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  • Beyond the Wall:Reinterpreting Jefferson's Danbury Address
  • Johann N. Neem (bio)

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson replied to an address from a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association. He thanked them for their "esteem and approbation" and used the opportunity to respond to longstanding Federalist and ministerial attacks on Jefferson's supposed atheism. Rather than express his own religious views, historians generally argue, Jefferson's response instead focused on the importance of protecting religious freedom. From a political angle, this position strengthened the ties between New England's dissenters and Jefferson's Republican party. From an intellectual perspective, it represented Jefferson's own deep commitment to the separation of church and state. As he wrote in his letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, the first amendment of the federal constitution erected a "wall of separation between church and State."1 [End Page 139]

In the twentieth century, ever since Justice Hugo Black invoked it in a majority opinion in the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, which upheld the legitimacy of using public funds for school buses for children attending Catholic schools, Jefferson's Danbury address has become a touchstone for how the first amendment should be interpreted.2 How to understand the wall metaphor has thus become a major historical, political, and legal enterprise. It should not be surprising, then, that tempers flared when James H. Hutson, the chief of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, chose to lower the Supreme Court's wall in his reinterpretation of the Danbury address as part of a Library of Congress 1998 exhibit. The ensuing debate focused on the meaning of Jefferson's wall. Hutson argues that historians and jurists are wrong to read the wall metaphor literally. Instead, he suggests, the primary purpose of Jefferson's letter was political, a conclusion he drew after an FBI lab uncovered phrases Jefferson had deleted from his original draft. The letter, Hutson writes, was an opportunity for Jefferson to publicly rebut his critics and to shore up the allegiance of dissenting religious groups in New England. If the letter was unreliable because of its political context, Hutson continues, perhaps we ought to look at Jefferson's practices as a statesman to understand how committed he was to the wall. Hutson then points out that Jefferson continuously breached the wall as an elected officeholder. He attended religious services in the U.S. House of Representatives while president and, following retirement, felt no compunction about attending services in the Albemarle County Courthouse. While president, he allowed various congregations to use federal office [End Page 140] buildings to hold their own services. Clearly, Hutson concludes, Jefferson's wall was lower and more permeable than the wall that the Supreme Court has constructed over the course of the twentieth century.3

Hutson's paper was seized upon by the Christian Coalition to argue that it is "a liberal myth" that Jefferson intended for his words "to be used as a justification for expelling religious expression from the public square."4 In turn, twenty-four scholars signed a paper written by Robert M. O'Neil and Robert S. Alley accusing Hutson's work of being "unbalanced" and "flawed."5 As Hutson notes, Jefferson's wall metaphor has become "a shorthand expression for two radically different, passionately held visions of church–state relations in the United States."6

Hutson's argument was addressed by leading scholars in a 1999 William and Mary Quarterly forum. Some supported Hutson's claim that the Supreme Court had erected a higher, less permeable wall than Jefferson's. Thomas E. Buckley, for example, noted that Jefferson consistently made references to God in his public addresses. If Jefferson had intended to banish prayer or Christianity from the public sphere, Buckley wrote, he would not have used religious language himself. Others argued that our contemporary understanding of the wall is correct, and that Jefferson believed in a strong and constantly fortified barrier preventing any contact between church and state.7 [End Page 141]

The job of historians has its normative dimensions. But historians are also bound to make their judgments in a way true to the past, and thus the historians...


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