Inspiring participation in public affairs
in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s life, thought, and ideals.


Internet Edition

FALL 2003                                                                VOLUME 3, NUMBER 2

Thomas Jefferson and the "Wall of Separation"
by Daniel L. Dreisbach

(In his book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, Daniel Dreisbach examines the origins, controversial uses, and competing interpretations of this powerful metaphor in law and public policy.)

On New Year's Day, 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter that would profoundly impact American law and policy.  In a carefully crafted missive to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, the new president remarked that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution denied Congress the authority to make "'law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

The metaphor might have slipped into obscurity had it not been rediscovered by the U.S. Supreme Court.  "In the words of Jefferson," the Court famously declared in 1947, the First Amendment "erect[ed] 'a wall of separation' … [that] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach." 

This figurative barrier has been accepted by many Americans, including influential jurists, as a virtual rule of law and the organizing theme of church state jurisprudence, even though it is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. It has become the locus classicus of the notion that the First Amendment separated religion and the civil state, thereby mandating a secular polity.   

Jefferson was inaugurated the third president on March 4, 1801, following one of the most bitterly contested elections in history.  His religion, or the alleged lack thereof, was a contentious issue in the campaign. His Federalist Party opponents, especially New England's Congregationalist clergy, vilified him as an "infidel" and "atheist."  The campaign rhetoric was so vitriolic that, when news of Jefferson's election swept across the country, housewives in New England were seen burying family Bibles in their gardens because they fully expected the Holy Scriptures to be confiscated and burned by the new administration in Washington. (These fears resonated with Americans who had received alarming reports of the French Revolution, which Jefferson was said to support, and the widespread desecration of religious sanctuaries and symbols in France.)

One pocket of support for Jefferson in Federalist New England existed among the Baptists.  The Danbury Baptists wrote a "fan" letter to the new president in October 1801, congratulating him on his election to the "chief Magistracy in the United States" and celebrating his lifelong devotion to religious liberty.

Organized in 1790, the Danbury Baptist Association was an alliance of two dozen churches stretching along the Connecticut Valley.  They were a beleaguered political and religious minority in a state where the Federalists dominated political life and the Congregationalist Church was still legally established.  They were drawn to Jefferson's political cause because of his unflagging commitment to religious liberty.

Jefferson's wall, according to conventional wisdom, represents a universal principle on the prudential and constitutional relationship between religion and the civil state. To the contrary, this wall had less to do with the separation between religion and all civil government than with the separation between federal and state governments on matters pertaining to religion (such as official proclamations for days of fasting and thanksgiving). Jefferson's phrase was a metaphoric construction of the First Amendment, which he said time and again imposed its restrictions on the federal government only. In other words, Jefferson's wall, as a matter of federalism, separated the federal regime on one side from state governments and church authorities on the other.

Jefferson said that his response to the Danbury Baptists "furnishes an occasion [for] … 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.

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

The principle of federalism explains this apparent contradiction.  Given the First Amendment with its metaphoric "wall of separation," Jefferson thought it was inappropriate for the nation's chief executive to proclaim days for religious observances; however, he acknowledged the authority of state officials to issue religious proclamations.

After two centuries, Jefferson's trope is more controversial than ever.  The question bitterly debated is whether the wall illuminates or obfuscates the constitutional principles it metaphorically represents.

The wall's defenders argue that it promotes private, voluntary religion and freedom of conscience in a secular polity.  A "wall of separation" prevents religious establishments and avoids sectarian conflict among denominations competing for government favor and aid.

Critics lament that the wall has been used to separate religion from public life, thereby promoting a religion that is strictly private and a state that is strictly secular.

Did Jefferson coin a metaphor deliberately calculated to transform First Amendment doctrine?  Although we cannot be sure of Jefferson's design, he selected a trope that reconceptualizes — indeed, some would say, misconceptualizes — First Amendment principles in at least two important ways:

First, Jefferson's trope emphasizes separation between church and state — unlike the First Amendment, which speaks in terms of the nonestablishment and free exercise of religion.  (In the lexicon of 1802, the expansive concept of "separation" was distinct from the institutional concept of "nonestablishment.") Jefferson's Baptist correspondents, who agitated for disestablishment but not for separation, were apparently discomfited by the figurative phrase and may have even sought to suppress it.  They, like many Americans, feared that the erection of a wall would separate religious influences from public life and policy.  Few Americans (including evangelical dissenters) challenged the widespread assumption of the age that republican government and civic virtue were dependent on a moral people and that morals could be nurtured only by religion.

