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Why President Jefferson's Letter To The Danbury Baptists Is Still Being Read By Americans After 200 Years

On New Year's Day, 1802, Baptist minister John Leland arrived at the White House with a present for President Thomas Jefferson.

It was a "mammoth cheese," weighing more than 1,200 pounds and accompanied by a placard proclaiming: "The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America!" The gift came from a group of Baptists in Cheshire, Mass., where Leland, a former Virginia resident, had settled. The cheese wheel, the Baptists said, was given in appreciation of Jefferson's strong stand in favor of religious freedom and his opposition to all those who sought to impose state-sponsored orthodoxy.

Jefferson received the offering with enthusiasm, but consuming the delicacy created some special problems. Two years later it was still being served at White House dinners. Federalist Sen. William Plumer of New Hampshire sampled a piece while dining at Jefferson's table in 1804 and later remarked that it was "very far from being good."

Religious liberty seems to have been the topic of the moment at the White House that New Year's Day. A few hours later, Jefferson penned a famous letter about religious freedom and church-state separation. That missive, a reply to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association, contains Jefferson's view that the American people through the First Amendment have erected a "wall of separation between church and state." (Jefferson was apparently in a letter-writing mood that day. He also wrote two notes to sons-in-law, detailing the arrival of the "mammoth cheese.")

Jefferson's pronouncement in the Danbury letter has had a huge influence on the relationship between religion and government in the United States. Yet, while many people are familiar with the phrase "wall of separation between church and state," few know much about the letter that contains the famous passage.

Because this month marks the 200th anniversary of the Danbury letter, it's a good time to step back and take a look at Jefferson's missive and its impact on American history. But the place to start is not New Year's Day 1802 it's many years earlier. To really understand Jefferson's reply, it's important to know why the Connecticut Baptists wrote to him in the first place.

Baptists in Connecticut had been unhappy with their lot for a long time. Originally a type of mild Congregationalist theocracy, Connecticut had moved toward a different system of state-supported religion by the middle of the 18th century. Instead of a single established church, Connecticut allowed communities to vote on which church they wanted to support with tax funds. In practice, this meant subsidies for the Congregationalists, who wielded political control in most towns.

In 1784 state legislators passed a "Toleration Act" designed to allow members of dissenting faiths to be exempted from the majority-imposed church taxes but only after they had pleaded their case before a local magistrate and proved their membership in another denomination.

This may have looked like liberalization to Connecticut's leaders, but to members of often-persecuted minority faiths it was an outrageous violation of freedom of conscience. Further inflaming Baptist anger, a powerful combination of government officials and church leaders essentially ignored the Toleration Act, working in tandem to make it next to impossible for adherents of dissenting faiths to opt out.

The entire system riled Baptists. Even if they could successfully win an exemption from local church taxes, Baptists were offended at the very idea of having to appeal to a government official for this type of relief.

Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800 gave Connecticut dissenters a glimmer of hope. Baptists in other states had worked with Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson in an unusual alliance to champion religious liberty. Undoubtedly, Danbury's Baptists knew of Jefferson's leading role in the struggle to end state-established religion in Virginia. Surely, they must have felt, the president would turn a sympathetic ear to the persecuted of Connecticut.

On October 7, 1801, three members of the Danbury Baptist Association Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins and Stephen S. Nelson wrote to Jefferson to express their hope that his expansive view of religious freedom would sweep the nation. Observed the Baptists, "Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth."

In his New Year's reply, Jefferson agreed with the sentiments expressed and went on to speak of the First Amendment's impact. He wrote, "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 that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

Continued Jefferson, "Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties." (See the full text of the Danbury Baptists' letter to Jefferson and his reply on page 13.)

Despite Jefferson's unorthodox religious views, New England Baptists looked to him as a champion and hoped his take on church-state relations would spread throughout the fledgling nation. Jefferson and the Baptists of New England had a common foe: the reigning Federalist political establishment in that part of the country, which was often supported by Congregationalist preachers who favored close ties between their religion and the government.

These clergy had worked hard to try to defeat Jefferson in 1800. One Federalist newspaper said the question boiled down to this: Would the nation chose "GOD AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; Or impiously declare for JEFFERSON AND NO GOD." Rumors circulated throughout New England that Jefferson, if elected, would quickly order all Bibles rounded up and burned.

Jefferson had suffered mightily at the hands of the New England clergy, but he refrained from taking a shot at them in the Danbury letter. Instead, he chose to use the missive as a vehicle to outline a broader principle religious liberty undergirded by the separation of church and state. Jefferson believed only this system could protect freedom of conscience for all, and he told the Baptists as much.

