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Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Photo by salon.com
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Jefferson's letter to Noah. Photo by wikimedia.org

On May 28, 1818, Thomas Jefferson, former president of the United States, responded to a letter he had received from Mordecai Manuel Noah by setting out his philosophy of religious freedom.

In his letter to the distinguished American Jew, Jefferson pointed to the case of the Jews as an example of a people who had been oppressed simply because of others’ prejudices, and who needed to have their religion put “on equal footing” by law with other faiths.

By 1818, Noah (1785-1851) was a former U.S. diplomat, a journalist and a spokesman for the Jewish community of the young republic. On April 17 of that year, he spoke at the consecration of the new home of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Sephardi synagogue that had been founded in New York in 1654. There Noah spoke of the Jews’ desire to reestablish their own homeland, but declared that, “until the Jews can recover their ancient rights and dominions,” the United States would serve as their “chosen country,” where they could “rest with the persecuted of every clime, secure in person and property, protected from tyranny and oppression, and participating [in] equal rights and immunities.”

Noah sent a copy of his remarks to three former American presidents: John Adams (in office 1797-1801), Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and James Madison (1809-1817). All three responded graciously to him, even Madison, despite the unpleasantness that had been caused in 1815, during his presidency, when Noah had been recalled from his position as U.S. consul in Tunis. That year, the secretary of state alleged that he had not known that Noah was a Jew, and wrote him that his religious identity was deemed to be “an obstacle to the exercise of [his] consular function” in a Muslim country.

Jefferson’s written response to Noah remains to this day an important and eloquent statement of his philosophy regarding the role of the state in protecting religious freedom for all. Writing from Monticello, his Virginia plantation, Jefferson first thanked Noah for sending him a copy of his “Discourse,” which he said taught him “some valuable facts in Jewish history which I did not know before.”

Jefferson pointed to the case of the Jews and their sufferings as “a remarkable proof” of the universal intolerance that every religious sect seemed to possess for others, an intolerance “disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all when in power.” To the president-farmer, it is only the law that can serve to protect a people’s religious and civil rights, “by putting all on an equal footing.”

Nonetheless, he continued, Americans, though “we are free by the law, we are not so in practice. Public opinion erects itself into an inquisition, and exercises its office with as much fanaticism as fans the flames of an Auto-da-fé.”

Formally, Jefferson was a member of the Episcopal Church, but he was dubious of organized religion, and philosophically, shared certain ideas with Deism, which embraces rationalism and the belief in the universe being governed by natural laws, rather than by an omnipotent god. In his letter to Noah, writing as a Christian, he referred to Judaism as “your section of our religion altho' the elder one.”

Its particular doctrines, like those of any other religion, wrote Jefferson, are the business of nobody other than its specific followers. The best way to further the cause of toleration and pluralism, he suggested, is through “the more careful attention to education, which you recommend, and which, placing its members on the equal and commanding benches of science, will exhibit them as equal objects of respect and favor.”

Jefferson closed his communication by praising Mordecai Manuel Noah on his own letter, which he deemed a “fine specimen of style and composition.”

In 1986, the late Ludwig Jesselson, then the retired chairman of the Philipp Brothers metal traders and a major collector of Judaica, paid $396,000 for the original of Jefferson’s letter at auction at Sotheby’s in New York.