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Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Daniel L. Dreisbach
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 283
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  • Book Info
    Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State
    Book Description:

    No phrase in American letters has had a more profound influence on church-state law, policy, and discourse than Thomas Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state, and few metaphors have provoked more passionate debate. Introduced in an 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association, Jefferson's wall is accepted by many Americans as a concise description of the U.S. Constitution's church-state arrangement and conceived as a virtual rule of constitutional law. Despite the enormous influence of the wall metaphor, almost no scholarship has investigated the text of the Danbury letter, the context in which it was written, or Jefferson's understanding of his famous phrase. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State offers an in-depth examination of the origins, controversial uses, and competing interpretations of this powerful metaphor in law and public policy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8532-4
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. 1 Introduction: The Creation of an American Metaphor
    (pp. 1-8)

    On New Year’s Day, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. In his written address, he used the celebrated “wall of separation” metaphor to describe the First Amendment relationship between religion and civil government. Jefferson wrote, in sweeping, memorable phrases:

    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared...

  4. 2 The President, a Mammoth Cheese, and the “Wall of Separation”: Jeffersonian Politics and the New England Baptists
    (pp. 9-24)

    On the first day of 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a gift of mythic proportions. Amid great fanfare, a “mammoth” Cheshire cheese was delivered to the President’s House by the itinerant Baptist preacher and political gadfly Elder John Leland (1754–1841).⁴ It measured more than four feet in diameter, thirteen feet in circumference, and seventeen inches in height; once cured, it weighed 1,235 pounds. According to eyewitnesses, its crust was painted red and emblazoned with Jefferson’s favorite motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”⁵

    The prodigious cheese was made by the predominantly Baptist and staunchly Republican citizens of Cheshire,...

  5. 3 “Sowing Useful Truths and Principles”: Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association
    (pp. 25-54)

    In October 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson expressing “great satisfaction” in his “appointment to the chief Magistracy in the United States.”³ In the new president, the Connecticut Baptists found an ardent defender of religious liberty, a matter of vital concern to a minority sect in a state dominated by a Congregationalist establishment. The Baptists were eager to broadcast their support for the new administration in Washington and to repudiate Jefferson’s critics in the bitter presidential campaign just ended. The president, in turn, was receptive to the Baptists’ address, because it afforded him an opportunity...

  6. 4 “What the Wall Separates”: A Jurisdictional Interpretation of the “Wall of Separation”
    (pp. 55-70)

    What does the “wall” separate? On the surface, at least, the answer seems straightforward: the “wall” separates “church” and “state.” The answer, however, is more ambiguous than it may appear at first blush. What is meant by “church”? What is meant by “state”? Does the “wall” require thatallmatters respecting a “church” or, more broadly, “religion” be separated from the civil state? Does “state” include civil government in all its forms, at the local, state, and national levels? Did Jefferson’s “wall,” insofar as it metaphorically represented the First Amendment, affect only relationships between the federal government and an “establishment...

  7. 5 Early References to a “Wall of Separation”: Prefiguring the Jeffersonian Metaphor
    (pp. 71-82)

    Although Thomas Jefferson is often credited with coining the “wall of separation” metaphor, he was not the first to use it in a churchstate context. The image of a wall or similar barrier separating the realms of the church and the civil government can be found in Western political and theological literature centuries before Jefferson penned the Danbury Baptist letter.⁴ A separation between ecclesiastical and civil authorities was, for example, a familiar theme in both the Renaissance and the Reformation eras.⁵

    Separationist rhetoric was used by numerous writers to advance diverse arguments and to serve a variety of theological and...

  8. 6 Creating “Effectual Barriers”: Alternative Metaphors in Defense of Religious Liberty
    (pp. 83-94)

    Jefferson was not alone among his American contemporaries in championing metaphoric barriers for protecting civil and religious liberties. Indeed, late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature is replete with various figurative barriers erected to safeguard civil liberty in general and religious liberty in particular. Some of these barriers were constructed before the Danbury letter, and some after. Most, if not all, pretwentieth-century alternatives to the “wall” were made without reference to, or even knowledge of, Jefferson’s now famous construction. In more recent times, various commentators have proposed alternatives to, or refinements of, Jefferson’s figurative language. This chapter surveys some of the notable barriers...

  9. 7 “Useful Truths and Principles … Germinate and Become Rooted” in the American Mind: Jefferson’s Metaphor Enters Political and Juridical Discourse
    (pp. 95-106)

    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 newspapers.⁴ The documents...

  10. 8 Conclusion: The Re-Creation of Church-State Law, Policy, and Discourse
    (pp. 107-128)

    The wall metaphor is ubiquitous in Western literature. Throughout the ages, writers have been drawn to the motif.⁴ A wall conjures up the image of an unambiguous, concrete barrier. It is a simple, yet dramatic and versatile figure of speech, as rich as “foundation,” “fortress,” “tower,” “pillar,” “bridge,” or any other architectural metaphor.

    Walls serve a variety of functions. In its most primitive form, a wall marks a boundary that separates one area from another. A wall, of course, can be the supporting structure of a building. It is “one of the sides of a room or building connecting floor...

  11. Appendix 1 Proclamation Appointing a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer, May 1774
    (pp. 131-131)
  12. Appendix 2 Address to the Inhabitants of the Parish of St. Anne, 1774
    (pp. 132-132)
  13. Appendix 3 Bills Reported by the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in 1776, 18 June 1779
    (pp. 133-136)
  14. Appendix 4 Proclamation Appointing a Day of Publick and Solemn Thanksgiving and Prayer, November 1779
    (pp. 137-139)
  15. Appendix 5 Draft of “The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798,” November 1798 (excerpt)
    (pp. 140-141)
  16. Appendix 6 Correspondence with the Danbury Baptist Association, 1801–1802
    (pp. 142-148)
  17. Appendix 7 Correspondence with the Citizens of Chesire, Massachusetts, January 1802
    (pp. 149-151)
  18. Appendix 8 Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1805 (excerpts)
    (pp. 152-152)
  19. Appendix 9 Letter from Jefferson to the Reverend Samuel Miller, 23 January 1808
    (pp. 153-154)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 155-244)
  21. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 245-270)
  22. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 271-272)
  23. Index
    (pp. 273-282)
  24. About the Author
    (pp. 283-283)