Very Political Jefferson Built `Wall of Separation'

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Very Political Jefferson Built `Wall of Separation'


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Thomas Jefferson penned his famous phrase about the "wall of separation" between church and state to please partisan supporters and answer critics, according to a new study of his letters.

The phrase was born of politics, not philosophy, according to the chief of manuscripts at the Library of Congress, who researched Jefferson's papers for an exhibit on religion and the Founding Fathers. It opens Thursday at the library's main building.

Documents on display also will show that two days after writing the 1802 letter, the third president began attending weekly worship inside the House of Representatives. Jefferson also allowed worship in federal buildings.

"That phrase about the wall doesn't mean much in light of his behavior, does it?" James H. Hutson, the library's chief of manuscripts, said yesterday.

Supreme Court justices and policy-makers have cited Jefferson's "wall of separation" to prove that the Founders wanted religion and government strictly separated. Over the years, this has affected rulings that ended prayer and religious instruction in public schools, religious displays on public property and state funding to social services provided by religious groups.

Now, however, Mr. Hutson argues that Jefferson did not use the phrase to elucidate what the First Amendment says about religious freedom and the state. "These were political letters," Mr. Hutson said. At the time, presidents wrote to private supporters in carefully calculated ways that would be picked up by partisan newspapers, he said.

The new research got a boost from the FBI's technology division, which helped peer through inked-out lines in the 1802 letter.

"It's a mystery to me why somebody had not tried to investigate this," Mr. Hutson said. "What was under there? Why did Jefferson cross that out?"

Jefferson became president in 1801 after a bruising battle in which his political opponents, the Federalists, claimed that he was an atheist who denigrated religion, with the French Revolution as his model.

His first year in office, Jefferson was criticized by Federalists for not carrying on the tradition of George Washington and John Adams of issuing a proclamation for days of "fastings and thanksgivings."

The Danbury Baptists of Connecticut had sent Jefferson a letter of congratulations on his election, and the president "labored over" a strategic reply that would answer his critics and encourage his Republican supporters, Mr. Hutson said.

"This letter began as a sort of tit for tat, a response to a Federalist insult," Mr. Hutson said.

In the letter's first draft, Mr. Hutson said, Jefferson explained that he did not proclaim days of fastings because the U. …

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