The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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The Constitution and Separation of Church and State

Some historical references to the constitutional principle of separation of Church and state

Researched and edited by Jim Allison


PART III

January 23, 1808

Religious Proclamations Unconstitutional

Written by Thomas Jefferson to the Rev. Mr. Millar

Washington, January 23, 1808

I have duly received your favor of the eighteenth, and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the United States as INDICATED BY THE CONSTITUTION FROM INTERMEDDLING WITH RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS, THEIR DOCTRINES DISCIPLINES, OR EXERCISES. (1) (emphasis in original) This results not with religion, only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that, also, which reserves to the States the powers not delegated to the United Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must, then, rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should RECOMMEND, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should INDIRECTLY assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, WHICH THE CONSTITUTION HAS DIRECTLY PRECLUDED THEM FROM. It must be meant, too, that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not, indeed, of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription, perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies, that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them, an act of discipline.

Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, WHERE THE CONSTITUTION HAS DEPOSITED IT.

Footnote

(1)In harmony with the principle here laid down, Jefferson refused to Proclaim any fasts or festivals. In a letter to Mr. Levi Lincoln, regarding the letter from the Danbury Baptist Assoc. dated January 1, 1802, he said: "The Baptist address, now inclosed, 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. 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. I know it will give great offense to the New England clergy; but the advocate of religions freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them."

Works of Thomas Jefferson, Volume IV, page 427. Madison, also, considered the enjoining of fasts and festivals as an unwarranted assumption on the part of the chief executive.

(Source of Information:

American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, compiled and annotated William Addison Blakely, Revised Edition Edited by Willard Allen Colcord. The Religious Liberty Association (1911) pages 174-175 (Original publication of letter, Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford. Vol. 5, Pages 236-37).


February 4, 1809

"No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority. It has not left the religion of its citizens under the power of its public functionaries, were it possible that any of these should consider a conquest over the consciences of men either attainable or applicable to any desirable purpose."

Thomas Jefferson, February 4, 1809, replying to an address of the society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, at New London, Connecticut

Although Jefferson was not a church member, no president ever received more commendations in public addresses from religious denominations than did he. His jealousy for the rights of every denomination, and for the rights of every individual of every denomination, made him extremely popular among all lovers of religious liberty; and many were the addresses which he received, especially from the Baptists and Methodists, approbative of his course in carrying out American principles.

(Source of Information:

American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, compiled and annotated William Addison Blakely, Revised Edition Edited by Willard Allen Colcord. The Religious Liberty Association (1911) pages 272


APRIL 30, 1810

SECTION 9. And be it further enacted, That every postmaster shall keep an office in which one or more persons shall attend on every day on which a mail, or bag, or other packet, or parcel of letters shall arrive by land or water, as well as on other days, at such hours as the Postmaster-General shall direct, for the purpose of performing the duties thereof; and it shall be the duty of the postmaster at all reasonable hours, on every day of the week, to deliver, on demand, any letter, paper, or packet, to the person entitled to or authorized to receive the same.

Footnote:

(1) "United States Statutes at Large," Volume II, page 592. This act was repealed March 3, 1825, by an act entitled "An act to reduce into one the several acts establishing and regulating the Post-office Department." The above section, however, was reenacted.

Source of Information:

"11th Congress, 2nd Session, an Act Regulating the Post-office Establishment (1), Enacted April 30, 1810." American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Compiled and Annotated by William Addison Blakely, Revised Edition Edited by Willard Allen Colcord, The Religious Liberty Association, Washington, D.C. 1911, pp 176.


February 21, 1811

Veto Messages

February 21, 1811

To the House of Representatives of the United States:

Having examined and considered the bill entitled "An act incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church in the town of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia," I now return the bill to the House of Representatives, in which it originated, with the following objections:

Because the bill exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions, and violates in particular the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'' The bill enacts into and establishes by law sundry rules and proceedings relative purely to the organization and polity of the church incorporated, and comprehending even the election and removal of the minister of the same, so that no change could be made therein by the particular society or by the general church of which it is a member, and whose authority it recognizes this particular church, therefore, would so far be a religious establishment by law, a legal force and sanction being given to certain articles in its constitution and administration. Nor can it be considered that the articles thus established are to be taken as the descriptive criteria only of the corporate identity of the society, inasmuch as this identity must depend on other characteristics, as the regulations established are generally unessential and alterable according to the principles and canons by which churches of that denomination govern themselves, and as the injunctions and prohibitions contained in the regulations would be enforced by the penal consequences applicable to a violation of them according to the local law.