Second, a wall is a bilateral barrier that inhibits the activities of both the civil government and religion — unlike the First Amendment, which imposes restrictions on civil government only (specifically on Congress).  As a bilateral barrier, the wall unavoidably restricts religion's ability to influence public life, thus it exceeds the limitations imposed by the Constitution.

Herein lies the danger of this metaphor, critics say.  The "high and impregnable" wall constructed by the Supreme Court inhibits religion's ability to inform the public ethic, deprives religious citizens of the civil liberty to participate in politics armed with ideas informed by their spiritual beliefs, and infringes the right of religious communities and institutions to extend their ministries into the public square.  The wall has been used to silence the religious voice in the public marketplace of ideas and to segregate faith communities behind a restrictive barrier. 

Does the "wall of separation" inform or confuse our understanding of the constitutional arrangement for church-state relations?  An examination of Jefferson's celebrated wall, given its continuing influence on jurisprudence, casts light not only on the past but also on the future place of religion in American public life. We must seriously consider whether that wall accurately represents constitutional principles and usefully contributes to American democracy and to a civil society.

Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University and the author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York University Press, 2002), from which this article is adapted.  Ask for Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State at your local bookstore, or call the publisher toll-free at 1-800-996-6987.

Natalie Bober Joins JLF Board of Directors

Distinguished historian and author, Natalie Bober, has been elected as the newest member of the JLF Board of Directors. Natalie is looking forward to making "a meaningful contribution to The Jefferson Legacy Foundation — and all its good work" even as she is busily engaged in writing a new book on Jefferson and slavery.

Among Natalie's works are Thomas Jefferson, Man on a Mountain; A Restless Spirit, The Story of Robert Frost; and Abigail Adams, Witness to a Revolution. "Great people inspire others to find the greatness within themselves," Bober says. "It is for this reason that I write biographies for young people." Congratulations, Natalie, and welcome!

Found Family Treasure Reveals Jefferson's Legacy of Liberty

Recently, my sister, Sandra Stetson Schifter, uncovered some old family papers concerning the our great-great-grandfather, Joseph Addison Denny of Leicester, Massachusetts. Among the items was Denny's diary of September 1824, written when he was 20 years old. His first entry, entitled "Liberty," is so appropriate and timely for Jefferson's legacy, that we now publish it here.
 — Sydney N. Stokes, Jr., Chairman


"Deprived of it, man loses all that nobleness of character, enterprise and ambition which is so strikingly exhibited in the general character of a free nation, and by continued depression and slavery he imbibes all those mean & debased ideas which form the characteristics of those unfortunate victims of oppression and tyranny, who are doomed to drag out a miserable existence under the scourge of a taskmaster."

"Liberty is the dearest right and one of the greatest blessings of man. The consciousness that we enjoy this sacred privilege enlarges our understanding and excites to action the finest feelings of which our nature is susceptible. It smooths the furrowed brow of sorrow, soothes us in adversity, makes employment a pleasure, and gives an additional zest to all our amusements. This idea gives courage to the warring, energy to the statesman, contentment to the husbandman, and life to society. It stimulates the adventuring to enterprise the scholar to application, and the laborer to industry. Liberty is the parent of the arts, and the foundation of all that is noble and virtuous. Where this spirit reigns & is property cherished, wealth increases, union strengthens, society improves, and man is placed in a situation to enjoy the blessings which his bountiful Creator has put within his reach."

Tommy George Blazes the Trail for Future Interns

This summer the JLF was truly fortunate to have Tommy George in residence for a 6-week internship. Tommy is a University of Colorado student and Boettcher scholar, and, by amazing coincidence, the JLF's first member to join at the student level in 2001. Tommy brought boundless energy and enthusiasm, an impressive work ethic, and maturity beyond his years to the many projects under his charge. Upon his arrival in June, Tommy's first assignment was to research and help create an educational outreach exhibit on the Vermont Town Meeting system and Jefferson's vision for self-government. This exhibit was displayed at the 4th annual 2003 Vermont History Expo and was so enthusiastically received that we have added it to our educational outreach offerings to Vermont schools.

Tommy's other projects included preliminary research and creative collaboration on our evolving KidsOnly web page;  assistance with the JLF's community garden program; and many hours of foundation grant research to help narrow our focus on potential sources of funding for educational outreach, special projects, and operating expenses.

The Boettcher Foundation provided full support for Tommy's internship, including his travel expenses (a cross-country drive that brought him to New England for the first time). His return trip included a visit to the capitol in Washington D.C., and thanks to our generous and welcoming colleagues at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a private tour of Monticello. Tommy will serve as the JLF's unofficial "ambassador" for potential future University of Colorado and Boettcher Foundation internships.


