkable thing happened: The two men who had been young friends, then split as political enemies, reconciled and entered a long period of warm correspondence. Their letter-writing focused repeatedly on religion, and they concurred in their scorn for Christianity.
“Indeed, Mr. Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public?” Adams wrote in 1813. “Miracles after miracles have rolled down in torrents.”
For the remainder of their twilight years, Adams and Jefferson kept up their fond letters.
“There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations,” Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1825. “Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigating the divine authority of those books?”
Finally, on July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — the dying Adams spoke his final words: “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” He did not know that Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.