The Urban Legend that Thomas Jefferson Believed in a Wall Separating Church and State

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It may be surprising for some people to learn that President Thomas Jefferson—who allegedly held to a “wall of separation between church and state”—endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and also endorsed the use of federal funds to support Christian missionary work among Native Americans.

Daniel Dreisbach—professor of Justice, Law, and Society at American University and the author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York University Press, 2003), has a helpful summary article entitled ”The Mythical ‘Wall of Separation’: How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church-State Law, Policy, and Discourse.”

He explains:

Jefferson’s wall, as a matter of federalism, was erected between the national and state governments on matters pertaining to religion and not, more generally, between the church and all civil government.

In other words, Jefferson placed the federal government on one side of his wall and state governments and churches on the other.

The wall’s primary function was to delineate the constitutional jurisdictions of the national and state governments, respectively, on religious concerns, such as setting aside days in the public calendar for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving.

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This jurisdictional or structural understanding of the wall can be seen in Jefferson’s correspondence with the Danbury Baptist Association, where he uses the “wall metaphor.”

President Jefferson had been under Federalist attack for refusing to issue executive proclamations setting aside days for national fasting and thanksgiving, and he said he wanted to explain his policy on this delicate matter. He told Attorney General Levi Lincoln that his response to the Danbury Baptists “furnishes an occasion too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors [Presidents Washington and Adams] did.” The President was eager to address this topic because his Federalist foes had demanded religious proclamations and then smeared him as an enemy of religion when he declined to issue them.

Jefferson’s refusal, as President, to set aside days in the public calendar for religious observances contrasted with his actions in Virginia where, in the late 1770s, he framed “A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving” and, as governor in 1779, designated a day for “publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.”

How, Dreisbach asks, can Jefferson’s public record on religious proclamations in Virginia be reconciled with the stance he took as President of the United States?

The answer, I believe, is found in the principle of federalism. Jefferson firmly believed that the First Amendment, with its metaphoric “wall of separation,” prohibited religious establishments by the federal government only. Addressing the same topic of religious proclamations, Jefferson elsewhere relied on the Tenth Amendment, arguing that because “no power to prescribe any religious exercise . . . has been delegated to the General [i.e., federal] Government[,] it must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.”

Dreisbach also quotes from Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address (March 1805) for further evidence:

In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general [i.e., federal] government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.

So in essence, Jefferson’s federalism led him to judge it inappropriate for the President to proclaim days of religious observance, but he recognized the authority of state officials to issue such proclamations. So the “wall,” for him, was between the federal government and the state governments when it came to religion.

You can read Dreisbach’s whole piece for further information, including how this metaphor was misused by Justice Black to create a modern urban legend.

For a brief comment on the meaning of the “wall” and its proper application, here is Princeton’s Robert P. George:

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