As a Founding Father and widely revered former president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson is undeniably among the most important figures in American history. To this day, he’s known far and wide as something of a symbol of his nation’s character. But Jefferson was hiding an explosive religious secret from the American public – and it would likely have shocked his contemporaries to their cores.
Religion still, of course, plays a massive part in the lives of many Americans. And when compared with other Western nations, religious attitudes in the U.S. are actually rather unique. After all, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans actively practice their faith to a greater extent than in other locales, including Canada, Australia and most of Europe.
Religious pluralism in the United States has been practiced in one form or another for centuries, too. And although numerous churches and sects are located across the country, most Americans would describe themselves as Christians. According to research conducted by Gallup in 2016, nearly 75 percent of them subscribe to the faith. Judaism, meanwhile, is practiced by around 2 percent of the population, while Islam represents less than 1 percent. Conversely, nearly 20 percent of Americans do not follow a religion.
And religion has arguably been at the core of America since it was first colonized by the British. Of course, many of these settlers had actually arrived there hoping to freely practice their own strain of Christian belief. Virginia, for instance, was set up by English Anglicans, Maryland by Catholics and Pennsylvania by British Quakers.
So as we’ve seen, religion – and Christianity specifically – has traditionally seemed to have been at the heart of American life since the very beginning. And this makes Thomas Jefferson’s stance on the subject all the more surprising. After all, his thoughts on the Bible were downright radical for his time – and would likely have cast him into disgrace if they’d been widely known.
But long before Jefferson went on to be president – and harbor potentially unseemly religious views – he had grown up somewhat accustomed to luxury. You see, he entered the world in April 1743 and was the son of a wealthy family of planters. As a young man, an education in law eventually saw him passing the bar in 1767. And even early into his legal career, Jefferson was considered to be among the more educated of America’s practitioners.
In 1768, however, Jefferson embarked on a significant endeavor: the development of a plantation named Monticello. This consisted of a residence raised on acres of Virginian land that had once belonged to his father. And after the younger Jefferson had taken over the plot, he set to work planning out the property himself.
Jefferson used his passion for architecture to devise the layout and style of the Monticello property. In addition to this focus on his homestead, he was also known to partake in a variety of other pursuits. Yes, the future president – known as one of America’s “Renaissance Men” – indulged in other interests, including horticulture, watching birds and playing the violin.
Yet another of Jefferson’s interests seemed to be romance, as on New Year’s Day, 1772, he tied the knot with his third cousin: Martha Wayles Skelton. As his wife, the latter took care of matters around the home and often took up hosting duties. And according to biographer Dumas Malone, Jefferson was extremely happy during his time as a married man.
Over the course of their union, the Jeffersons had six children – but tragically only two survived to adulthood. Sadly, Skelton fell ill and became weakened by the fact that she’d given birth multiple times. She later died at the age of 33 – just a short time after going into labour with her youngest in 1782.
But some years before Jefferson’s world was rocked by the loss of his wife, he had begun his foray into politics. He was an enthusiastic advocate for liberty from the British, and in 1768 he was voted into the Virginia House of Burgesses. And six years later, the future president authored the first of his significant political compositions: A Summary View of the Rights of British America.
By 1775 the Second Continental Congress had decided to establish a revolutionary military force. George Washington was chosen to lead the so-called Continental Army, but Thomas Jefferson was also given a significant responsibility. Yes, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman, Jefferson was tasked with composing the Declaration of Independence.
According to Biography.com, Adams said that Jefferson exhibited a “happy talent for composition and singular felicity of expression.” As such, it was he who was singled out to write the bulk of the initial draft. And so, over the course of some 17 days, Jefferson got to work on what would become one of the most famous pieces of political writing ever.
Jefferson’s text started out by drawing attention to what he saw as the rights of every individual. He then focused on perceived British infractions against the United States – claiming this meant that Americans had no obligations to the U.K.’s king. And the Declaration of Independence was ultimately voted on in July 1776, although it had been edited from Jefferson’s early iteration.
