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Thinking: it's what Jefferson would want

Anna Berkes

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?

Legacy NID: 


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