Did Thomas Jefferson believe in the afterlife — or was he a full-fledged materialist?
There is a general scholarly consensus that Thomas Jefferson believed in an afterlife, given numerous references to the hereafter in his letters, messages, and addresses. For instance, in his The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson, Charles B. Sanford, citing two of Jefferson’s letters to Adams (9 Aug. 1816 and 8 Dec. 1818), maintains that Jefferson was “influenced by Adams’ arguments about spirit to find room in belief in immortality among the wondrous attributes of certain forms of matter.” Elsewhere he says: “Matter had many mysterious properties, such as magnetism gravity, and the power of the brain to think. Why not immortality for human beings?” E.S. Gaustad in an essay titled “Religion,” maintains that the immortality of the soul was for Jefferson a “guarantor of morality.” He summarizes: “Justice and goodness must ultimately prevail, else this is not a moral universe.” Eugene R. Sheridan, in his estimable introduction to the Princeton edition of Jefferson’s two reconstructions of the Bible (1804 and c. 1820), acknowledges that Jefferson entertained doubts concerning an afterlife, “but, on the whole, hope triumphed over despair.” In “The Religious Pilgrimage of Thomas Jefferson,” Paul Conkin says that Jefferson “was always confident of life after death.” John Ragosta, in “Thomas Jefferson’s Religion and Religious Liberty,” argues that Jefferson’s insistence, pace Calvin, that one is to be judged by one’s deeds “suggests some belief in an afterlife,” though he admits the issue is far from settled.
The general consensus, however, is based on persiflage. There is reason to be guarded. All references by Jefferson to an afterlife in writings are terse. Even of deity, whose nature he considers too boundless for human cognizance, Jefferson does allow himself some discussion—e.g., he writes of deity as material and of such capacities to create and sustain the cosmos (TJ to John Adams, 15 Aug. 1820)—yet he never lapses into serious discussion of an afterlife in any writings, where he seems open to it as a possibility. Such references should not be taken as evidence of belief, for belief, as Jefferson wrote formally to Adams (22 Aug. 1813), is assent to a rationally intelligible proposition, and the notion of an afterlife seems not to be rationally intelligible—at least, not in the metempirical manner in which it had been historically discussed.
Consider for instance Jefferson’s response to Rev. Isaac Story (5 Dec. 1810), who writes of belief in the transmigration of souls. Jefferson replies that he has nothing to say on the subject. Revelation is silent on the issue and “the laws of nature have withheld from us the means of physical knowledge of the country of spirits.” Thus, he has consigned himself to what he, following Montaigne, often calls the “softest pillow” of ignorance (e.g., TJ to Hugh White, 25 Apr. 1812). To John Adams (5 July 1814), Jefferson states, “Plato … is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it.” Given the counterfactual expression, Jefferson commits himself to better arguments for the immortality of the soul than Plato’s—arguments sufficient to elicit the consent of some persons—but nothing more can be said. Given his reply to Story, I suspect he does not hold such arguments in high regard.
Yet we do know, as Sanford concedes, that Jefferson unequivocally commits himself to materialism, and there is no reason to believe, given the philosophical and scientific literature that Jefferson read, that he was ever anything but a full-fledged materialist. Consider this passage from the August 15 letter to Adams.
I can conceive thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by it’s creator, as well as that attraction is an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone. when he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tract of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will; put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. when once we quit the basis of sensation all is in the wind. to talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. to say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.
Thus, mind or the soul is some sort of matter; so too is deity. So the question of an afterlife reduces to the question of whether psychic matter is indissoluble, or as Carl Richard thinks in “A Dialogue with the Ancients,” whether for Jefferson there can be an instauration of matter, once decayed.Richard says that Jefferson believed in the dissolution of the soul upon dissolution of the body, but adds that Jefferson believed in the resurrection of the body after death.
Four important letters offer evidence that Jefferson has lifted his head from the softest pillow of ignorance, because the science in his day had begun to shed light on what Jefferson had earlier perceived to be wholly a metempirical concern. One is early; the others are late in life.