Yet despite the revisions to Jefferson’s phrasing, the declaration’s arguably most famous passage nonetheless belonged to him. The section reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson then returned to Virgina after his vast contribution to the Declaration of Independence. And from 1776 to 1779 he was a member of the state’s House of Delegates. During this time, the statesman worked towards revising Virginian laws so that they would match the standards he’d set out in the declaration.
Then in the summer of 1779 Jefferson was voted in as the second-ever governor of Virginia. However, this brief stint was unsuccessful, and he ultimately gave up his post two years later. Jefferson subsequently went back to his Monticello estate, where he apparently intended to retire from politics and live out the rest of his days as a humble farmer.
Jefferson did, however, continue to write during this time, and in 1781 he began crafting Notes on the State of Virginia. On the surface, this book details the history and character of the state. But on a deeper level, it reveals Jefferson’s political perspective – elaborating on his hopes for an agricultural-based American economy.
Of course, the following year saw the death of his wife, so naturally, Jefferson was beset with grief. But when the statesman re-emerged, he gravitated back to politics. And in the following summer he represented Virginia at the Confederation Congress – the body that ruled the newly established United States of America. Then in 1785 the politician was appointed as the country’s ambassador to France.
Jefferson consequently spent almost five years in Paris before returning to his homeland in 1789. And by this point, George Washington had been sworn in as president, and he subsequently chose Jefferson to be his secretary of state. However, the latter served during a period defined by divisions within government.
For his part, Jefferson was so disheartened by these internal government conflicts that he relinquished his post in 1794. He then appeared – once again – set for a life of farming instead of politics. But it turned out that the Republicans wanted him to lead the country in the wake of Washington’s presidency. So, he was part of the presidential vote of 1796 – ultimately coming in second to John Adams. The rules of that period, however, dictated that he became vice president as a result.
Yet beyond helming the U.S. Senate, the role of vice president wasn’t particularly important at that time, and Adams didn’t confer with Jefferson on anything meaningful. So, in order to occupy himself, Jefferson wrote A Manual of Parliamentary Practice. And this text is considered by some to be among the most informative and functional manuals for legislative procedures ever penned.
During the next election, Jefferson once again found himself on the ticket and this time tied at the top with Aaron Burr. And after a lengthy deliberation, the House of Representatives eventually opted for Jefferson to take the presidency – with Burr taking the vice president job. During his inaugural speech, Jefferson sought to ease tensions in American governance, saying, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
Thankfully, Jefferson’s first presidential term is broadly considered to have been a positive one. His achievements included cutting the national debt significantly, reforming internal government bureaucracy and even scaling down the military. But one achievement in particular really stands out from the rest.
Yes, the Louisiana Purchase is widely trumpeted as Jefferson’s biggest achievement while in office. The statesman bought land stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi river off France for $15 million – doubling the size of the United States. Furthermore, he later set up the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which aimed to map out lands in the west of the continent and establish a foothold there.
After being elected president for a second time, however, Jefferson faced more difficulties. Both France and Britain were trying to interfere with American business, so Jefferson retaliated by ceasing trade with Europe. But the embargo severely damaged the U.S. economy and ultimately led to the War of 1812 a few years after his presidency had concluded.
Jefferson’s miscalculations while in office naturally left a stain on his reputation, but it’s far from the only controversy that the president weathered. That’s because – despite his profound writings on individual liberty – Jefferson possessed numerous slaves who labored away at his Monticello plantation. Of course, his stance on the issue would have been quite common among white Americans of the period. But it may potentially give us pause for thought with regard to how we remember him.
It’s also now believed that Jefferson was once embroiled in an affair with a slave named Sally Hemings. She had been born to Betty Hemings – herself a slave belonging to the former president’s father-in-law. As such, Sally Hemings would actually have been Jefferson’s wife’s half-sibling. And according to DNA analysis, it’s very likely that the Founding Father was dad to all six of Hemings’ kids.
And even during Jefferson’s own time, he was known as something of a controversial figure. His thoughts on religion, specifically, were considered to be rather radical. You see, though he wrote that the messages articulated by Jesus were “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” he also doubted the more supernatural aspects of the Bible.