Because the bill vests in the said incorporated church an authority to provide for the support of the poor and the education of poor children of the same, an authority which, being altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity, would be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.

James Madison

Source of Information:

A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Vol. II, Bureau of National Literature, N Y, pp 474-475


February 28, 1811

Veto Message

February 28, 1811

To the House of Representatives of the United States

Having examined and considered the bill entitled "An act for the relief of Richard Tervin, William Coleman, Edwin Lewis, Samuel Mims, Joseph Wilson, and the Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House, in the Mississippi Territory, " I now return the same to the House of Representatives, in which it originated, with the following objection:

Because the bill in reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of said Baptist Church comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment."

James Madison

Source of Information:

A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Vol. II, Bureau of National Literature, N Y, pp 474-475


June 3, 1811

To the Baptist Churches in Neal's Creek and on Black Creek, North Carolina:

I have received, fellow-citizens, your address, approving my objection to the Bill containing a grant of public land to the, Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House: Mississippi Territory. Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself. Among the various religious societies in our Country, none has been more vigilant or constant in maintaining that distinction than the Society of which you make a part, and it is an honorable proof of your sincerity and integrity, that you are as ready to do so in a case favoring the interest of your brethren as in other cases. It is but dust, at the same time, to the Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House, to remark that their application to the National legislature does not appear to have contemplated a grant of the land in question but on terms that might be equitable to the public as well as to themselves.

Accept my friendly respects.

James Madison

June 3d, 1811

Source of Information:

Letters and Other Writings of James Madison Fourth President of The United States in Four Volumes Published by the Order of Congress, Vol. II, J. B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, (1865) pp 511-512.


JANUARY 3, 1812

Mr. Rhea (1) made the following report :

The Committee on Post-offices and Post-roads, to whom were referred the petition of the Synod of Presbyters and other citizens of Christian denominations, residing in the western parts of the United States, and the report of the Postmaster-General thereon, have had the same under consideration, and do respectfully report:

That however desirable it would be to advise the adoption of such regulations, relative to the carrying and opening of the mail, as might meet the views of the venerable Synod of Pittsburg, and the other petitioners, your committee cannot, at this peculiar crisis of the United States, recommend any alterations in the law regulating the Post-office Establishment; and do respectfully submit the following resolution:

Resolved, That the petitioners have leave to withdraw their petitions.

The resolution was concurred in.(2)

Footnotes:

(1) Chairman of the Committee on Post-offices and Post-roads.

(2)This was the first of a series of adverse reports on this question of the discontinuance of Sunday mails. As the petitions increased and the Of demands of the clergy became more strenuous, the adverse reports were more decided. Again and again they refused to run the government according to the dictates of the ecclesiastical power; and, finally, when the question had become one of national interest, adverse petitions also coming in, and the best statesmen of the times opposing the " reform " movement, Senator Johnson wrote his celebrated reports which have received such general approbation. These reports were so well written and treated the subject so thoroughly that the movements was checked. Senator Johnson took pride in continuing the movement for complete religious freedom initiated by the founders of our government. Subsequently his popularity made him Vice-President of the United States.


SOURCE OF INFORMATION:

12th Congress, 1st Session, Sunday Mails, Communicated to the House of Representatives, January 3, 1812. American State Papers, Class VII, pp 45. American State Papers Bearing On Sunday Legislation, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Compiled and Annotated by William Addison Blakely, Revised Edition Edited by Willard Allen Colcord, The Religious Liberty Association, Washington D.C. 1911, pp 180.


May 28, 1818

Monticello, May 28, 1818.