The first letter, indicative of early skepticism apropos of the soul leaving the body “at the instant of death,” is to boyhood friend John Page (26 July 1764). Jefferson recounts a story from a magazine that concerns a man, drowned and submerged in water for some 24 hours. The man was brought back to life by a method such as “to give the vital warmth to the whole body by gentle degrees, and to put the blood in motion by inflating the lungs.” We are taught, he continues, that when the bodily parts completely cease to function, the “soul leaves the body.” He sums, “But does not this story contradict this opinion?”
To John Adams (14 Mar. 1820), Jefferson—referring to the works of Dugald Stewart, A.L.C. Destutt de Tracy, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis—offers an argument in two parts. First, he proceeds analogically. Thought is to the material organ of the brain as is magnetism is to a needle or elasticity is to a spring—merely a product of the matter thus structured. Dissolve the matter of the magnet and spring and their magnetism and elasticity cease. It is likewise with thought. “On ignition of the needle or spring, their magnetism and elasticity cease. So on dissolution of the material organ by death, its action of thought may cease also, and nobody supposes that the magnetism or elasticity retire to hold a substantive and distinct existence. These were qualities only of particular conformations of matter; change the conformation, and its qualities change also.”
The question now becomes whether matter can be so structured that thought can occur. Following Locke, Jefferson considers deity endowing matter with thought. He asserts, “When I meet with a proposition beyond finite comprehension, I abandon it as I do a weight which human strength cannot lift, and I think ignorance, in these cases, is truly the softest pillow on which I can lay my head.” Immediately, he adds: “Were it necessary, however, to form an opinion, I confess I should, with Mr. Locke, prefer swallowing one incomprehensibility rather than two.” In sum, matter endowed with thought is less incomprehensible than “an existence called spirit, of which we have neither evidence nor idea, and then … how that spirit, which has neither extension nor solidity, can put material organs into motion.”
In late-life letters to John Adams (8 Jan. 1825) and to Francis Adrian van der Kemp (11 Jan. 1825), Jefferson excitedly refers to experiments by Flourens and Cabanis on vertebrates. Writes Jefferson to Adams of Flourens, after removing cerebrum of some vertebrates, finding that “the animal loses all it’s senses of hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling tasting, is totally deprived of will, intelligence, memory, perception,” though it retains the power of locomotion, given external stimuli. After removing the cerebellum from vertebrates, “the animal retains all it’s senses, faculties & understanding, but loses the power of regulated motion, and exhibits all the symptoms of drunkeness.” Puncture of the medulla elonga results in instantaneous death. Jefferson adds: “I wish to see what the spiritualists will say to this. whether, in this state, the soul remains in the body deprived of it’s essence of thought, or whether it leaves it as in death and where it goes?”
Three days later, Jefferson to Adrian van der Kemp again writes of Flourens’s experiments, which demonstrate that the cerebrum is the “organ of thought” and “possesses alone the faculty of thinking.” He wishes to know whether the soul remains in the body when the brain is deprived of thought and, if it does leave, where it goes, if the thoughtless body still lives.
The letters to Adams and van der Kemp offer abundant evidence of doubt concerning the soul’s capacity to survive without the body. Given the cerebrum is the seat of sensation, perception, intelligence, memory, and thought, and given that the cerebellum is responsible for regulated motion, all the functions attributed to soul seem to be explicable by the brain. The conclusion seems plain that the soul just is the brain and the cerebrum is the intellective soul—a view that is consistent with much of the literature in contemporary philosophy of mind. With death, the body, and the brain with it, merely decay.
Finally, there is also the prose from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy that Jefferson copies to a sheet of paper. “And every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.” This is the second half of a passage on the folded paper—the first half written in the writing of Jefferson’s wife—which contained a lock of Martha Jefferson’s hair. This reference to “eternal separation,” written to his wife, perhaps moribund when composed, is persuasive.
Such letters are weighty evidence of doubt concerning life after death. They make it probable that Jefferson’s many flippant references to the hereafter to correspondents and in political addresses and messages are mere instances of his cordiality and kindness—viz., a willingness to greet correspondents on their terms, not his own.
At day’s end, it is likely that Jefferson, given his purchase of materialism, never really took seriously belief in an afterlife—at least, not late in life.
By M. Andrew Holowchak, the author of many books about Thomas Jefferson including “Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” (2013).