The Danbury letter had the desired effect and has become perhaps the leading original source for understanding Jefferson's view of the Constitution's religious liberty provisions. The rhetoric has also rung down through the ages. It was cited by the Supreme Court as early as 1879. Writing in Reynolds v. United States, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite observed, "Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured."

Jefferson's missive has had a significant influence on church-state law ever since.

In 1947's Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court delineated the meaning of the First Amendment's religion clauses with references to the Danbury letter, concluding, "In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State.'"

The letter's significance can also be gauged by the amount of time and energy Religious Right groups and anti-separationist scholars have spent over the years trying to minimize its importance. These critics have asserted that Jefferson's reply to the Baptists was only a hastily written note intended to curry favor with a political constituency.

These claims are nothing new. In 1949, James M. O'Neill, a writer who argued that the First Amendment was designed only to bar an official national church, asserted in his book Religion and Education Under the Constitution that Jefferson's reply to the Danbury Baptists was merely a "little address of courtesy" mainly designed to provoke Federalists in New England. In 1998, a scholar at the Library of Congress recycled much of this argument in an attempt to dismiss the importance of the Danbury letter.

However, church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer demolished this position back in 1953 in his book Church, State and Freedom. In the tome, Pfeffer called these attempts "facile" and "historically inaccurate."

Pfeffer, noting that Jefferson consulted with his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, in framing his reply, wrote, "We have Jefferson's own testimony that the letter was prepared with extreme care and deliberation, and that in fact he merely seized upon the Danbury Baptists address as long-awaited opportunity to express the thoughts contained in the letter."

Robert O'Neil, head of the Jefferson Center at the University of Virginia and a law professor who regularly teaches courses in church-state law, says the history behind the Danbury letter proves that it was not merely a quickly dashed off courtesy note.

O'Neil called Jefferson's "wall" metaphor "one of the most quotable and early presidential sound bites." The phrase, he told Church & State, "is not casual." O'Neil added, "The Danbury letter does not read like a note that was simply tossed off. It reads like a serious statement. If it had been merely a routine response, it would have had much less of the eloquence that you find in that phrase."

Historical evidence shows that Jefferson saw the reply as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement of his view on religious liberty. In fact, Jefferson first proposed using the letter as a vehicle for explaining why as president he refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and fasting.

Jefferson made his intent clear in a memo to Lincoln. Attaching the Baptist letter, Jefferson wrote, "Averse to receive addresses, yet unable to prevent them, I have generally endeavored to turn them to some account, by making them the occasion, by way of answer, of sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets. The Baptist address, now enclosed, admits of a condemnation of the alliance between Church and State, under the authority of the Constitution. It furnishes an occasion, too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings as my predecessors did."

Continued Jefferson, "The address, to be sure, does not point at this, and its introduction is awkward. But I foresee no opportunity of doing it more pertinently....Will you be so good as to examine the answer, and suggest any alterations which might prevent an ill effect, or promote a good one among the people?"

Jefferson's plan to use his reply to the Danbury letter as a vehicle for making a major public policy announcement was not unusual. Political leaders of the founding period frequently used personal letters to disseminate their views. In an era where there was no television, radio or Internet, at a time when there was no such thing as a press conference, politicians had to rely on newspapers, pamphlets and informal gossip networks to spread information. Most politicians of Jefferson's era did not expect personal letters to remain private. Indeed, many later ended up in print in newspapers (most of which were highly partisan).

Lincoln, probably aware that Jefferson's reply to the Baptists would not likely remain private for long, advised caution. He recommended that Jefferson remove the material about days of prayer and fasting, believing it would hurt Jefferson politically in New England where many of the clergy were already very anti-Jefferson. (Jefferson also shared his draft with Gideon Granger, the postmaster general. Granger told Jefferson he liked it as written and made no substantial changes.)

Jefferson agreed to Lincoln's changes but with clear reluctance. Retrieving the original draft reply from the attorney general, he bracketed the passage about prayer days and jotted in the margin, "This paragraph was omitted on the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamations of thanksgiving, etc. by the Executive is...respected."

The ease with which Jefferson acquiesced to this suggestion indicates that he was not interested in using the letter to slam the Federalists or make any sort of partisan political statement. Rather, Jefferson saw the letter from the Baptists as an opportunity to make his views clear on separation of church and state and he took it.

