Thinking: it’s what Jefferson would want

Posted in: Research, A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

So, I logged onto WordPress a few days ago, with vague thoughts of doing a semi-religion-related post, when I saw this.  A sign from God?  Well, at the very least, it’s a sign from Barbie dressed up as an Episcopalian minister, and that’s good enough for me.

Now, last time I talked about religion here, we had some argumentation.  And I will admit, I was completely, utterly caught off guard by it.  I’d never really consciously thought about my audience before, but if you asked me three months ago who I thought was reading the blog here I would have guessed my mom, my aunt and uncle, and possibly my aunt and uncle’s three cats.   One of the latter in particular, Mitzi, doesn’t seem to like me much, but I don’t worry about her being offended by anything I say on the blog because she’s unlikely to express her displeasure at me on Facebook.  Now I’ve been forcibly reminded of the fact that there are people other than Mitzi the cat reading what I write here, and they don’t necessarily know me personally or have a sense of my motivations.   So I just want to state, for the record, that my personal political and religious beliefs do not enter into my work, nor should they.  I feel very strongly about that.  I, and my other colleagues who engage in social media on behalf of Monticello, occasionally bring up the subjects of religion and politics, but we do so because any mention of Jefferson is of academic interest to us, and we think it might be of interest to you.   Truly.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, we shall now proceed with the latest Jefferson-related curiosity.  This item was recently the subject of a reference question we received.  It’s a document with Jefferson’s signature (and some other things) on it, and you will note that the description reads as follows:

    "Following is an original document in our possession, signed by Thomas Jefferson on September 24, 1807. This document is permission for a ship called the Herschel to proceed on its journey to the port of London."

(Here’s the interesting part):

    "The interesting characteristic of this document is the use of the phrase 'in the year of our Lord Christ.' Many official documents say 'in the year of our Lord,' but we have found very few that include the word 'Christ.' However, this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents.

Hmmm.  Two phrases in that last sentence that I’d like to look at more closely:

   1. “explicitly Christian language.”  Well, actually I guess it is literally explicit Christian language, mentioning Christ as it does.  What I mean is, it’s also…the date.  This is not usually the portion of a document in which important points are made.   Now, I totally agree that “In the year of our Lord Christ” instead of “In the year of our Lord” sounds a bit unusual, but I just don’t know that it really has anything to do with the religious beliefs of the person who signed the document.
   2. “that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use” – But did Jefferson specifically choose that language?  It seems unlikely to me.  It seems more likely that a clerk would be doing that.

As I was googling around, investigating this document, it became clear to me that it’s become a “thing,” or maybe the kids would call it a “meme” (possibly just a mini-meme).  I gather that somebody said something about this document on the television, and now it’s proliferating around the Internet, gathering more religious connotations as it goes.  Like this person.  Here it seems to be getting associated with Jefferson’s views on separation of church and state.  My googling turned up other appearances as well, each slightly different.  But I see the way this choo-choo is chugging, hence my post here to say, very sensitively, in the most kid-glove-way possible…let’s think about this before we draw any conclusions.  (And before I get any more reference questions about this.)  When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with thinking.  Unless maybe you’re standing in front of a rushing choo-choo.

I personally don’t have all the facts about this document – I don’t have any facts, in fact! – but now I’m super intrigued.  Especially since I can only read half the English portion in the image on the site above, and I can only understand half the Dutch part.  But I bet if we all put our heads together, we can come up with some good context for this document and maybe be able to figure out why it bears the unusually-extended phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ” instead of your usual “in the year of our Lord.”   I already have my own cockamamie theory about that, but I will keep it to myself for now.  Unless it turns out to have some merit, in which case I will tell everyone that’s what I was thinking all along.

So, back to the Herschel, and that document that started this whole thing.  Any maritime historians or similar out there, who can give us an idea of what this document is?  Any experts on government procedure or forms, who can help us out with how the specific language for this form may have been devised, and by whom?  Any experts in the history of the phrase “in the year of our Lord”?  Anybody?  Mitzi?



