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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

An Experience at Mr. Jefferson’s Dinner-Table

By John Trumbull (1756–1843)

[From Autobiography, etc., of John Trumbull. 1841.]

IT has been seen that in Europe I had been on terms of confidence with Mr. Jefferson; this continued for some time, so that in America, when the first mission to the states of Barbary was determined on, it was, through him, offered to me, and declined; but as the French revolution advanced, my whole soul revolted from the atrocities of France, while he approved or apologized for all. He opposed Washington—I revered him—and a coldness gradually succeeded, until in 1793 he invited me to dine. A few days before, I had offended his friend, Mr. Giles, senator from Virginia, by rendering him ridiculous in the eyes of a lady, to whose favorable opinion he aspired. On entering the drawing-room at Mr. Jefferson’s, on the day of the dinner, I found a part of the company already assembled, and among them Mr. Giles. I was scarcely seated, when Giles began to rally me upon the puritanical ancestry and character of New England. I saw there was no other person from New England present, and therefore, although conscious that I was in no degree qualified to manage a religious discussion, yet I felt myself bound to make the attempt, and defend my country on this delicate point, as well as I could.

Whether it had been pre-arranged that a discussion on the Christian religion, in which it should be powerfully ridiculed on the one side, and weakly defended on the other, should be brought forward, as promising amusement to a rather free-thinking dinner party, I will not determine; but it had that appearance, and Mr. Giles pushed his raillery, to my no small annoyance, if not to my discomfiture, until dinner was announced. That I hoped would relieve me, by giving a new turn to the conversation, but such was not the case; the company was hardly seated at table, when he renewed his attack with increased asperity, and proceeded so far at last, as to ridicule the character, conduct, and doctrines of the divine founder of our religion—Jefferson, in the mean time, smiling and nodding approbation on Mr. Giles, while the rest of the company silently left me and my defence to our fate; until at length my friend, David Franks (first cashier of the Bank of the United States), took up the argument on my side. Thinking this a fair opportunity for evading further conversation on this subject, I turned to Mr. Jefferson and said, “Sir, this is a strange situation in which I find myself; in a country professing Christianity, and at a table with Christians, as I supposed, I find my religion and myself attacked with severe and almost irresistible wit and raillery, and not a person to aid me in my defence, but my friend Mr. Franks, who is himself a Jew.” For a moment, this attempt to parry the discussion appeared to have some effect; but Giles soon returned to the attack, with renewed virulence, and burst out with—“It is all a miserable delusion and priestcraft; I do not believe one word of all they say about a future state of existence, and retribution for actions done here. I do not believe one word of a Supreme Being who takes cognizance of the paltry affairs of this world, and to whom we are responsible for what we do.”

I had never before heard, or seen in writing, such a broad and unqualified avowal of atheism. I was at first shocked, and remained a moment silent; but soon rallied and replied, “Mr. Giles, I admire your frankness, and it is but just that I should be equally frank in avowing my sentiments. Sir, in my opinion, the man who can with sincerity make the declaration which you have just made, is perfectly prepared for the commission of every atrocious action, by which he can promise himself the advancement of his own interest, or the gratification of his impure passions, provided he can commit it secretly and with a reasonable probability of escaping detection by his fellow-men. Sir, I would not trust such a man with the honor of a wife, a sister, or a daughter—with my own purse or reputation, or with anything which I thought valuable. Our acquaintance, sir, is at an end.” I rose and left the company, and never after spoke to Mr. Giles.

I have thought it proper to relate this conversation, as helping to elucidate the character of Mr. Jefferson, on the disputed point of want of credulity, as he would call it. In nodding and smiling assent to all the virulence of his friend, Mr. Giles, he appeared to me to avow most distinctly his entire approbation. From this time my acquaintance with Mr. Jefferson became cold and distant.