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Jefferson's epitaph: A legacy of liberty
Jefferson's Legacy of Religious Liberty, by Mary Walsh

 Jefferson listed the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom as one of his three crowning accomplishments.
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Date published: 1/13/2013

HAVE YOU ever thought about what epitaph you'd like inscribed on your tombstone? Probably not. It's a morbid thought and it's only January--the time for resolutions and fresh starts. But in an odd sort of way, thinking about an epitaph can give insight into how we want to be remembered. Most epitaphs center on names, dates, and relationships. No great surprise there, since you can't take it with you. However, Thomas Jefferson obviously gave it serious contemplation. He sketched out his obelisk and noted three things he considered his crowning achievements.

Jefferson's final directive was clear, "On the face of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more: 'Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia' because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom was drafted by Jefferson in the year after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. James Madison shepherded Bill No. 82 through the General Assembly for seven years before it was adopted in 1785. Part of the first paragraph reads, "That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical. "

The second paragraph continues: "We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

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Mary Walsh is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania County.