What the founding fathers said about the seperation of church and state
It's become fashionable to drop the names of the Founding Fathers in election debates about separation of church and state. But what exactly did they say? What would we learn if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sat down for an interview on the subject?
We can't arrange that, but there are records of what these two men said on the subject. And thanks to George Ticknor, a young Dartmouth graduate who visited Jefferson at his Virginia home "Monticello" in 1815, we have a description of the setting and atmosphere. With Ticknor's description, the statemen's quotes, and present-day questions, it is possible to construct an interview as if a reporter had accompanied Ticknor.
Liberties are taken: While the statesmen did make the remarks attributed to them and their sense remains intact, some words have been added in italics for clarification. Their statements were not made on the occasion of George Ticknor's visit. Madison, although a close collaborator of Jefferson, was not present when Ticknor visited. And some facts about Monticello and history are added here and there by this article's compiler, Richard M. Harley.m
We entered Jefferson's home, Monticello, by a glass folding door into an elegant hall which reminded Ticknor of Fielding's "Man of the Mountain" by the strange furniture of its walls. On one side hang the head and horns of an elk, a deer, and a buffalo; another is covered with curiosities found by Lewis and Clark on their perilous expedition through the American frontier; on the third, the head of a mammoth (the only os frontism yet found, Mr. Jefferson would later boast); on the fourth side, in odd union with a fine painting of the repentance of St. Peter, was an Indian map on leather of the southern waters of the Missouri and an Indian representation of a bloody battle.
Mr. Jefferson, of course, in his study. we were fortunate. Seldom, tradition has it, were any but the closest of Jefferson's colleague admitted to this, his "sanctum sanctorum." As we entered -- in full view of his impressive library of 6,500 books adjacent to his sitting room -- the tall, dignified, graying Jefferson rose with ease and graciousness to greet us, along with his longtime colleague, the short balding James Madison, Jefferson's successor in the White House, who was visiting on a short vacation.
Rather a shock, Ticknor thought, to see a man of Jefferson's eminence wearing his corduroy small-clothes, reddish casual waist-coat and sharp-toed buckled shoes. (What would have been the reaction back in Boston to such frontier fashionlessness?)
Madison was indeed the intense, unprepossessing "withered little apple-John" of Washington Irving's description four years before. With staid black coat and breeches, white stockings and black shoes, he looked more the preacher than nation builder -- but a perfect foil for the urbane but roughhewn Jefferson.
Reporter: You were both prime movers behind the Constitution's First Amendment and its provision of church-state separation. these days we forget the passions that originally surrounded the church-state issue. By the time of the Revolution, most all the 13 colonies still had an established religion, government-supported by taxes. The exceptions, of course, were the states founded by the religious freedom-fighters -- William Penn's Pennsylvania and Roger William's Rhode Island. I find it hard to believe that even in your own state, Mr. Jefferson, common law made heresy against the established Anglican church a capital offense, and denial of the Trinity or the divine authority of Scripture punishable by imprisonment.
Jefferson: The first settlers of Virginia had been Englishmen, loyal subjects to their king and church, and the grant to Sir Walter Raleigh contained an express proviso that their laws "should not be against the true Christian faith, now professed in the Church of England." The state was divided into parishes, in each of which was established a minister of the Anglican church, endowed with a fixed salary in tobacco, a glebe house, and land with other necessary appendages.
Reporter: To meet these church expenses, I assume that all the people were taxed, whether they were members of the established church or not?
Jefferson: Exactly. Those settling here who were not members of that church faced hardship.m Toward Quakers, state authoritiesm were most cruelly intolerant, driving them from the colony by the severest penalties. In process of time, however, other sectarisms were introduced, chiefly of the Presbyterian family, and the zeal and industry of sectarian preachers eventuallym had an open and undisputed field. By the Revolution,m a majority of the inhabitants had become dissenters from the established church, but were still obliged to pay contributions to support pastors of the minority. This unrighteous compulsion to maintain teachers of what they deemed religious errors, was grievously felt during the regal government, and without a hope of relief. But the first republican convention,m which met in 1776, was crowded with petitions to abolish this spiritual tyranny.
Reporter: This seems to have been the beginning of the end of state religion in this country. But it was only the beginning of some of the severest political contests you would ever face.
Jefferson: Indeed.m Our great opponents were Mr. Pendleton and Robert Carter Nicholas -- honest men, but zealous churchmen. After desperate contests we prevailed so far only as to repeal laws which rendered it criminal to maintain unorthodox religious opinionsm and to exempt dissenters from (among other things)m contributions to the support of the established Anglicanm church. but despite the gains,m our opponents still managedm to carry a declaration that religious assemblies out to be regulated, and that provisions ought to be made for continuing the succession for the clergy. For although the majority of our citizens were dissenters, a majority of the legislature were churchmen.
