The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Representative Thomas Tucker on Church and State

Thomas Tucker of South Carolina made a revealing statement about his beliefs concerning church/state separation toward the end of the first session of the first Congress to meet under the Constitution. Mr. Tucker's comments were occasioned by a proposal from Representative Boudinot of New Jersey to ask the President to proclaim a day of thanksgiving in honor of Congress' completion of its first session. The following is taken from the Annals of Congress, Vol I, 1789, pp. 914-15 (entry for Friday, September 25).
Research and writing by Jim Allison


MR. BOUDINOT, a Representative from the State of New Jersey said he could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all citizens of the United States of joining with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them. With that view, therefore, he would move the following resolution:

RESOLVED, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, that many signal favors of almighty God, especially by affording them the opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.

MR. BURKE, a Representative from South Carolina said he did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they make a mere mockery of thanksgivings. Two parties at war frequently sung TE DEUM for the same event though for one it was a victory, and to the other a defeat.

MR. TUCKER, a Representative from the State of South Carolina, thought the House had no business to interfere in a matter which did not concern them. Why should the president direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do? They may not be inclined to return thanks for a constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness. We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced; but whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do, it is a religious matter, and, as such is proscribed to us [emphasis ours]. If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several states; they know best what reason their constituents have to be with the establishment of this Constitution.

MR. SHERMAN justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in HOLY WRIT: for instance the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point. This example he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.

Mr. BOUDINOT quoted further precedents from the practice of the late Congress; and hoped the motion would meet a ready acquiescence. The question was not put on the resolution, and was carried in the affirmative: and Messers. Boudinot, Sherman, and Sylvester, were appointed a committee on the part of the House.

(Source of information: "The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States" Annals of Congress) September 25, 1789, Vol. I, Joseph Gales, published by Gales and Seaton, Washington, 1834, pp 914-15)

At the time of Tucker's comments, the amendments to the Constitution, with its religious clauses, had been passed and were ready to be sent to the states for debate and ratification or rejection. The religion clauses would not become a part of the laws of this nation for another two years. Even though he lost the vote that day, Tucker was reminding his fellow Representatives that they were prohibited by the unamended Constitution from involvement with matters concerning religion. Tucker's acknowledgment of the principle of separation of church and state in September 1789 in the First Federal Congress is a part of the official record of that Congress.

No mention was made of what the vote count was for and against the proclamation; however, the vote on the very next issue discussed was recorded and shows that at least 50 members were present. It is interesting that no tally is shown for the Thanksgiving issue. Only a simple majority was needed, so we have no idea how many voted, who voted or how.

The events of Friday, September 25, 1789 reveal several things: No power or authority was given Congress to involve itself in religious matters by the unamended constitution, as pointed out by Tucker and not refuted by any member on record. The religious clauses of the future Bill of Rights were not creating any new religious liberty protections, but were reinforcing that which had been created with the unamended Constitution. Finally, politicians, then as now, were more than willing to do as they pleased, rather than as they should - by following the rules.

Tucker lost the day, and Congress did pass a resolution asking that Washington issue such a proclamation, but that doesn't change the fact that Tucker was correct when he said, "But whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do, it is a religious matter, and, as such is proscribed to us." [emphasis ours].

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