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Endowed by Our Creator

Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America

Michael I. Meyerson
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Endowed by Our Creator
    Book Description:

    The debate over the framers' concept of freedom of religion has become heated and divisive. This scrupulously researched book sets aside the half-truths, omissions, and partisan arguments, and instead focuses on the actual writings and actions of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and others. Legal scholar Michael I. Meyerson investigates how the framers of the Constitution envisioned religious freedom and how they intended it to operate in the new republic.

    Endowed by Our Creatorshows that the framers understood that the American government should not acknowledge religion in a way that favors any particular creed or denomination. Nevertheless, the framers believed that religion could instill virtue and help to unify a diverse nation. They created a spiritual public vocabulary, one that could communicate to all-including agnostics and atheists-that they were valued members of the political community. Through their writings and their decisions, the framers affirmed that respect for religious differences is a fundamental American value, Meyerson concludes. Now it is for us to determine whether religion will be used to alienate and divide or to inspire and unify our religiously diverse nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18349-8
    Subjects: Law, Religion, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: The Great Seal
    (pp. 1-13)

    ON JULY 4, 1776, shortly after approving the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted to create a committee to design a “Great Seal”¹ for the newly confederated states: “Resolved, That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.”²

    These three men, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jeff erson, had just finished serving on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, but their new assignment would prove far more difficult. Rather than using words, they were now asked to create a...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Before the Beginning
    (pp. 14-42)

    THE CREATION of an American understanding of religious freedom began with the widely varied experiences of the thirteen colonies. The colonies were devoutly religious, but they were each, in varying degrees, narrowly sectarian and excluded from full legal, political, and social equality any denomination that did not meet their particular definition of a “true religion.” At no time during America’s founding was there a “Christian” colony, state, or nation, if the word “Christian” is understood to include Catholics and numerous other disfavored denominations.

    In his 1749 novelThe History of Tom Jones: A Foundling,the British author Henry Fielding illustrates...

  6. CHAPTER 2 A Tolerant, Protestant Nation
    (pp. 43-93)

    THE OPENING of the First Continental Congress marked a critical early step in the unification of thirteen diverse colonies. The colonists not only began learning how to act in unison, but also were forced to think about their common interests and characteristics. Religion was seen as both a unifying force and a means of accomplishing their goals.

    Shortly after the Intolerable Acts became law, the Virginia House of Burgesses demonstrated its sympathy with the suffering in Boston by calling for a “Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer” on June 1, 1774, the day the port of Boston was scheduled to...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Second American Revolution
    (pp. 94-127)

    THE PERIOD between the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the framing of the Constitution in 1787 was a volatile time for the new nation. The Confederation Congress, still working under the Articles of Confederation, was largely ineffective in either uniting the disparate states into a common peacetime entity or shaping a national identity. The individual states were free to experiment, and Virginia, in 1786, launched what became in effect a second American Revolution. Just as the first Revolution brought a total break from both the king and the philosophical underpinnings of monarchy, this second revolution would lead...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “We Have Become a Nation”: Drafting the Constitution
    (pp. 128-150)

    AS THE Confederation Congress was debating the Northwest Ordinance, the Constitutional Convention was meeting to draft the Constitution. The decisions made in Philadelphia reflected a significantly different view of the relationship between religion and government from the ones being made in New York.

    Many of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, including James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, John Dickinson, and Benjamin Franklin, were veterans of battles over the proper role of religion in state government. While the delegates were not hostile to religion, most were intent on creating a nation in which religion and government would be separated more than...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Adding the First Amendment
    (pp. 151-179)

    THE NATION had not finished drafting its constitutional charter. Led by James Madison, the fi rst Congress corrected an ominous omission in the original Constitution and gave Anti-Federalists what many had said they wanted, a bill of rights.¹

    The first demand for a bill of rights had been raised at the very end of the Constitutional Convention. On September 12, 1787, as delegates were preparing to vote on the final language, George Mason announced that he wished the Constitution “had been prefaced with a Bill of Rights.”² Suggesting that the delegates could copy language from the recently enacted state constitutions,...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Freedom of Religion in the New Nation
    (pp. 180-235)

    NEITHER THE Constitution nor the First Amendment created the American understanding of freedom of religion. That vision emerged from a shared national experience guided by the conduct of the government’s early leaders. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison did not always act consistently, but their practices and examples led to the evolution of a collective wisdom that ultimately created the American ideal of religious liberty.¹

    The actions of George Washington regarding freedom of religion were especially important.² As the first president, he was acutely aware that his decisions and actions would define what would be considered appropriate in the future. As...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Original Wisdom
    (pp. 236-276)

    FOR SO-CALLED originalists, those to whom “the discoverable meaning of the Constitution at the time of its initial adoption [is] authoritative for purposes of constitutional interpretation in the present,”¹ the framers’ understanding of freedom of religion will answer many contemporary questions involving the relationship between government and religion. Originalists such as former judge Robert Bork rely on the “original understanding” of a provision, which is derived from a determination of what “the public of that time would have understood the words to mean.”² Others use history not to resolve specific issues but to determine the “general and abstract principles” embodied...

  12. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 277-280)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 281-334)
    (pp. 335-358)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 359-368)