Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State

By Daniel L. Dreisbach | Go to book overview

7

“Useful Truths and Principles…
Germinate and Become Rooted”
in the American Mind
Jefferson's Metaphor Enters Political and
Juridical Discourse

I have generally endeavored to turn [citizen addresses] to some ac-
count, by making them the occasion, by way of answer, of sowing
useful truths & principles among the people, which might germi-
nate and become rooted among their political tenets.

—Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln (1802)1

Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as de-
vices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.

—Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo, Berkey v. Third Ave.
Ry. Co. (1926)2

Thomas Jefferson's message to the Danbury Baptist Association was published almost immediately. This must have pleased the president, who hoped that the “useful truths & principles” sown in the letter “might germinate and become rooted among [the people's] political tenets.”3 The celebrated “wall” metaphor, in the course of time, took root in American political and legal soil and profoundly influenced, if not defined, public debate on the constitutionally prescribed relationship between church and state in the United States.

By late January 1802, printed copies of the Danbury Baptists' address and Jefferson's reply began appearing in New England Republican

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