Yes, although Jefferson was largely supportive of the Christian faith and its ideals, he wasn’t keen on the state funding religious establishments. It was he, in fact, who came up with the expression “wall of separation between church and state.” And as a result of this stance, many of his detractors posited that he wasn’t suitable for public life.
And as for the Bible itself, Jefferson seemed to have a problem with its more mystical claims. In spite of his admiration for the moral quality of the text, he didn’t seem to believe a number of miracles that were described within the book. So in response, he wrote his very own interpretation of the Bible entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jefferson’s account of the Bible contains many of the stories of the New Testament, but it’s missing any references to the supernatural. For instance, in the Founding Father’s version, Jesus is crucified and dies. He’s then laid to rest, and that’s the end of the story – the resurrection isn’t acknowledged.
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was actually the second work that Jefferson penned about the Son of God. Before that, he authored The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, but a copy of this cannot be found today. And this latter text was apparently finished up in 1804, with the surviving second work being finalized in 1820.
And the so-called Jefferson Bible was created after its maker had studied the New Testament in a variety of languages. Harry Rubenstein of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History explained to Smithsonian magazine in 2012 how the statesman had researched the topic. He said, “[Jefferson] had a classic education… so he could compare the different translations. He cut out passages with some sort of very sharp blade and, using blank paper, glued down lines from each of the Gospels in four columns, Greek and Latin on one side of the pages, and French and English on the other.”
Apparently, Jefferson never meant for his work to see the light of day. In fact, its very creation was obscured to all except a small number of his most trusted confidants. It stayed in the family clan for a long time, but by 1895 the book ended up with the Smithsonian Institution.
The book was extremely delicate, and for a long time, it wasn’t fit for display. However, the Smithsonian Institution began restoring it in 2011, and the Jefferson Bible is now available to experts and the public. And in 2012 Tarcher – which is owned by Penguin USA – published the document and made it more widely available.
For his part, Rubenstein has elaborated on the significance of this restoration and subsequent publication. He told Smithsonian, “The conservation process has allowed us to exhibit the book just as it was when Jefferson last handled it. And since digital pictures were taken of each page, visitors to the exhibition – and visitors to the web version all over the world – will be able to page through and read Jefferson’s Bible just as he did.”
Mitch Horowitz – editor of the 2012 issue of the Jefferson Bible – spoke to The Guardian about the statesman’s religious perspective, too. He said, “Ethically, Jefferson was a Christian. But, [he was] – as he put it – ‘a real Christian,’ who believed in the moral philosophy of Christ rather than the religion later created around [him] – which Jefferson felt would have appalled the man himself.”
Horowitz then went on to discuss the specific implications of Jefferson’s work. He said, “There’s an incredible beauty and realism in [his] rendition. The figure of Christ emerges as a vivid and consistent figure of great moral power. What Jefferson did was create a deeply persuasive historical and ethical portrait of a great teacher.”
The Jefferson Bible is widely considered to be an important piece of literature, but many experts believe its creator compiled it for entirely personal reasons. As writer Edwin Scott Gaustad put it in Sworn on the Altar of God, “The retired president did not produce his small book to shock or offend a somnolent world. He composed it for himself, for his devotion, for his assurance, for a more restful sleep at nights and a more confident greeting of the mornings.”
However, Jefferson is far from the only president to have attempted to harbor a shocking secret from the American public. Take Warren G. Harding, for instance. Yes, back in the 1920s, the United States was rocked by suggestions that Harding had behaved improperly – particularly when it came to his personal life. And those whispers of conduct unbecoming have dogged the 29th president ever since, casting a shadow over his reputation. But is there actually any truth to the salacious gossip? Well, according to the results of a 21st-century test, there definitely is.
The source of the storm surrounding Harding was one Nan Britton, who shocked the American public by claiming to have had an illicit liaison with the commander-in-chief. And while other women had made similar assertions about previous presidents, Britton marked herself out by writing a kiss-and-tell book about her experiences. It was no wonder, then, that a scandal erupted – one that would be talked about in households up and down the land.
