Jefferson's Danbury Letter

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 3, No. 1, February 2002

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United

 

The Original Intent of the First Amendment (Part 3)

The central issue in the 1800 presidential campaign was whether a Deist (Thomas Jefferson) was as qualified to be president as was a Christian (John Adams).  When Jefferson was elected, delighted Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut wrote a letter to congratulate him and to express their hope that his sentiments on religious liberty “will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the earth.”  Jefferson responded by penning the most explicit, clear and concise interpretation of the original intention of the First Amendment on record.

Jefferson's Letter to Danbury Baptist Association

January 1, 1802

 

Gentlemen:

 

The affectionate sentiments of esteem and appreciation which you are so good to express toward me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association, give me the highest satisfaction.  My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

 

Believing with you that religion is a matter that lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and state. (emphasis added)  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 his natural rights, convinced that he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

 

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the Common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of high respect and esteem.

 

Thomas Jefferson

 

From A.A. Lipscomb and A.E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, 1907), vol. 16, p. 281.

The Supreme Court and Jefferson’s Letter

 

The Supreme Court has often cited Jefferson’s Danbury letter in discussions of the original intent of the First Amendment.  One of the most important cases was the Everson case of 1947 that ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment required that the First Amendment’s separation of church and state also applies to the states.

 

Several justices dissented from the majority opinion of the Everson case, but their argument was with whether the practice at issue in the case had in fact breached the “wall of separation.”  That the full court assumed that the First Amendment intended to separate church and state  is evident from Justice Rutledge’s dissenting opinion which was endorsed by all the dissenting justices:

 

“The Amendment’s purpose was not to strike merely at the official establishment of a single sect, creed or religion, outlawing only a formal relation such as had prevailed in England and some of the colonies.  Necessarily it was to uproot all such relationships. . . . But the object was broader than separating church and state in this narrow sense.  It was to create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid or support for religion.”

 

See Leonard Levy’s  The Establishment Clause:  Religion and the First Amendment.  (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), pp. 150-151.

 

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"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

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