  • For the third year, the JLF sponsored an Evening Conversation at Monticello. On July 15th, Evan Thomas, of Newsweek magazine, presented a compelling look at "Thomas Jefferson and John Paul Jones," based on his best-selling biography, John Paul Jones.
  • The JLF co-sponsored a presentation at the Ethan Allen Institute by Daniel Dreisbach, author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (see related article). Dreisbach's comments on what Jefferson meant by his 1802 phrase "a wall of separation between Church and State" stimulated a dynamic and penetrating discussion among participants.
  • The topic for the Vermont Humanities Council's 2003 annual fall conference is "Voting Rights and Wrongs: The Stops and Starts on the Road to Universal Suffrage." This year's conference also features a guest appearance by Colonial Williamsburg's Bill Barker, sponsored by the JLF.  We are also coordinating several presentations by Mr. Barker in area schools in November. For more information, contact the Council at 802-888-1236.
  • Explore the JLF's newly overhauled website (, which includes new text and photos and features a stunning, rarely seen portrait of Jefferson by artist Jamie Wyeth.
  • The JLF has created a new brochure to mark its 10th anniversary; it also announces the establishment of the Second-Decade Fund. Contact us for a copy.
  • JLF Director Peggy Burns attended Lewis & Clark Bicentennial kickoff activities at Monticello in January.  She also visited with Thomas Jefferson Foundation Jefferson Librarian Jack Robertson and had a tour of the Library's new facilities. Jack is visiting our own JLF Library this fall to work with us on the computerized cataloging of some 4,000 titles to facilitate their entry into the Jefferson Library's Thomas Jefferson "Portal," which provides online access to notations on all things Jefferson.
  • Our exhibit, 1791: Thomas Jefferson & James Madison and Vermont, traveled to the Old Constitution House in Windsor, Vermont this summer. Venues in Virginia and New York have expressed interest in the exhibit for 2004.
  • The Ripton Community Garden Program is flourishing in its fourth season. Fellow gardeners of all ages are keeping Jefferson's legacy of community participation and agricultural pursuits alive and well on a thriving plot of land at the Ripton Elementary School.  The 8-week program is created by the JLF and staffed with invaluable help from Ripton resident, professional grower, and Community Garden founder Nola Kevra. Nola brings a rich knowledge of and deep love for horticulture and a special talent with children — as well as a great willingness to volunteer so many hours of her time.

Jefferson & Adams Returns to the Kimball

The JLF brought Jefferson & Adams back to Colonial Williamsburg's Kimball Theatre this summer. Howard Ginsberg's play tells the story of the turbulent 50-year friendship through the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Abigail Adams. Once again, the production was directed by Douglas Anderson and featured Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson, Sam Goodyear as John Adams, and Abigail Schumann as Abigail Adams.

A special thanks to the Lopes Family of New Jersey:  Frank and   Lori and children Frankie, 11, and Julie, 15, for their infectious enthusiasm! After seeing Jefferson & Adams last year, Frankie was so excited to go to school and show off his newly acquired knowledge that he earned a 110 on his history test. He received an extra 10 points because he was the only student in his class to answer correctly the question, "Which two American Presidents died on the same day?" Lori tells us that Jefferson & Adams "brought to life characters that for him might never have made it to his mind. That a person from history had reached out from the past...I cannot think of anything else in his life that touched him as much."  Thanks to the entire Lopes family for their support as well as for a generous contribution to the Jefferson Legacy Foundation. We look forward to seeing them again soon.

James Martin to Deliver 10th Anniversary Lecture

The Jefferson Legacy Foundation celebrates the 10th anniversary of its founding with a very special lecture from Dr. James Martin on "The Meaning of the 21st Century." Dr. Martin, who is a Pulitzer Prize nominee, has written more than 100 books, many of which have been best-sellers in the information technology industry and are considered seminal works. He has consulted and lectured world-wide and has a reputation as the foremost authority on the social and commercial ramifications of technology.

We are also announcing the establishment of the Sydney N. Stokes Award, which recognized outstanding commitment to advancing the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. The award is named in honor of the JLF Founding Board Member.  The lecture and a reception is being held on October 8th at 7:00 pm at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont.  Please contact us for further details.

The Jefferson Legacy Foundation
Town Office Building, P.O. Box 76
Ripton, Vermont 05766
Phone 802-388-7676 Fax: 802-388-1776

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Jamie Wyeth.
 Used with permission of the artist. Copyright © Jamie Wyeth