You’re right, of course, that it’s only the date. Remember that the English-speaking world came to the Gregorian Calendar late, in Jefferson’s lifetime. By the time England and the American colonies came to the calendar, the Julian and Gregorian calendars were more than a week different — 11 days, if memory serves. Many people chose to use the old callendar, or “old system” (see the engraving on TJ’s tombstone, for example), while many others chose the new. Especially for legal documents, the execution date of which could make significant differences in whether a contract was offered or accepted on time, etc., document authors took pains to note under which calendar the document worked. If the Gregorian calendar was to be invoked, the normal, secular language of calendaring was employed, “in the year of our Lord.”

This document has a variation on it.

If this is an official document dealing with a ship’s manifest, of course the date is crucial.

No religious significance, but legal significance in spades.

-Ed Darrell


Great point, Ed Darrell, and I love your blog, and will visit often. Nnox


Hello everyone, and thank you so much for all the comments! I think we may be getting somewhere. Mark, I think that seeing the original treaty language does clear this up in one regard – if the specific language of the document the Herschel (and other ships) carried was dictated by the treaty signed in 1782, then Jefferson almost certainly had nothing to do with devising the language. As for that intriguing form, “in the year of our Lord Christ,” my theory is that that is a form more common in Continental Europe. I don’t speak Dutch, but I do speak German and to me “im Jahr unseres Herren Christus” sounds normal. That’s pretty unscientific, but my point is that, if the treaty or the form itself started out in Dutch, in which perhaps it was more common to use the longer form “in the year of our Lord Christ,” then the presence of that date form may just be the result of a direct, literal translation from the Dutch.


Jefferson is clear in his 50 plus years of writings what he thought of religion and Christianity in particular. The letters to John Adams in the last years of his life are especially illuminating. Jefferson called himself a Deist, a Unitarian, and, many times, a Christian…a “true Christian” in a letter to Charles Thomson from 1816. As a “true Christian,” Jefferson understood Jesus to be the founder of the most “sublime” moral philosophy known to humankind. And he regarded the idea of a divine Jesus as a deadly detraction from this code.

The individual who wrote Congressman Olsen has likely never read the writings of Jefferson or any other Founding Father. But he knows what he knows: that TJ and the other Founding Fathers were Christian Fundamentalists and understood the world the same way that he does now. If only he were an isolated case!



I’d be curious to know where the document was printed. It seems to me that it might have been the official language of the Dutch, rather than the United States. Could the specific mention of Christ then be a statement regarding Catholicism, in an oblique way?



Interesting stuff! Looks like the Sea Letter is indeed a gov form:

This describes Art. 25 of “A Treaty of Amity and Commerce” between the U.S. and Netherlands and stipulates the letter’s form, including the ‘Lord Christ’ signature. The letter seemed to promise safe passport to ships attempting trade with Europe & the Netherlands, making it unlawful to engage these vessels carrying sea letters and appropriate passport in acts of war, chase, etc. If the Herschel letter was signed in Sep. 1807 this would have been leading up to the Embargo Act – she was headed for London and so perhaps needed such safe-passport documentation?

A later reference says the sea letter is only necessary for vessels sailing around the Cape of Good Hope:

As for why the doc reads ‘Christ’, I’m curious as to your out-there theory. Mine is that sailors / sailing culture consider Christ the vessel’s ‘true’ admiral, but this is based on knowledge of Norwegian sailing culture from Deadliest Catch.



Sorry, no maritime knowledge here, but thank you for this post. You rationally uncover an example of how easily and rapidly a small thread of data manipulation can get woven into “truth.”

Also, I am really, really honored by your mention of my Barbie blog post. This is an understatement, but I consider getting linked by the Thomas Jefferson Library at Monticello a pretty big deal.

-mary claire


Thanks, Mary Claire! Obviously my eye was caught by the picture of Reverend Barbie, but I really enjoyed the rest of your post, too – you are so funny!

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