Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists
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Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist association was a deeply calculated, and quickly forgotten, moment of political maneuvering in 1802. Yet a single phrase that Jefferson penned in it, "a wall of separation between Church and State," became the basis of 20th century legal doctrine regarding the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
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Throughout the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson's presidential campaign had been dogged by accusations of his personal irreligion. His opponent, Federalist incumbent John Adams, accused the Republican Jefferson of being a "howling" atheist. Jefferson won anyway, but his refusal to proclaim national days of prayer and thanksgiving provided further fuel to the opposition during the run up to the congressional elections of 1802. When the letter from the Danbury Baptist association arrived in December of 1801, Jefferson saw the chance to shore up support among a key constituency, evangelicals. During the battle over the disestablishment of religion in Virginia during the 1780s, Jefferson had found strong allies among local evangelicals, especially Baptists and Presbyterians, including the Reverend John Leland, who had moved back to Massachusetts in 1791. Evangelicals faced unequal treatment in states with religious establishments, including Massachusetts and Connecticut where Congregationalism was the state religion. Since Jefferson had successfully ended the Anglican establishment in Virginia, the Danbury Baptist association hoped that he would help them do the same in New England.In his return letter, Jefferson reassured his evangelical supporters by citing the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that by protecting the "free exercise" of religion, the Constitution had erected, in his words, a "wall of separation between Church and State." Jefferson mailed back his response on January 1, 1802, the same day that John Leland arrived in the capital with a gift from Massachusetts' Baptists, a mammoth wheel of cheese, weighing 1,235 pounds, bearing a card reading, "The greatest cheese in America for the greatest man in America!"The letter was published in a Massachusetts newspaper, then forgotten. The now famous line would have remained a forgotten phrase in an obscure letter but for a surprising turn of events. A generation after Jefferson's death, collections of his writings, which happened to include his letter to the Danbury Baptists, were published and widely read. Then, in the US Supreme Court's ruling in the 1878 case, Reynolds v. United States, Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote that this letter, coming as it did from a leading proponent of the first amendment, "May be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured." Thus began a tradition of interpreting the first amendment of the Constitution in light of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists. In 1947 and 1948, Jefferson's "wall of separation between Church and State" provided the basis for two Supreme Court cases prohibiting government support for religious education in parochial schools. Jefferson's poetic phrase had become legal doctrine, a doctrine that was most controversially applied in the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, which banned official prayers in public schools. This case outraged many politically conservative evangelicals who were concerned that removing God from America's schools would lead to juvenile delinquency, sexual immorality, and atheism. There are few historical ironies in American religious history as profound as this, that a phrase intended to reassure evangelicals of their religious freedom in the early 19th century would become the legal basis for a measure that profoundly alarmed their descendants a century and a half later.
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Thomas Jefferson letter to the Danbury Baptists- Library of Congress, Manuscript Division
Thomas Jefferson portrait- US History Images
Thomas Jefferson portrait- Internet Archive
Danbury Baptist letter to Thomas Jefferson- Library of Congress, Manuscript Division
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The Library of Congress has a short, useful article about Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists.
Dreisbach, Daniel, 2002. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State. New York: NYU Press.
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The full text of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists.
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Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History