Sir: I thank you for the discourse on the consecration of the synagogue in your city, with which you have been pleased to favor me. I have read it with pleasure and instruction, having learnt from it some valuable facts in Jewish history which I did not know before. Your sect, by its sufferings, has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practised by all when in power. Our laws have applied the only antidote to the vice, protecting our religious as they do our civil rights, by putting all men on an equal footing. But more remains to be done; for although we are free by the law, we are not so in practice; public opinion erects itself into an inquisition, and exercises its office with as much fanaticism as fans the flames of an auto de fe. The prejudice still scowling on your section of our religion, although the elder one cannot be unfelt by yourselves; it is to be hoped that individual dispositions will at length mold themselves to the model of the law, and consider the moral basis on which all our religions rest as the rallying point which unites them in a common interest; while the peculiar dogmas branching from it are the exclusive concern of the respective sects embracing them, and no rightful subject of notice to any other. Public opinion needs reformation on that point, which would have the further happy effect of doing away with the hypocritical maxim of " jntus ut lubet, foris ut moris." Nothing, I think, would be so likely to effect this, as to your sect particulary, as the more careful attention to education which you recommend, and which, placing its members on the equal and commanding benches of science, will exhibit them as equal objects of respect and favor. I salute you with great respect and esteem.

Source of Information:

"Thomas Jefferson to Rabbi M. M. Noah May 28, 1818." From Travels, etc., by Mordecai M. Noah (1819) Appendix, page 25. American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Compiled and Annotated by William Addison Blakely, Revised Edition Edited by Willard Allen Colcord, The Religious Liberty Association, Washington, D.C. 1911, pp 195-97


Quincy, July 31, 1818

Sir: Accept my best thanks for your polite and obliging favor of the 24th, and especially for the discourse inclosed. I know not when I have read a more liberal or a more elegant composition.

You have not extended your ideas of the right of private judgment and the liberty of conscience, both in religion and philosophy, farther than I do. Mine are limited only by morals and propriety.

I have had occasion to be acquainted with several gentlemen of your nation, and to transact business with some of them, whom I found to be men of as liberal minds, as much honor, probity, generosity, and good breeding as any I have known in any sect of religion or philosophy.

I wish your nation may be admitted to all the privileges of citizens in every country of the world. This country has done much. I wish it may do more; and annul every narrow idea in religion, government, and commerce, let the wits joke, the philosopher sneer! What then? It has pleased the providence of the First Cause, the universal cause, that Abraham should give religion, not only to the Hebrews, but to Christians and Mahometans, the greatest part of the civilized world.

Source of Information:

Letter written by John Adams to M.M. Noah regarding Jews in America, July 31, 1818. 'From Travels, etc., by Mordecai.M. Noah (1819); appendix, page 26. American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Compiled and Annotated by William Addison Blakely, Revised Edition Edited by Willard Allen Colcord, The Religious Liberty Association, Washington, D.C. 1911, pp 198


MARCH 2, 1819

Direct references to separation to be found in the writings of James Madison

"The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State."

Source of Information:

Excerpt of a letter written to Robert Walsh from James Madison, March, 2 1819.Letters and Other Writings of James Madison Fourth President of The United States in Four Volumes Published by the Order of Congress, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia 1865, Volume III, pp 121-126.


March 13, 1820

. . . I must explain to you the state of religious parties with us. About 1/3 Of our state is Baptist, 1/3 Methodist, and of the remaining third two parts may be Presbyterian and one part Anglican. The Baptists are sound republicans and zealous supporters of their government. The Methodists are republican mostly, satisfied with their government meddling with nothing but the concerns of their own calling and opposing nothing. These two sects are entirely friendly to our university. The anglicans are the same. The Presbyterian clergy alone (not their followers) remain bitterly federal and malcontent with their government. They are violent, ambitious of power, and intolerant in politics as in religion and want nothing but license from the laws to kindle again the fires of their leader John Knox, and to give us a 2d blast from his trumpet. Having a little more monkish learning than the clergy of the other sects, they are jealous of the general diffusion of science, and therefore hostile to our Seminary lest it should qualify their antagonists of the other sects to meet them in equal combat. Not daring to attack the institution with the avowal of their real motives, they Peck at you, at me, and every feather they can spy out. But in this they have no weight, even with their own followers, excepting a few old men among them who may still be federal & Anglomen, their main body are good citizens, friends to their government, anxious for reputation, and therefore friendly to the University . . .

Source of Information:

Excerpt of Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Cooper, written at Monticello, March 13, 1820, MS., University of Virginia, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden, Random House, N Y (1993), pp 636-37.


1817-1832

Direct references to separation to be found in the writings of James Madison

"Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and Gov't in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents' already furnished in their short history" (See the cases in which negatives [vetoes] were put by James Madison on two bills passed by Congress and his signature withheld from another.)

(Detached Memoranda, Written by Madison at various times from 1817 to what is believed to be 1832)


 

See Part IV of this topic for additional reference materials.