Jefferson and the "Wall of Separation"


I couldn't decide whether to put these into the "keepers" collection, or here in the "historical" collection. Obviously, I decided to put them here. However, credit where credit is due. Falcon researched the first part, the background of Jefferson's letter. As usual, Brutus (our historian) came up with the actual letter.


Wall of Separation (letter of 1802)

Then as now – foes of Jefferson and religious freedom, distort his words.

ASIDE: Louisiana Legislature just passed a law that the slogan, “In God We Trust” be posted in every classroom in the state. – ACLU has already filed suite stating, “It violates the ‘wall-of-separation’ clause of the 1st Amendment.” [the clause doesn’t exist]

The essence of the Danbury Association of Baptist Letter TO Jefferson: [Genxer – you asked].

//////The Danbury Association of Baptist clergy in Connecticut had written to congratulate the new President on his election and applaud his opposition to a church-state "alliance." Jefferson received the letter on Dec. 30, 1801, and two days later, Jan. 1, 1802, completed his response.//////

Though ostensibly a private document, he knew his reply would quickly be published in the press; and he submitted his composition to the two New Englanders in his cabinet, Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts, for their political judgments. Jefferson planned to use this opportunity to explain to his supporters why he did not follow the practice of George Washington and John Adams in issuing proclamations for public fasts or thanksgivings.

During the Presidential campaign of 1800, the Federalist clergy and press [the Terry McAulliffes of Jefferson’s day] had repeatedly assailed the Republican candidate [Jefferson] as an "infidel" intent on subverting religion. The recent treaty of Amiens between Britain and France had lifted the threat of American involvement in the European conflict; and now Federalists were speculating aloud whether the President would issue a call for public prayers of thanksgiving as his predecessors would have done, or show his atheist colors once more.

Jefferson explained his reasoning more fully in 1808. What was forbidden to the "general government," he wrote, "must rest with the states." His predecessors had assumed that what was appropriate for the chief magistrate in a state was suitable for the President of the United States as well.

Jefferson read the Constitution more strictly. It gave him only "civil powers," and he had "no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents." But as a Virginia legislator, Jefferson had endorsed a state law "for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving," and as Governor in 1779 he designated such a day for public prayers and thanksgiving.

Lest anyone argue in 1802 that his "wall" language implied hostility toward religion, two days after composing the Danbury letter Jefferson attended Sunday church services at the Capitol building for the first time as President.

He knew his presence there would be widely noticed and reported in the press. For the remaining seven years he served in office, he regularly attended services supplied by a variety of clergy of various denominations in a government building.

The symbolism was irrefutable.

As President, Jefferson wanted to foster religious freedom, particularly in places like New England, which still had state establishments of religion; but he never desired a "government without religion." That charge, he confided to a friend, was a "lie" spread by his political foes.

In addition, his public rhetoric often carried strong religious overtones. For example, in his second inaugural address, he relied upon biblical imagery to describe the nation's relationship with God: "I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land...who has covered our infancy with His Providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplication with me."

He recognized the nation's dependence upon God and invited his fellow citizens to prayer. He did not command it.


A Letter Often Quoted, But Never Read.

While perusing my historical data I ran across this letter. I thought maybe some in this forum might enjoy reading it.

This is the infamous Thomas Jefferson's 'Wall of Separation' letter. Reflect on his statement as it concerns the Centeral Government and Congressional Actions only. Also if you will notice the final paragraph. You have never heard that statement quoted when anti-religious zealots use this correspondence for supporting their position.


To Nehemiah Dodge and Others.
A Committee of the Danbury Baptist
Association, in the State of Connecticut

Washington, January 1, 1802


GENTLEMEN:---The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies between a man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith and worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that 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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurance of my high respect and esteem.

Thomas Jefferson


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