Very Political Jefferson Built 'Wall of Separation' By Larry Witham THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Thomas Jefferson penned his famous phrase about the "wall of separation" between church and state to please partisan supporters and answer critics, according to a new study of his letters.
The phrase was born of politics, not philosophy, according to the chief of manuscripts at the Library of Congress, who researched Jefferson's papers for an exhibit on religion and the Founding Fathers. It opens Thursday at the library's main building.
Documents on display also will show that two days after writing the 1802 letter, the third president began attending weekly worship inside the House of Representatives. Jefferson also allowed worship in federal buildings.
"That phrase about the wall doesn't mean much in light of his behavior, does it?" James H. Hutson, the library's chief of manuscripts, said yesterday.
Supreme Court justices and policy-makers have cited Jefferson's "wall of separation" to prove that the Founders wanted religion and government strictly separated. Over the years, this has affected rulings that ended prayer and religious instruction in public schools, religious displays on public property and state funding to social services provided by religious groups.
Now, however, Mr. Hutson argues that Jefferson did not use the phrase to elucidate what the First Amendment says about religious freedom and the state.
"These were political letters," Mr. Hutson said. At the time, presidents wrote to private supporters in carefully calculated ways that would be picked up by partisan newspapers, he said.
The new research got a boost from the FBI's technology division, which helped peer through inked-out lines in the 1802 letter.
"It's a mystery to me why somebody had not tried to investigate this," Mr. Hutson said. "What was under there? Why did Jefferson cross that out?"
Jefferson became president in 1801 after a bruising battle in which his political opponents, the Federalists, claimed that he was an atheist who denigrated religion, with the French Revolution as his model.
His first year in office, Jefferson was criticized by Federalists for not carrying on the tradition of George Washington and John Adams of issuing a proclamation for days of "fastings and thanksgivings."
The Danbury Baptists of Connecticut had sent Jefferson a letter of congratulations on his election, and the president "labored over" a strategic reply that would answer his critics and encourage his Republican supporters, Mr. Hutson said.
"This letter began as a sort of tit for tat, a response to a Federalist insult," Mr. Hutson said.
In the letter's first draft, Mr. Hutson said, Jefferson explained that he did not proclaim days of fastings because the U.S. president had only "temporal powers" -- which meant secular then -- and there was a "wall of eternal separation" between church and state.
Jefferson said a unity of church and state was the policy of potentates such as King George III of England, whom Americans reviled.
However, two of Jefferson's Cabinet members counseled that his language was too strong and secular and would offend Christian voters in New England. So Jefferson deleted the words "temporal power" and "eternal" plus two other segments that referred to a foreign monarch.
In a column note, Jefferson explained the motive behind the final version of the letter, said Mr. Hutson, who has been chief of manuscripts at the Library of Congress for 16 years and previously was at Yale and William and Mary.
Mr. Hutson said the "wall" phrase seems even more calculated when documents show that two days after writing the letter, Jefferson began attending Christian worship in the House of Representatives.
The president knew his worship would help erase his campaign image as a "miserable atheist," Mr. Hutson said, but it also showed that Jefferson decided that traditional religion was important for the morals of a republic.
"Jefferson comes to the position of George Washington and other leaders," Mr. Hutson said. New documentation in the exhibit suggests this, he said, including an item that triggered his investigation -- a letter from a woman who said she stepped on Jefferson's toes at Sunday worship in the House chambers.
"I kept turning up other things," such as evidence that Jefferson allowed worship in federal offices, Mr. Hutson said. This included a four-hour Communion service in the Treasury building.
The exhibit, which runs through August, has a companion 136-page booklet, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," by Mr. Hutson. It went to print in November before the FBI helped decipher Jefferson's 1802 letter.
Librarian of Congress James Billington had inquired in January about FBI assistance since the agency had done the same on phrases blotted out by Theodore Roosevelt in his diary.
Mr. Hutson received the FBI's finished work in mid-April. "There was a kind of eureka feeling when it came back from the FBI," he said.The Washington Times
Copyright 1998 News World Communications, Inc.
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