Nor was this speculation the only thing to cloud Harding’s legacy. Indeed, although he was apparently well liked during his short tenure in the Oval Office, he is now often listed as one of the worst presidents in American history. That’s likely owing to Harding’s link to the Teapot Dome affair, which remains among the most sensational examples of corruption in the U.S. to date.
Other government misconduct marked the times, too. There was the Veterans’ Bureau scandal, for instance, which saw the agency’s head Charles R. Forbes engaging in bribery and embezzlement. In fact, it’s said that Harding was so incandescent with anger upon hearing of these misdeeds that he actually throttled Forbes at one point. And such ordeals may have in turn contributed to the president’s relatively early and somewhat surprising death from a heart attack at just 57.
Back before Harding rose to the top job in the country, however, he started his political life as a state senator in Ohio. And while at the time Harding was little known, his work in the Senate saw him soon earn allies. In particular, the man’s composure and apparent humble nature endeared him to his colleagues in the Republican party. Even though Ohio state senators usually only served a single term, then, Harding ultimately went on to score a second.
Furthermore, in 1903 Harding decided to join the race for state governor when the election front-runner dropped out. After another popular candidate stepped forward, however, the former senator contented himself with earning the position of lieutenant governor instead. And as it happens, he did manage to network some in that role, growing a base of friends that would later stand him in good stead.
Finally, in 1914 Harding ran for the U.S. Senate. And although he personally didn’t get involved in denigrating his opponent, there certainly was some ugly campaigning – especially when Catholic Democrat Timothy Hogan was accused of being a Papal agent. Harding, meanwhile, stuck to a stump speech that was reported to have been “a rambling, high-sounding mixture of platitudes, patriotism and pure nonsense,” and he won handsomely.
A door opened for Harding, too, when the time came to pick a new president. Initially, you see, Theodore Roosevelt seemed the likely Republican nominee for the 1920 election. When the former leader died in 1919, though, the prospects of a third term in office were naturally shattered. And this left the field wide open for Harding – even though he did not poll well.
Nevertheless, delegates were free to vote for whom they liked, and so the June 1920 Republican National Convention saw some fierce fighting over the nomination. Finally, however, the party grandees decided to back Harding. And after ten ballots, the former senator was duly picked as the election’s GOP contender.
In much the same way as his predecessor William McKinley, Harding didn’t go off on the campaign trail; instead, he rarely strayed from his Ohio residence. Even so, his proposals to clamp down on taxes and immigration and impose tariffs on imported goods seemingly proved to be vote winners. More than 60 percent of the electorate ultimately plumped for Harding over his Democratic rival James M. Cox.
And Harding kept those promises. He cut taxes on the rich sharply – a move that arguably ushered in the high times of the 1920s. In fact, during Harding’s tenure, the top rate of tax plummeted to as low as 25 percent. Capital gains tax was also greatly reduced, while the levy on excess profits that had been brought in during WWI was scrapped altogether.
Harding also kept his word on tariffs, putting extra charges on foreign grain, wool and sugar in 1921 and raising these fees even higher the following year. Somewhat inevitably, though, these measures prompted a vicious trade war. And that promise on cutting immigration was kept, too. In all, then, Harding adhered to his slogan of “America First” – perhaps why he refused the U.S.’ entry to the League of Nations.
But Harding didn’t exactly deliver on his pledge to put only those with the best credentials into government roles. Instead, he employed family members and businesspeople with whom he had connections. And, unfortunately, some of those people would in time become involved with the worst of scandals. Yes, although many of the details of these improprieties only became apparent after the president’s death, it’s now clear that his administration was mired in corruption.
Perhaps the most famous of these furors involves the Teapot Dome – a Wyoming oil reserve that was kept for the Navy’s emergency use. It was eventually decided, though, that responsibility for the field should be transferred to the Albert Fall-led Department of the Interior; after that, it could finally be mined. Ultimately, then, leases were awarded on the land. But when environmentalists questioned exactly what was going on behind the scenes, an investigation ensued.
