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Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Daniel Dreisbach

Publication Year: 2002

No phrase in American letters has had a more profound influence on church-state law, policy, and discourse than Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” and few metaphors have provoked more passionate debate. Introduced in an 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association, Jefferson’s “wall” is accepted by many Americans as a concise description of the U.S. Constitution’s church-state arrangement and conceived as a virtual rule of constitutional law.

Despite the enormous influence of the “wall” metaphor, almost no scholarship has investigated the text of the Danbury letter, the context in which it was written, or Jefferson’s understanding of his famous phrase. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State offers an in-depth examination of the origins, controversial uses, and competing interpretations of this powerful metaphor in law and public policy.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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1. Introduction: The Creation of an American Metaphor

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pp. 1-8

On New Year’s Day, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. In his written address, he used the celebrated “wall of separation” metaphor to describe the First Amendment relationship between religion and civil government. Jefferson wrote, in sweeping, memorable...

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2. The President, a Mammoth Cheese, and the “Wall of Separation”: Jeffersonian Politics and the New England Baptists

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pp. 9-24

On the first day of 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a gift of mythic proportions. Amid great fanfare, a “mammoth” Cheshire cheese was delivered to the President’s House by the itinerant Baptist preacher and political gadfly Elder John Leland (1754–1841). It measured more than four feet in diameter, thirteen feet in circumference...

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3. “Sowing Useful Truths and Principles”: Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association

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pp. 25-54

In October 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson expressing “great satisfaction” in his “appointment to the chief Magistracy in the United States.” In the new president, the Connecticut Baptists found an ardent defender of religious liberty, a matter of vital concern to a minority sect in a state dominated by a...

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4. “What the Wall Separates”: A Jurisdictional Interpretation of the “Wall of Separation”

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pp. 55-70

What does the “wall” separate? On the surface, at least, the answer seems straightforward: the “wall” separates “church” and “state.” The answer, however, is more ambiguous than it may appear at first blush. What is meant by “church”? What is meant by “state”? Does the “wall” require that all matters respecting a “church” or, more...

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5. Early References to a “Wall of Separation”: Prefiguring the Jeffersonian Metaphor

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pp. 71-82

Although Thomas Jefferson is often credited with coining the “wall of separation” metaphor, he was not the first to use it in a churchstate context. The image of a wall or similar barrier separating the realms of the church and the civil government can be found in Western political and theological literature centuries before Jefferson penned the...

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6. Creating “Effectual Barriers”: Alternative Metaphors in Defense of Religious Liberty

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pp. 83-94

Jefferson was not alone among his American contemporaries in championing metaphoric barriers for protecting civil and religious liberties. Indeed, late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature is replete with various figurative barriers erected to safeguard civil liberty in general and religious liberty in particular. Some of these barriers were...

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7. “Useful Truths and Principles . . . Germinate and Become Rooted” in the American Mind: Jefferson’s Metaphor Enters Political and Juridical Discourse

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pp. 95-106

Thomas Jefferson’s message to the Danbury Baptist Association was published almost immediately. This must have pleased the president, who hoped that the “useful truths & principles” sown in the letter “might germinate and become rooted among [the people’s] political tenets.” The celebrated “wall” metaphor, in the course of...

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8. Conclusion: The Re-Creation of Church-State Law, Policy, and Discourse

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pp. 107-128

The wall metaphor is ubiquitous in Western literature. Throughout the ages, writers have been drawn to the motif. A wall conjures up the image of an unambiguous, concrete barrier. It is a simple, yet dramatic and versatile figure of speech, as rich as “foundation,” “fortress,” “tower,” “pillar,” “bridge,” or any other architectural...

Appendices: Appendices: Documents from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson

1. Proclamation Appointing a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer, May 1774

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p. 131

2. Address to the Inhabitants of the Parish of St. Anne, 1774

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p. 132

3. Bills Reported by the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in 1776, 18 June 1779

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pp. 133-136

4. Proclamation Appointing a Day of Publick and Solemn Thanksgiving and Prayer, November 1779

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pp. 137-139

5. Draft of “The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798,” November 1798 (excerpt)

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pp. 140-141

6. Correspondence with the Danbury Baptist Association, 1801–1802

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pp. 142-148

7. Correspondence with the Citizens of Chesire, Massachusetts, January 1802

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pp. 149-151

8. Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1805 (excerpts)

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p. 152

9. Letter from Jefferson to the Reverend Samuel Miller, 23 January 1808

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pp. 153-154


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pp. 155-243

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 245-269


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pp. 271-272


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pp. 273-282

About the Author

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p. 283

E-ISBN-13: 9780814785324
E-ISBN-10: 0814785328
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814719350
Print-ISBN-10: 081471935X

Page Count: 294
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 606914550
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State

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Subject Headings

  • Danbury Baptist Association.
  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826.
  • Metaphor -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Church and state -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Religion and politics -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
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