Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State

By Hall, Timothy L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State


Hall, Timothy L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State. By DANIEL L. DREISBACH. New York: New York University Press, 2002. x, 283 pp. $42.00.

THOMAS JEFFERSON penned perhaps the most famous metaphor in American constitutional law when he wrote to the Danbury Baptists in early 1802 and referred to "a wall of separation between Church & State" (p. 2). Daniel Dreisbach's new book makes an important contribution to church-state scholarship by elaborating both the circumstances surrounding Jefferson's original use of this metaphor and its introduction into modern constitutional discourse. On the basis of this elaboration, the author concludes that the "wall of separation" has acquired a meaning broader than Jefferson originally intended and is at odds with the original understanding of the First Amendment's religion clauses. Although the United States Supreme Court announced in 1879 that Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [first] amendment," Dreisbach concludes otherwise (p. 4).

Jefferson used the occasion of a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association to explain his refusal to issue executive proclamations setting aside days for national fasting and thanksgiving. The president aspired, though, to accomplish something more than the simple announcement of his policy on this issue, and he saw the letter as providing an opportunity "of sowing useful truths & principles among the people" (p. 25). Dreisbach, accordingly, seeks to ascertain precisely the "truths & principles" that Jefferson hoped to sow. Aided by recent reconstructions of Jefferson's first draft of the letter to the Danbury Baptists, Dreisbach is able to demonstrate that Jefferson's wall applied only to the appropriate relation between the federal government and religious matters. The metaphor was not, Dreisbach concludes, a general statement of principle about other contacts between government and religion, especially between state governments and religious affairs. …

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