Thomas Jefferson, Religious Liberty and the Jews

Thomas Jefferson asked that of his many accomplishments, his tombstone note only that he was

  • the author of the Declaration of Independence
  • the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
  • the founder of the University of Virginia

Jefferson's belief in the separation of church and state had particular significance for Jews. His Declaration of Independence and support for the Act for Religious Freedom laid an explicit foundation for citizenship rights and educational opportunities of the sort which did not exist for Jews in much of Europe or America in the late 18th century. Jefferson's firm commitment to a "wall of separation" between church and state, wherein all are to be "free to profess" their own religious beliefs, and all can have access to public education, helped to establish the United States as a beacon for Jews around the world for the next two centuries.

Statute for Religious Freedom
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsover, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no way diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

From the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and adopted by the General Assembly in 1786. Jefferson thought it a milestone because it gave freedom not only for Christian sects but for all beliefs including "The Jew, the Mahometan, and the Hindoo."10

"I have thought it a cruel addition to the wrong which that injured sect [Jews] have suffered that their youths should be excluded from the instructions in science afforded to all others in our public seminaries by imposing on them a course of theological reading which their consciences do not permit them to pursue, and in the University lately established here we have set the example of ceasing to violate the rights of conscience by any injunctions on the different sects respecting their religion."11

The Lawn

The Lawn

The Founding of the University of Virginia

Jefferson's plan for the University of Virginia included the radical notion that no "sectarian" theological study be required of its students. Such studies, and mandatory chapel attendance, were required of students at most other colleges in the United States at that time. Though a broad array of Christian denominations were recognized at American colleges, non-Christians were excluded or discouraged from enrolling. Jefferson argued that the University of Virginia, as a state sponsored institution, could not demand the practice of particular religions. For many who thought that the primary role of colleges was to train clergy, this was a shocking proposition.

Jefferson's ideal set a high standard for tolerance and openness that the University did not always achieve, but Jefferson's plan removed the theological and legal barriers and offered the hope that exclusionary habits of custom and prejudice could be overthrown as well.

James Joseph Sylvester, portrait

James Joseph Sylvester

J. J. Sylvester

On July 3, 1841, the University's Board of Visitors hired an English Jew, James Joseph Sylvester, as Professor of Mathematics, thereby becoming the first college in America to hire a Jewish professor to teach a secular subject.

Sylvester, a brilliant and influential mathematician, arrived in Charlottesville in November 1841 - and had resigned by the next March. His brief time at UVa, where an atmosphere of violence and anarchy prevailed, was not pleasant. He was offended, with good cause, by student behavior at the University and made complaints about one particular student to the Faculty and the Board of Visitors. While the student was mildly admonished, the Faculty and the Board did not defend Sylvester. A violent physical attack on Sylvester by the student's supporters apparently occurred. Sylvester escaped uninjured, slightly wounding a student, and he left Charlottesville for good.12

Watchman of the South, newspaper editorial

Watchman of the South, Aug. 5, 1841

Regional anti-Semitism was involved in the the Sylvester affair. The Watchman of the South, the Richmond-based newspaper of the Presbyterian Church, editorialized vehemently, on grounds of religion, against UVA's hiring of Sylvester.