Ding, ding, ding! We’ve got us a winner here. It’s at the website of the Family Research Council — a theocratic lobbying group founded by James Dobson. We’ve previously pointed out that any public-interest organization with “Family” in its name is a creationist outfit — unless the group advocates family planning.
Look what we found: President Endorses Intelligent Design. Exciting title, huh? Let’s see what the creationists have to tell us. Oh, keep in mind that their article is dated 08 April:
In a letter of this date, a two-term President of the United States, writing to his predecessor, wrote this:
That was their first line. Now here’s what they present as an 08 April letter from a President:
…the Theist, pointing to the heavens above, and to the earth beneath, and to the waters under the earth, asked if these did not proclaim a first cause, possessing intelligence and power; power in the production, and intelligence in the design, and constant preservation of the system; urged the palpable existence of final causes, that the eye was made to see, and the ear to hear, and not that we see because we have eyes, and hear because we have ears…
Are the alarm bells going off in your head? They ought to be. Their quote has an ellipsis at the beginning and another at the end. We’ve been on full alert from the beginning, just because of the word “family” in their name. Fear not, your Curmudgeon has found the full text of the letter and we’ll get to it soon. For the moment, however, let’s read a bit more from the creationists’ website. They tell us:
Well, as you will readily discern, dear reader, this is not President Obama’s or President George W. Bush’s accustomed style of writing. This letter, dated April 8, 1816, was penned by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and addressed to his reconciled friend, John Adams.
That much is true. They continue:
In this letter, the former president, Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading scientific minds of his day, rejects the atheism of some of the French philosophes with whom he shared so many ideas. He ascribes to the Creator “power in the production, intelligence in the design, and constant preservation of the system…”
Okay, that’s enough. Now let’s see what Jefferson really wrote. It’s right here: Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Apr. 8, 1816. As we usually do in such cases, we’ll put the words the creationists omitted in red.
But first, the quote needs to be put into context so that we know what Jefferson was talking about. This precedes the part of the letter the creationists quoted. We’ll use an ellipsis too, but only for brevity, not to mislead anyone. We’ve given you a link to the full text in case you have doubts. Here’s the contextual material:
Did I know Baron Grimm while at Paris? Yes, most intimately. He was the pleasantest, and most conversible member of the diplomatic corps while I was there: a man of good fancy, acuteness, irony, cunning, and egoism: no heart, not much of any science, yet enough of every one to speak it’s language. … Altho’ I never heard Grimm express the opinion, directly, yet I always supposed him to be of the school of Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, the first of whom committed their system of atheism to writing in `Le bon sens,’ and the last in his `Systeme de la Nature.’ It was a numerous school in the Catholic countries, while the infidelity of the Protestant took generally the form of Theism. The former always insisted that it was a mere question of definition between them, the hypostasis of which on both sides was `Nature’ or `the Universe:’ that both agreed in the order of the existing system, but the one supposed it from eternity, the other as having begun in time.
Jefferson is discussing Baron Grimm, a man he believed to have been an atheist and not well informed about science. Then he describes the contending factions of the philosophical group to which he thought Grimm belonged. That comes just before the material quoted by the Family Research Council. It’s clear (at least to us) that throughout the whole thing Jefferson is describing the two factions of the Baron’s philosophical school. Jefferson is not describing his own thoughts — although both he and Adams do that often enough in their famous correspondence. As for this particular letter, we’ll let you decide.
Now that you know what Jefferson was talking about, we come to the text the creationists mined. The beginning, in red, is what was left out in place of the creationists’ first ellipsis; and the end, also in red, is what they cut out and replaced with their second ellipsis:
And when the atheist descanted on the unceasing motion and circulation of matter thro’ the animal vegetable and mineral kingdoms, never resting, never annihilated, always changing form, and under all forms gifted with the power of reproduction; the Theist pointing `to the heavens above, and to the earth beneath, and to the waters under the earth,’ asked if these did not proclaim a first cause, possessing intelligence and power; power in the production, and intelligence in the design and constant preservation of the system; urged the palpable existence of final causes, that the eye was made to see, and the ear to hear, and not that we see because we have eyes, and hear because we have ears; an answer obvious to the senses, as that of walking across the room was to the philosopher demonstrating the nonexistence of motion.
What did Jefferson mean by that “obvious to the senses” stuff? That eyes were made to see? Well, yes, they are. Seeing is what they do. But is Jefferson saying that he thinks eyes were intelligently designed for that purpose? We don’t find that in his letter, or in anything else he ever wrote in his life.
Anyway, there’s more to Jefferson’s paragraph. What appears above was immediately followed by a bit more which we’ll copy here for completeness, but it’s not very relevant (unless you’re interested in Baron Grimm) and we won’t bother putting it in red. But it does show that the words plucked by the creationists were in the middle of a discussion about Grimm and Grimm’s thoughts, not Jefferson’s thoughts. Here’s the rest:
It was in D’Holbach’s conventicles that Rousseau imagined all the machinations against him were contrived; and he left, in his Confessions the most biting anecdotes of Grimm. These appeared after I left France; but I have heard that poor Grimm was so much afflicted by them, that he kept his bed several weeks. I have never seen these Memoirs of Grimm. Their volume has kept them out of our market.
So there you are. Could any sane person read Jefferson’s letter and think that he was saying: “I, Thomas Jefferson, believe in intelligent design.”? We don’t think so. But that’s the message from the Family Research Council. Nice bunch of folks.
Hey, don’t think that this quote-mining episode is an isolated act. Historical revisionism is very common, not only among creationists but among other radical movements too. They all do it, both to grab fake historical credentials for their dogma, and to discredit the heroes and accomplishments of their opposition. For example, see Thomas Jefferson Joins The Discovery Institute!
How can they live with themselves, knowing what they’re doing? As a fictional character (J.R. Ewing) famously said: “Once you give up integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.”
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