This probe discovered, moreover, that Fall had come into a great deal of money. And while the Secretary of the Interior gave excuses for his sudden enrichment, Montana Senator Thomas Walsh unearthed the truth of the matter. In particular, Walsh found that Fall had taken huge kickbacks from the people who had been awarded the leases. And for his part in the crime, the disgraced politician would later spend time in prison – a fate that was then unprecedented for a cabinet member.
But if Fall had been a bad appointment, people were convinced that Attorney General Harry Daugherty was an even worse one. Word had it, you see, that he had also been involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. So, in 1924, Daugherty, too, came under scrutiny. And there was particular concern over the politician’s connection to Jess Smith, who was already known to have been involved in buying government influence using cash bribes from bootleggers.
Ultimately, it emerged that Smith was involved in a dubious deal with Thomas Miller. Miller had previously earned a post from Harding that had allowed him power over the ownership of a lucrative company. And while, at first glance, this all seemed above board, there was the small matter of a large sum of money that later turned up in a joint account Miller had with Daugherty. Yet while Miller went on to do prison time for his part in the affair, the Attorney General would remain a free man.
Plus, of course, there was the conduct of Veterans’ Bureau director Forbes. He had fought for jurisdiction over veterans’ hospitals, after which he had proceeded to milk money from the department by increasing costs to construct new facilities. And Forbes and his conspirators in fact pocketed thousands of dollars in fraudulently acquired funds – a crime that saw the former Marine in jail before the end of the 1920s.
So, although these scandals only came to light after Harding had passed on, some have argued that the president ought to take some share of the blame. In his 1969 book The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration, Robert K. Murray wrote, for example, “In the American system, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander in the White House. If Harding can rightly claim the achievements of a Hughes in State or a Hoover in Commerce, he must also shoulder responsibility for a Daugherty in Justice and a Fall in Interior. Especially must he bear the onus of his lack of punitive action against such men as Forbes and Smith.”
But for the American public, Harding’s philandering was arguably even more intriguing than his governmental scandals. Before starting his presidential campaign, the former senator had been carrying on a love affair with Carrie Phillips. And, as it turns out, she was a dangerous woman to be entangled with.
Phillips was quite clear, for instance, that she wasn’t as opposed to favorable treatment of Germany as many others were. She had been resident in the country before WWI had broken out, after all. But this was a problem for Harding on more than one level. Phillips, you see, was said to be linked to people who were thought to be German spies.
So, Phillips was duly jettisoned from Harding’s life, although she did not take being dumped lightly. It’s said, for one, that she asked for a hush payment and that she would publish her and Harding’s love letters if she didn’t receive this cash. The Republican National Committee reportedly paid handsomely to keep her quiet, with the president himself offering her a further $5,000 annually as a sweetener.
And in 1964 it became clear why Harding had wanted to keep that correspondence private – although the public weren’t able to find out for themselves until 2014. That decades-long wait was a result of a court battle brought by the former president’s family to prevent the letters from seeing the light of day. These notes were steamy, too, with detailed descriptions of sex and outpourings of desire.
However, Phillips wasn’t the politician’s only woman on the side. Nan Britton had become enamoured with Harding when she had been still a girl and had plastered her walls with pictures ripped from the newspapers. She even hung around outside his office in the hope that she’d catch sight of the man. So, Britton’s father would arrange a meeting with Harding, and from that first encounter, an affair ensued.
Britton went on to describe the liaison, too, after Harding had passed away. Indeed, her 1927 book The President’s Daughter painted a lurid picture of a relationship that had continued throughout Harding’s time in the White House. And Britton had a particular bombshell to drop: she claimed that the leader had fathered her daughter, Elizabeth Ann.
In addition, Britton claimed that Harding had given her a pledge to pay for Elizabeth Ann’s upkeep. Following the president’s death in 1923, though, his widow apparently didn’t stick to this promise, and this had impelled Britton to write her book. The commander-in-chief’s mistress also went to court over the matter but couldn’t prove that the little girl was Harding’s child. Ugly attacks from the defense may have sealed the deal when it came to that defeat.
