Jefferson's `Wall of Separation' between Federal and State Governments

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Jefferson's `Wall of Separation' between Federal and State Governments


In their criticism of the Library of Congress exhibit on religion and the founding of the American republic, Robert S. Alley ("Despite political considerations, Jefferson was committed to principle," Letters, Aug. 27) and his colleagues willingly sacrifice an honest historical inquiry on the altar of political expediency.

Library archivist James H. Hutson and the FBI recently uncovered intriguing new evidence concerning President Thomas Jefferson's celebrated "wall of separation" metaphor, which the critics blithely belittle to advance a political and ideological agenda for these times.

No phrase has more profoundly influenced discourse and policy on church-state relations than Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state." His wall, erected in an 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Conn., is used today by courts and commentators in ways that its architect almost certainly would not recognize and, perhaps, would even repudiate. The U.S. Supreme Court has embraced the metaphor as a virtual rule of constitutional law.

Mr. Hutson is certainly correct that the Danbury letter was a political statement written to reassure Jefferson's Baptist constituents of his devotion to their rights of conscience and to strike back at the Congregationalist/Federalist establishment in Connecticut for vilifying him as an "infidel" and "atheist" in the presidential campaign of 1800. Before posting the letter, Jefferson solicited the political advice of his chief consultants on New England politics, Levi Lincoln and Gideon Granger. Only days after it was written, the letter was reprinted in partisan Republican rags, where it served its maximum political purpose.

More specifically, Jefferson used his letter to the Danbury Baptists to explain why he, as president, declined to follow his presidential predecessors in appointing days for fasting and Thanksgiving. Jefferson's refusal to set aside days on the public calendar for national fasting and thanksgiving contrasted with his actions in Virginia, where he penned "A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving," and, as governor in 1779, he designated a day for "publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God. …

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