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Some historical references to the constitutional principle of separation of Church and state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


August, 1820

Montpelier, August, 1820

Sir: . . . The history of the Jews must forever be interesting. The modern part of it is, at the same time, so little generally known, that every ray of light on the subject has its value.

Among the features peculiar to the political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect. And it is particularly pleasing to observe in the good citizenship of such as have been most distrusted and oppressed elsewhere a happy illustration of the safety and success of this experiment of a just and benignant policy. Equal laws, protecting equal rights, are found, as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good-will among citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony, and most favorable to the advancement of truth. The account you give of the Jews of your congregation brings them fully within the scope of these observations.

Source of Information

Letter written by James Madison to Dr. De La Motta, August 1820. Writings of James Madison, Volume III, pp 178-179. 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 199-200

(Editor's Note: The following is addressing Thomas Jefferson's An Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, which he wrote in 1779, and which under the political guiding and leadership of James Madison, the Virginia Legislature passed into law in 1785-86. It is included here because it is attached as a footnote or endnote to the Everson v Board of Education case decided by the Supreme Court in 1947. It was also widely circulated, both in this country and in Europe, after it was passed into law and it was considered to have an influence on the struggle for religious liberty, not only in this country, but also in other countries.)

January 6, 1821

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.

Source of Information

Thomas Jefferson's Autobiography, under the date of January 6, 1821. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden, Random House New York, NY (1993) pp 45-46.

NOTE: Madison is replying to the receipt of a sermon sent by Schaeffer, a New York clergyman.

December 3, 1821

It is a pleasing and persuasive example of pious zeal, united with pure benevolence and of a cordial attachment to a particular creed, untinctured with sectarian illiberality. It illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due and Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.

. . . The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.

Source of Information

Letter written to F. L. Schaeffer from James Madison, December 3, 1821, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, Fourth President of the United States, in four volumes, published by order of Congress, J.B. Lippincott & Co. Philadelphia 1865, Volume III, pp 142-243.

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

July 10, 1822

"Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together"

Source of Information

Excerpt from a letter written to Edward Livingston by James Madison July 10, 1822, Letters And Other Writings of James Madison in four volumes, published by Order of Congress, Vol, III, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1865, pp 273-275.

Scholars have dated this item to the period 1817-1832.

Excerpts from James Madison's Detached Memoranda

Ye States of America, which retain in your Constitutions or Codes, any aberration from the sacred principle of religious liberty, by giving to Caesar what belongs to God, or joining together what God has put asunder, hasten to revise & purify your systems, and make the example of your Country as pure & compleat, in what relates to the freedom of the mind and its allegiance to its maker, as in what belongs to the legitimate objects of political & civil institutions.

In the course of the opposition to the bill in the House of Delegates, which was warm & strenuous from some of the minority, they made an experiment on the reverence entertained for the name & sanctity of the Savior, by proposing to insert the words "Jesus Christ" after the words "our lord" in the preamble, the object of which would have been, to imply a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill, to those professing his religion only. The amendment was discussed, and rejected by a vote of agst (See letter of J. M. to Mr. Jefferson dated) The opponents of the amendment having turned the feeling as well as judgment of the House agst it, by successfully contending that the better proof of reverence for that holy name wd be not to profane it by making it a topic of legisl. discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men, in defiance of his own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this world. This view of the subject was much enforced by the circumstance that it was espoused by some members who were particularly distinguished by their reputed piety and Christian zeal.

But besides the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded agst in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations. The power of all corporations, ought to be limited in this respect. The growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses. A warning on this subject is emphatically given in the example of the various Charitable establishments in G. B. [Great Britain] the management of which has been lately scrutinized. The excessive wealth of ecclesiastical Corporations and the misuse of it in many Countries of Europe has Long been a topic of complaint. In some of them the Church has amassed half perhaps the property of the nation. When the reformation took place, an event promoted if not caused, by chat disordered state of things, how enormous were the treasures of religious societies, and how gross the corruptions engendered by them; so enormous & so gross as to produce in the Cabinets & Councils of the Protestant states a disregard, of all the pleas of the interested party drawn from the sanctions of the law, and the sacredness of property held in religious trust. The history of England during the period of the reformation offers a sufficient illustration for the present purpose.

