I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
Thomas Jefferson was quick out of bed on Thursday morning, July 4, 1776. The thirty-three year old author of the Declaration of Independence had resolved in his youth never to let the sun catch him in bed. After rising Jefferson sat quietly for a while, soaking his feet in cold water as he meditated on the momentous day before him. Then he took out his thermometer to make the first of the three temperature readings he did daily for almost 60 years. Dutifully he recorded in his “Weather Memorandum Book” that it was 68 degrees at 6:00 a.m. Jefferson knew that meant a relatively cool Fourth of July in Philadelphia.
Jefferson then left the Graff House where he wrote the Declaration of Independence and proceeded straight to the Pennsylvania State House. On Tuesday of that week, July 2, the delegates of the Second Continental Congress had voted for independence from Britain. Today, the Fourth of July, they would listen to, consider, and then vote on Jefferson’s draft of a Declaration of Independence.
At 1:00 in the afternoon, Jefferson took and recorded his second temperature reading for the day: it was 76 degrees in the State House as he listened to delegates excitedly wrangling over his words. Jefferson must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the last delegate raised his hearty “Aye” to approve their bold Declaration. But Jefferson’s work for the Congress was far from finished.
The Congress liked Jefferson’s work on the Declaration and immediately appointed him, along with the more vocal John Adams and Ben Franklin, to design a seal for the United States of America. It was customary among nations of the time to have a national coat of arms that would tell the world what the nation stood for.
Jefferson returned to the Graff House and began putting on paper his ideas for the Great Seal of the United States. As Jefferson thought about the history of the American colonies he became convinced that the Great Seal should portray “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night”. That was how Jefferson looked at the history of his new nation; God was leading us out of bondage into a blessed land of freedom.
Ben Franklin agreed with Jefferson’s ideas and wanted the Great Seal to show “a pillar of fire in the cloud, expression of the divine presence and command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore & extending his hand over the sea”. Both men believed strongly in the hand of Providence guiding the course of nations.
While the Congress tabled their proposal for the seal and another design was eventually adopted (see the back of the dollar bill), Jefferson and Franklin did make known their belief that God was guiding in our nation’s founding. While today Jefferson’s name is frequently misused in the cause of “separation of church and state”, Jefferson would be troubled. When Jefferson as President wrote to the fearful Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, about a “wall of separation”, he wanted to reassure them that there was a “wall” in order to prevent the federal government from interfering with their free exercise of faith. He told them that the “wall” was there in order to limit the power of government to interfere with religion, not to limit it’s free exercise.
It is significant that when construction on the United States Capital was completed, Thomas Jefferson (then Vice-President and President of the Senate) approved its use for worship services on Sunday. Imagine worship services in the Capital! Throughout Jefferson’s administration he was noted to be regular in attendance at worship.
On this Fourth of July, this Independence Day, as we celebrate, give thanks, pray, and ponder the role of religion and government, let’s reflect on the words of the Declaration’s author:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.
—Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII
Grace and peace,
P. S. On the Fourth of July, Jefferson records the third temperature reading of the day, 73 ½ degrees, at 9:00 p.m..