Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rebecca Gratz & Liberty of Thought

On a trip to Troy, NY, to visit her aunt in 1804, 23-year-old Rebecca met a man who was an aggressive atheist. This was probably her first exposure to someone with his views, and she initially reacted "with disgust and answered with indignation." He, she wrote to her sister, "pursued the argument to a length and extent that shocked me and appeared to level every moral obligation, every social virtue and every dependence on a future state of reward or punishment...." But, she went on, "After this you may think I should not wish to meet [him] again....I assure you on the contrary there is not a man in Troy whose society is more desirable -- he attends to all the duties of a good citizen, is benevolent and honorable in his communication with the world and affectionate to his family. He is frequently at Aunt's, we rally him on his infidelity but find him well informed and agreeable."

Rebecca had very strong religious principles, but she also had what in her time would have been called powers of observation, i.e., she benefited from experience, and factored what she had learned into her judgments. In this case, she had grasped that the virtuous way in which the atheist led his life was more important to her assessment of him as a man and a companion than the philosophical views he espoused. She had had the insight which on a societal level would make freedom of religion and of thought possible in the United States.

(This post is based on information in a letter Rebecca wrote to her sister Rachel on August 12, 1804. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

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