Jefferson Begins Serving as Secretary of State in the First Washington Administration

[Photo by Jerry Newcombe of modern day NYC, a city referenced in this column (in the 1780s/90s). We see the back of the statue of George Washington looking out onto Wall Street.] Here’s a portion of our book, Doubting Thomas, which seeks to document that Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic, nor did he believe in the separation of God and government. This part deals with his role in the Washington administration as Secretary of State.

When appointed by President Washington to be Secretary of State, Jefferson moved to New York City and was there from March 21-August 31 in 1790. Rev. Ezra Stiles, President of the Congregational Yale College in New Haven, wrote Jefferson expressing his desire for him to become the next president. Jefferson and fellow politician James Madison made a trip to New England and New York between May 17 and June 19 in 1791 and attended churches during that trip. For instance, they worshiped in the First Congregational Church in Bennington, Vermont, (led by Rev. Job Swift) along with Vermont’s governor, Moses Robinson. Rev. William Linn was pastor of a Presbyterian church in New York, who praised Jefferson on July 18 as: “among its [i.e., America’s] greatest ornaments.” Jefferson replied saying: “…my thanks for the copy of the sermon you were so good as to send me, which I have perused with very great pleasure.”

Jefferson was still a person enjoying a warm relationship with clergy of the northern states at this point, from Congregational and Presbyterian traditions. In his book, Religion and the American Mind, Harvard historian Alan Heimert observes that there “…were many preachers—many more than historians allow—who avidly and vocally supported the Republican party’” and many “found their way into state legislatures…[and] mingled the two careers, generally with their people’s understanding that Republican politics was an appropriate channel for the expression and achievement of Evangelical goals.” It is worth clarifying here that the “Republican party” that Jefferson helped lead was not the same as the modern party by that name. But the earlier party began to emerge due to the opposition that grew up to the Federalist party that defined presidents Washington and Adams.

Jefferson and Madison became the beneficiares of the emerging new party (that was also called the Democrats or Democratic Republicans, but was likewise not the same as the modern Democrat party).

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