Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

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:

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)

March 22, 2013 – Essay #25 


4 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Excellent essay and helpful in understanding the most misunderstood of our Founding Principles. We must continually remind ourselves that the Constitution puts restraints on the Federal Government only, not on state and local governments. Unfortunately, Supreme Court decisions throughout our History have stretched and convoluted these principles to suit their own progressive purposes. And of course, the ACLU is of NO help whatsoever. Thank you, Thank you, for this wonderful reading and essay series. I have told everyone I can think of to come to this site and LEARN! What an opportunity!

    • yguy
      yguy says:

      the Constitution puts restraints on the Federal Government only, not on state and local governments.

      Not true – see, e.g., A1S10.

  2. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    As this is a Common Law basis country, there is a difference between Ecclesiastical Law and Statutory Law. Ecclesiastical tends to what are spiritual affairs and morality, while the statutory tends to what are temporal affairs. “Temporal” is the essential meaning behind secular. To disestablish a church means to sever the temporal affairs of the state from running the church to which the state no longer tells churches what to believe or do. In this, disestablishment is desecularization of the church.

    The authority on the Common Law of the day, Sir William Blackstone, puts the relationship of the two laws where one is the basis of the civil moral code as Divine and statutory law as human law:

    “To instance in the case of murder: this is expressly forbidden by the Divine. . . . If any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it we are bound to transgress that human law. . . . But, with regard to matters that are . . . not commanded or forbidden by those superior laws such, for instance, as exporting of wool into foreign countries; here the . . . legislature has scope and opportunity to interpose.” –Commentaries of the Laws of England Vol 1, Page 42-43

    The progressive definition of religion has come to equate religion with morality, and by extension, morality as an establishment of religion of sorts. But the constitutional definition of establishment of religion is that of making a religious establishment of a sect, mode of worship, doctrine, rites, or liturgy of prayer as imposed by the state. Yet, As morality is naturally a part of doctrine, morality is not exclusive to any particular sect, and even transcends many religious systems to even extending into those who are of no religion at all. So is the civil moral code, which cannot be attributed to a particular sect, for morals are universal, divine Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. If a law cannot be attributed as exclusive to any particular sect, then it cannot be classified as an “establishment of religion” as it is not a religious establishment.

    When an act does not fall under a religious establishment, then it is of consequence availed of the Free Exercise of Religion, which promotes a trans-denominational public square. It was not by any means a secular or plural public square as espoused by Abraham Baldwin of the day, Signer of the Constitution and a framer of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress:

    “…a free government…can only be happy when the public principle and opinions are properly directed…by religion and education. It should therefore be among the first objects of those who wish well to the national prosperity to encourage and support the principles of religion and morality.”

    The virtue of Christian Tolerance encourages faith in duties towards God: people are free to have whatever beliefs and worship according to their own conscience; but when it comes to questions of behavior that touches morality, people are not at license-falsely called liberty.

    • yguy
      yguy says:

      this is a Common Law basis country

      This seems a questionable assertion on several levels:

      1. Common law was inherited from England, wherein it was made by judges – surely not an example any constitutionalist wants to follow.

      2. While indeed the Constitution explicitly affirms the validity of common law in 7A, it is also explicit as to what constitutes the supreme law of the land, and common law is not included.

      3. The most laudatory common law provision is man-made, whereas this country was founded under the auspices of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”, wherefore I submit this country has its basis more in “ecclesiastical law” than in common law.


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