UVA's O'Neil agrees. In 1998, O'Neil and 23 other church-state scholars issued a public statement taking strong exception to the Library of Congress' assertion that the main purpose of the Danbury letter was to launch a partisan attack on the Federalists. The letter, O'Neil told Church & State, was "political" only in the sense that it discussed a topic relevant to politics of the day. That did not make its intent partisan, he said.

"One could equally describe the Gettysburg Address as political, perhaps more so than the letter to the Danbury Baptists or even the Declaration of Independence, one of the most revered documents in American history," said O'Neil. "That comment is accurate but should not be seen as pejorative."

Other claims about the Danbury letter are easily dismissed. Religious Right propagandist David Barton claimed in his self-published 1989 book The Myth of Separation that later in the letter Jefferson wrote that the wall of separation was meant to be "one directional," protecting the church from the state but not the other way around. Barton also alleged that Jefferson added that "Christian principles" should always guide government.

These assertions appear nowhere in the letter, and Barton corrected the errors in later editions although he continues to dismiss the letter as unimportant and distort its contents and meaning in other ways. But the "one-directional wall" myth has gained much currency among Religious Right activists and still appears with great regularity in their publications and on their websites.

One scholar who has studied Jefferson and church-state separation says Religious Right leaders fail to grasp the significance of the Danbury letter because they don't understand or will not acknowledge its historical context.

Robert S. Alley, a humanities professor emeritus at the University of Richmond in Virginia, has researched the topic at the Library of Congress, where the Baptists' letter to Jefferson, his draft and the final version are kept. As part of his research, Alley personally examined all three documents.

Alley, a member of Americans United's Board of Trustees and the author of several books on church-state relations, notes that Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, landmark legislation that ended state-established churches in Virginia and guaranteed religious freedom. The bill was later guided through the legislature by Jefferson ally James Madison. To really understand the Danbury letter, Alley says, one must put it in the context of Jefferson's life-long opposition to state-supported religion.

"Anything Jefferson has to say on the topic seems to me to have the value of an original source," Alley said. "You go back and ask, 'Where did these ideas come from?' Nobody denies they came out of the Virginia experience. Therefore, it makes sense that when Jefferson writes a commentary like the Danbury letter to pay attention to what he thinks the First Amendment means. It's not like it popped up out of nowhere."

Alley is also unimpressed with what is perhaps the most stinging contemporary attack on Jefferson's Danbury letter words authored by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in dissent to a 1985 decision dealing with the constitutionality of public school-sponsored "moments of silence."

Dissenting from the majority viewpoint in the Wallace v. Jafree case, Rehnquist, a leader of the Supreme Court's right-wing bloc, launched an all-out assault on Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor, calling it "useless as a guide to judging" and saying it should be "frankly and explicitly abandoned." (Rehnquist's assault has been echoed more recently by Justice Clarence Thomas.)

Alley said Rehnquist erred by assuming that because Jefferson was in Paris at the time the First Amendment was drafted, he could not have influenced its development. In fact, most scholars acknowledge that Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom inspired the First Amendment. In addition, even while in Paris Jefferson kept in communication with Madison about the Bill of Rights, eventually persuading Madison that such guarantees of freedom were needed in the Constitution.

"When Jefferson takes pen in hand to write to the Danbury Baptists to describe the First Amendment, he does so as an originator of that amendment," Alley said. "He did not help write the First Amendment, but there's no dispute he had a hand it." Alley labeled Rehnquist's blistering attack as "just foolishness."

Ironically, the 200th anniversary of the Danbury letter is marred by questions of whether the wall of separation envisioned by Jefferson will survive to serve future generations. Without a doubt, these are precarious times for Jefferson's protective barrier. The Supreme Court is due to consider the constitutionality of religious school vouchers later this year, and Religious Right activists and their allies in Congress continue to press efforts to remove separation of church and state from the Constitution by amending the document.

The events of Sept. 11 have also taken their toll. Since the devastating terrorist attack, many in the Religious Right have argued the wall must be lowered to allow more religion (by which they mean their own beliefs) in government proceedings and in public schools.

O'Neil says recent events have only underscored the need for the wall of separation outlined in Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. "One of the things that has troubled me in recent weeks," he said, "is that we haven't made enough of the extraordinary fact that Osama bin Laden and others like him hate us so much and are so angry in part because we are a secular state.

"There are apparently a number of grievances from these individuals," continued O'Neil. "But clearly one of them and they've said it is that we are a secular state, church and state are separate and religion does not drive government. Insofar as that is seen as one of the things they despise and find alienating about us, I think we should pick up on that. I am very disappointed that we have not. We have always been and will remain a secular state."