Reporter: From what I understand, three years later you presented a bill to the Virginia legislature aimed to dis-establish religion completely.m I asserted that no person be "compelled to support" any religion, be restrained "in his body or goods" or in any way suffer because of his religious views, but that all be free to profess their religious beliefs without it enlarging or diminishing their participation in civil affairs. But many still regarded your bill as a diabolical scheme, and blocked its passage for years.
Jefferson: It wasn't until 1785 that general tax assessments and establishments of the Anglican church were entirely put down.m In justice to my two honest but zealous opponents, whenever the public will had once decided, none were more faithful or exact in their obedience to it.
Reporter: But it's remarkable that even as late as 1784 and 1785 people like Patrick Henry and John Marshall were still pushing for laws to raise tax moneys for all religious groups on an impartial basis. Mr. Madison, you were not enamored of the plan.
Madison: Indeed not. In fact, I campaigned to defeat that bill. And when the Virginia house of Delegates proposed supporting teachers for Christian religion through tax assessments, I produced my Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. I argued thatm the same authority which could establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, could establish any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects. And that the same authority that could call for each citizen to contribute money, however little,m for the support of only one establishment, may force him to conform to any establishment, in all cases whatsoever.
Reporter: I begin to see why you felt that the passions engendered by religious belief make freedom of religion the sine qua non,m without which all other freedoms could be subverted.
Madison: In 1885, shortly after Tom left for France to take up the ambassadorship, I finally succeeded in pushing through the Virginia legislature a bill similar to his original religious freedom bill. It was then that I was convinced that, at least in Virginia, we had succeeded in extinguishing foreverm the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind. While we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.
Reporter: Some people think that you were less worried about government interference with religion than with either tax reform generally or what you call "freedom of mind." But what about the other side of the coin: protecting government from the domineering of religious groups? was this at all your concern?
Madison: In the Remonstrance I argued this point very strongly. If you look over history,m what influences have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxilliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not. Such a government will be best supported by protecting every citizen in the enjoyment of his religion with the same equal hand that protects his person and property, by neither invading the equal rights of any sect, nor suffering any sect to invade those of another.
Reporter: Whatever your personal intent was in pushing through the Virginia bill, its provisions clearly prevailed, though not without more struggles, when the First Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1789.
Madison: The final wording would read:m "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Reporter: Oddly enough, while this was supposed to be the law of the land, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire still insisted on retaining an established religion. This brings to mind, Mr. Jefferson, the charges churchmen made against you and your motive for separating church and state. For example, the Congregationalists of New England who, during the presidential race of 1800, allied themselves with Federalist Party leaders against you and your Republican Party. Apparently they were convinced that you are an enemy of religion, an atheist and infidel, even part of an anti-Christian conspiracy that originated in Europe.
Jefferson: I admit that I have a rather unorthodox religious viewpoint,m a "sect of one," you might say. But I wouldm point to the fact that I have contributed to churches all my life. In recent years I've given a great deal of my spare time, as you know, to pulling together and studying a compilation of Jesus' ethical teachings from the Gospel records. I call it the Jefferson Bible.m
Reporter: And, of course, during the controversies in the Virginia legislature you said a lot of things to protect freedom of religious conscience.
Jefferson: Yes, I upheld the rights of conscience of every faith.m Each church being free, I argued,m no one can have jurisdiction over another one, not even when the civil magistrate joins it. However, though upholding universal freedom of religion, when I was President I was adamant about not proclaiming national days of religious fasting and thanksgivings. I made this clear over two years ago when writing to Baptists in Connecticut.m I knew it would give great offence to the New England clergy. But the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.
Reporter: However, at that time you also, if I recall correctly, asked your attorney general whether he would examine your letter to the Baptists and suggest any alterations which might prevent an ill effect, or promote a good one among the people. It caused quite an outcry when the press found out you had said that your response to the Baptists was still "seasoned to the Southern taste only," and that you understood "the temper of those in the North," asking that the attorney general alter the wording to "weaken it to suit the Northerners' stomachs." Does this indicate your lack of conviction in religious freedom per se?
Jefferson: I would not like to go into that. I would simply point you back to that letter, to which I still subscribe, where I said, and I quote:m "Believing with you that religion is a matter which 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 existence thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."
Madison: I would just add a final point on the religion question.m If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy the favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to whom it is addressed, it must be that in which those who join in it are guided only by their free choice, by the impulse of their hearts and the dictates of their conscience; and such a spectacle must be interesting to all Christian nations as proving that religion, which I considerm the gift of Heaven givenm for the good of man, freed from all coercive edicts, from that unhallowed connection with the powers of this world which corrupts religion into an instrument or an usurper of the policy of the state, and making no appeal but to reason, to the heart, and to the conscience, can spread its benign influence everywhere and can attract to the divine altar those freewill offerings of humble supplication, thanksgiving, and praise which alone can be acceptable to Him.