Overall, Harding does not emerge particularly well from Britton’s recounting of their affair. And historian Frederick Lewis Allen seemed to suggest that she was right, as in his opinion, the former president appeared coarse and unrefined. In his 1931 book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, Allen wrote of Harding, “One sees with deadly clarity the essential ordinariness of the man, the commonness of his ‘Gee dearie’ and ‘Say, you darling.’”
Meanwhile, one of the more racy passages in Britton’s book claims that she and Harding had once had relations in a closet attached to the Oval Office. She couldn’t produce his letters as proof, though, because the president had asked her to get rid of them. And, in any case, Harding’s family were certain that he wasn’t capable of fathering a child.
Harding’s grandnephew Dr. Peter Harding explained that this belief was common among his relatives, who were not kind about Britton. He told The New York Times in 2015, “My father said this couldn’t have happened because President Harding had mumps as a kid and was infertile, and the family really vilified Nan Britton.”
As far as Harding’s wife, Florence, was concerned, though, it seems that she very much believed he had trouble keeping his pants on. There was even a whisper that she had in fact killed her husband by poison to pay him back for philandering. This outlandish rumor is thought to have originated with Gaston Means, who admittedly had something of an ax to grind with the late president.
But what of Britton’s own family? Well, it seems that they had the utmost faith in her. And Britton’s grandson James Blaesing would later reveal to The New York Times just how her romance with the president had impacted upon her. Blaesing explained, “She loved [Harding] until the day she died. When she talked about him, she would get the biggest smile on her face. She just loved this guy. He was everything.”
Nevertheless, Britton’s family suffered for that love, enduring being stalked and having their home burgled in the search for evidence that would disprove her story. Blaesing added, “I went through this growing up in school. They belittled [Harding] and her.” Even so, there was a way to discover the truth about the affair.
At one point, you see, Blaesing was approached by Harding cousins Peter and Abigail, who had decided to discover whether Britton’s grandson was in fact a relation of theirs. The pair had reasoned that DNA testing would finally reveal any existing familial connection – if, indeed, there was any to be found.
So, the three underwent their tests and sent off their samples to AncestryDNA. And the results were stunning: Blaesing was indeed Peter and Abigail’s cousin. This meant that the story of Elizabeth Ann – Blaesing’s mom and Britton’s daughter – and her parentage was true. Yes, she was irrefutably Harding’s child.
Indeed, Ancestry exec Stephen Baloglu told The New York Times that there could be no doubt about the outcome. He said, “We’re looking at the genetic scene to see if Warren Harding and Nan Britton had a baby together, and all these signs are pointing to yes. The technology that we’re using is at a level of specificity that there’s no need to do more DNA testing. This is the definitive answer.”
For Abigail, this confirmation brought the resolution that she had sought. She told The New York Times, “I have no doubts left. When [Blaesing’s] related to me, he’s related to Peter, he’s related to a third cousin – there’s too many nails in the coffin, so to speak. I’m completely convinced.”
Then, as word got around about the DNA results, others agreed that the case was now closed. Writer James Robenalt, whose book about Harding and Phillips had thrown doubt over Britton’s story, even accepted that he had been wrong. Robenalt confirmed to The New York Times, “I’m very pleased that that’s the result, just because that family deserves to be recognized.”
However, not everyone was of the same mind. In fact, Dr. Richard Harding – another of the president’s grandnephews – remained skeptical about the findings. He told The New York Times, “I’m not questioning the accuracy of anybody’s tests or anything, but it’s still in my mind still to be proven.” Still, he remained generous to the Blaesing family, saying, “I hope they’ll find their new place in history is meaningful and productive for them.”
And, as it happens, the test result answered yet another piece of speculation about Harding – one that had been of interest for some time to students of history. You see, when Harding had run for president in 1920, some of his detractors who favored segregation had suggested that he had “black blood.” The DNA analysis revealed, however, that the president had no ancestors of color.
Ultimately, history has been a harsh judge of Harding, and he remains one of the least popular of America’s commanders-in-chief. Perhaps his best epitaph, then, is something that Harding said of himself. According to The New York Times, the then-president once declared, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”