Why Wouldn’t Thomas Jefferson Join the Society for Promoting the Civilization and General Improvement of Indians?

Over at the American Antiquarian Society blog, Camille Dupuis discusses her research on the 1824 Annual Report of the American Society for Promoting the Civilization and General Improvement of Indians. Dupuis, an intern at the AAS, discovered a letter from Thomas Jefferson in which he refuses to join the Society because it included too many clergymen.  Here is a taste of Dupuis’s post, a nice model of an undergraduate trying to make sense of an eighteenth-century document.

Another aspect of the Society that thoroughly upset Jefferson was the overwhelming proportion of Society members that were also clergymen. He worried that the opinions “both as to purpose and process” of such a large majority of like-minded individuals would always outvote that of the others in the society, such as the public officials included. This would give clergymen and missionaries more influence when determining policies towards the Native Americans, such as whether or not schools should be opened on reservations or the children sent away to Indian boarding schools.

When I mentioned this concern to one of our current fellows (who himself is working on religious conversions in the nineteenth century), he gave me a completely different perspective to think about…“religious ambition,” or the desire to spread one’s religion to others. As we talked he told me Jefferson was considered an “infidel” and did not hold much ground with orthodox religion. This made me think that it was not just the amount of clergy in the Society that worried him, but also the religious ambition this society would fuel. In civilizing the Indians, the Society also wanted them to become part of the religion that was celebrated in the Western world, namely Christianity. Given that Jefferson was not an adherent to orthodox Christianity, it is probable that he did not want Christianity to gain more members in the newly “civilized” Indians, giving it that much more influence in the Western world.

2 thoughts on “Why Wouldn’t Thomas Jefferson Join the Society for Promoting the Civilization and General Improvement of Indians?

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  2. I doubt Jefferson's motivation was to limit the number of converts to Christianity. More likely, it was an opposition to reason that the clergy would impose on natives.
    Generally, Jefferson supported religions for the moral suasion they brought to their followers, when those followers were free to make their own choices. Society as a whole benefitted when people acted from a moral framework.

    For more of Thomas Jefferson's wisdom, read his blog! Several times each week, he posts briefly on a variety of topics, including religion.

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    – What do maple trees have to do with slavery?
    – Did Jefferson oppose Islam?
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