Source of Information

This document was discovered in 1946 among the papers of William Cabell Rives, a biographer of Madison. Scholars date these observations in Madison's hand sometime between 1817 and 1832. They offer glimpses of Madison's opinions on several topics and personalities. What is reproduced here is that part of the "Memoranda" devoted to the subject of religious liberty. The entire document was published by Elizabeth Fleet in the William and Mary Quarterly of October 1946.

Montpelier, March 19, 1823

Dear Sir: ...I am not surprised at the dilemma produced at your University by making theological professorships an integral part of the system. The anticipation of such an one led to the ommision in ours; the visitors being merely authorized to open a public hall for religious occasions, under impartial regulations; with the opportunity to the different sects to establish theological schools so near that the students of the University may respectively attend the religious exercises in them. The village of Charlottesville, also, where different religious worships will be held, is also so near, that resort may conveniently be had to them.

A university with sectarian professorships becomes, of course, a sectarian monopoly; with professorships of rival sects, it would be an arena of theological gladiators. Without any such professorships, it may incur, for a time at least, the imputation of irreligious tendencies, if not designs. The last difficulty was thought more manageable then either of the others. On this view of the subject, there seems to be no alternative but between a public university without a theological professorship, and sectarian seminaries without a university.

I recollect to have seen, many years ago, a project of a prayer, by Governor Livingston, father of the present Judge, intended to comprehend and conciliate college students of every Christian denomination, by a form composed wholly of texts and phrases of Scripture. If a trial of the expedient was ever made, it must have failed, notwithstanding its winning aspect, from the single cause that many sects reject all set forms of worship.

The difficulty of reconciling the Christian mind to the absence of a religious tuition from a university established by law, and at the common expense, is probably less with us than with you. The settled opinion here is that religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognisance; that a connection between them is injurious to both; that there are causes in the human breast which insure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of the law; that rival sects, with equal rights, exercise mutual censorships in favor of good morals; that if new sects arise with absurd opinions or overheated imaginations, the proper remedies lie in time, forbearance, and example; that a legal establishment of religion without a toleration could not be thought of, and with a toleration, is no security for an public quiet and harmony, but rather a source itself of discord and animosity; and, finally, that these opinions are supported by experience, which has shown that every relaxation of the alliance between law and religion, from the partial example of Holland to its consummation in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, etc., has been found as safe in practice as it is sound in theory. Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of Independence it was left, with all other sects, to a self-support. And no doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change, and particularly in the sect which enjoyed the legal patronage. This proves rather more than that the law is not necessary to the support of religion.

With such a public opinion, it may be expected that a university, with the feature peculiar to ours, will succeed here if anywhere. Some of the clergy did not fail to arraign the peculiarity; but it is not improbable that they had an eye to the chance of introducing their own creed into the professor's chair. A late resolution for establishing an Episcopal school within the College of William and Mary, though in a very guarded manner, drew immediate animadversions from the press, which, if they have not put an end to the project, are a proof of what would follow such an experiment in the university of the State, endowed and supported, as this will be, altogether by the public authority and at the common expense.

Source of Information

A letter written by James Madison to Edward Everett on the subject of religion and public schools [universities], March, 19, 1823. The Writings of James Madison, Vol III, page 305 etc., 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 204-05.

Quincy, January 21, 1825

My Dear Sir: We think ourselves possessed, or at least we boast that we are so, of liberty of conscience on all subjects, and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment in all cases, and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact. There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny, or to doubt, the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself, it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red hot poker. In America it is not much better; even in our Massachusetts, which, I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemies upon any book of the Old Testament or the New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any arguments for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Volney's Recherches Nouvelles? Who would run the risk of translating Dapin's? But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true, few persons appear desirous to put such laws into execution, and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them; but as long as they continue in force as laws, the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress into its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever; but it has been with extraneous ingredients, which, I think, will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated.

Source of Information

A Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson on the subject of civil laws against blasphemy, January 21, 1825. Works of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VII, pages 396, 397. 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. 206-207.

March 3, 1825

SECTION II, 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 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.

Source of Information

18th Congress, 2nd Session, an Act to Reduce into One the Several Acts Establishing the Post-office Department, Enacted March 3, 1825. "United States Statutes at Large," Volume IV, page 102. 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, p 226.

See Part V of this topic for additional reference materials.

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