Jefferson’s religion may have influenced American history greatly thus far, but it would take a major, public blow in the Election of 1800. Jefferson, by then, had been with John Adams, the incumbent President and his opponent, since they both were part of George Washington’s administration and later as his Vice President. Jefferson and Adams were good friends and corresponded frequently in later years, but the Election of 1800 destroyed that friendship for many years. Jefferson’s liberal religious views took the worst beating. He was portrayed as godless atheist who would bring moral ruin to the country. A vote for Jefferson would be voting against God, or so said his opponents. Jefferson’s own writings were used against him so ruthlessly that from this point on he would be very careful with who had access to his private thoughts on religion and philosophy. However, Jefferson’s Republican supporters came to his aid and defended him vigorously from Adams’s Federalists. They touted the religious freedom legislation that Jefferson had championed in Virginia, while Adams’s Massachusetts still had no comparable law. In the end, when the dust had cleared, Jefferson had won the election by a mere eight electoral votes to become the third President of the United States (Gaustad 90-6).
Early in his presidency, Jefferson unknowingly used a metaphor that would ring controversy through the American government over 200 years later. Upon this hard-fought victory in 1800, the Danbury Association of Baptists in Connecticut wrote Jefferson a congratulatory letter. In this letter, they expressed their support for his opposition to a union of government and the church. Among the controversies surrounding his new presidency was Jefferson’s decision to not call for a national Day of Fasting and Thanksgiving as his predecessors George Washington and John Adams had done. Jefferson used his response to the Danbury Baptists as an opportunity to explain his position on this subject. However, Jefferson had to be delicate while dealing with these New England churches. New England was still very fundamental in their religious beliefs as many of the colonies there were founded while searching for a religious haven. The clergymen therefore were not willing to let go of the religious influence they had become accustomed to and which they though was the will of God. Therefore, Jefferson employed the help of his Cabinet members from New England to make his reply more politically palatable. The result was far much milder response and the real explanation was saved until Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address. In fact, James H. Hutson, director of archives for the Library of Congress and a distinguished historian, said that this letter was never meant “to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more” (Buckley, par. 3-5).
In any case, this letter has set a precedent in American politics. After thanking the Danbury Baptists for their concern, Jefferson immediately affirms their belief “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”, vows to only direct the government in ways that will only affect actions, not opinions, and that abide by the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment, “thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” Jefferson was therefore not going to interfere with people’s right to choose how they wished to worship by proclaiming a Day of Thanksgiving and Fasting. He would not breach this “wall of separation between church and State” in such a way.
The famous “wall of separation” analogy that Jefferson used in his letter to the Danbury Baptists has survived through the ages and been used by the Supreme Court in the 20th century. In the past, it has been used mainly for the complete separation of church and state, keeping that wall “high and impregnable” as Justice Hugo Black wrote in the 1940s. However, in the 1980s, Judge William Rehnquist said Jefferson’s wall is “a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging” (Buckley, par. 9).
There may have been other motivations to Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists as well. Buckley suggests that Jefferson’s real motive in not proclaiming National Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving was more of a states rights view. For most of his presidency, Jefferson took a strict view of the Constitution, saying that the federal government did not have the power to do anything that the Constitution expressly said it could do. On the other side of that coin were those who believed the federal government had implied powers. This motivation for acting as his predecessor’s had done is shown in the fact that while still a part of the Virginia state government, Jefferson had supported and even proclaimed such days of fasting and thanksgiving (Buckley, par. 6-7).
Also, as a part of the message that Jefferson wanted to portray following his reply to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson immediately started to attend Sunday services at local churches. During his previous year as president, Jefferson had not done so, but from this point on, each Sunday he would attend different churches of different denominations. Also, Jefferson would use his knowledge of the Bible in his speeches, invoking references to the Bible to which the religious citizens would relate. He also used religious institutions to further the government’s cause. At one point, Jefferson appointed federal funds to let Catholic missionaries educate and cultivate Christianity among Native Americans in the West, and Presbyterians with the Cherokee in the South. Buckley maintains that Jefferson wanted a government without a state-established religion in any way, not a “government without religion.” Religious freedom, not separation (Buckley, par. 7-8).
Please send questions/comments here
Last Updated: February 16, 2001
Back to Dr. Tallant's Homepage