On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a thirteen-foot mammoth cheese weighing some 1,200 pounds. It was delivered by dissenting Baptist minister and long-time advocate of religious liberty, Reverend John Leland, who then preached a sermon to the president and members of Congress at the Capitol two days later. Jefferson took the opportunity to compose a letter to the Danbury Baptists on the relationship between government and religion that would shape the course of twentieth-century jurisprudence.
Jefferson had been a staunch supporter of disestablishment and freedom of conscience for decades. His Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom failed to pass in his home state in 1779, but it would eventually be adopted in 1786 as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It combined the principles of disestablishment of the official Anglican Church and defended religious liberty as a natural right. It read:
That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson reaffirmed these principles while answering a series of queries to a European audience. Jefferson again averred that religious liberty was a natural right that was free of coercion by the state particularly in a republic rooted upon popular sovereignty. “Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights,” he wrote, “only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit.” The government, he states, cannot impose restrictions or civil liabilities upon the governed for their religious opinions. “We are answerable for them to our God.”
Although he was in Paris when the Constitutional Convention was held and the new Constitution ratified, Jefferson kept abreast of events in his country and consistently prodded his friend, James Madison, to include a Bill of Rights to protect the inalienable rights of mankind. Eventually, Madison would introduce amendments in the First Congress and secure their passage, including the First Amendment, which read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The First Amendment was meant as a limit on the national Congress only. Madison wanted limits on the states but they were rejected. State limitations on religious liberty and establishment persisted after the First Amendment was adopted. Religious tests for office remained in place in most states, and Connecticut (1818) and Massachusetts (1833) did not disestablish their official state churches until decades after. The Supreme Court reinforced the idea that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states but rather only to the national government in Barron v. Baltimore (1833).
In the 1800 Election, Federalists attacked Jefferson for atheism and warned their followers to hide their Bibles should Jefferson be elected. While Jefferson certainly had heterodox personal religious views, and he broke with the precedent of Presidents Washington and Adams regarding the constitutionality of issuing days of thanksgiving or fasts, he did not keep religion out of the public square.
In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson appealed to the unity of Americans centered on the principles of a natural rights republic. He included freedom of religion as one of the “essential principles of our government.” Moreover, he finished the address with a prayerful supplication. “May that infinite power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”
Jefferson made many other prayerful statements in his official capacity as President of the United States. For example, in his First Annual Message to Congress, Jefferson stated:
While we devoutly return thanks to the beneficient Being who has been pleased to breathe into them the spirit of conciliation and forgiveness, we are bound with peculiar gratitude to be thankful to him that our own peace has been preserved through so perilous a season, and ourselves permitted quietly to cultivate the earth and to practice and improve those arts which tend to increase our comforts.
In his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson reiterated his belief in religious liberty free of government interference by supporting the Danbury Baptists who were suffering under establishment in Connecticut. “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,” he wrote.
While Jefferson personally opposed state establishments of religion, and had been the father of disestablishment in Virginia, he respected American constitutionalism. He recognized that neither he nor Congress had no authority over religious policies of the states, which had their own constitutions and bills of rights. Even though he saw the natural right of religious liberty violated by any establishment, he firmly respected the federal relationship between the national government and the states. The view is analogous to Abraham Lincoln’s constitutional belief that while he thought slavery violated natural rights and the principles of the Declaration of Independence, it was an issue that was left to the states, and the president had no authority over slavery.
This helps us understand the rest of the letter in which he wrote about the constitutional limits the First Amendment imposed on Congress: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” This metaphor has been (mis)used by the Supreme Court in the Everson (1947) case and subsequent jurisprudence on issues of school prayer and Bible readings as to read that there should be no religion in the public square. It also helped “incorporate” the Bill of Rights and apply them to the states contrary to the original intention of the founders. Moreover, Jefferson explicitly recognized the Establishment Clause as a limitation on the national Congress not local schools or state governments.
Finally, Jefferson encourages the states to imitate the national Congress and follow the principle of disestablishment in order to protect natural rights. “Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
The Supreme Court unfortunately cherry-picked a quote from a letter of a president to a congregation. They could easily have used one of the letters that George Washington wrote to the congregations or from his official Farewell Address in which he states that religion is essential to virtue, morality, and self-government. Instead, the Court decided to pull out a quote which best suited their needs or desires.
In 1800, Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Indeed, he was following this promise when he defended religious liberty, promoted disestablishment, and respected constitutionalism in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists.
Read the Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson here: http://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3740
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute based in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of: America’s Beginnings (2011), The Jamestown Experiment (2011), The Pox and the Covenant (2010), Hurricane of Independence (2008)