Posts tagged with: Thomas Jefferson

Blog author: jcarter
Friday, January 16, 2015

Freedom-of-ReligionThomas Jefferson wanted what he considered to be his three greatest achievements to be listed on his tombstone. The inscription, as he stipulated, reads “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Today we celebrate the 229th anniversary of one of those great creations: the passage, in 1786, of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

Each year, the President declares January 16th to be Religious Freedom Day, and calls upon Americans to “observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.” One way to honor the day is to reflect on these ten quotes about religious liberty that were expressed by some of our country’s greatest leaders:


Would Thomas Jefferson have anything to say about Americans suing the government in order to defend their first amendment rights? Kathryn Hickok, of the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, Ore., thinks so. She wondered what Jefferson may have said to the Little Sisters of the Poor’s about their ongoing legal battle with the Obama Administration. In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services required employers to cover contraceptives and abortifacients or pay costly fines. Although this mandate does have exemptions for some, that does not include the Little Sisters of the Poor. For more background, see PowerBlog articles on both the HHS Mandate and the Little Sisters’ lawsuit.

In 1804, a nun from New Orleans was concerned that, after the Louisiana purchase, the government may interfere with her religious community’s ministries or might even seize their property. Jefferson assured her:

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution….The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.


decPerhaps the most enduring legacy of the Declaration of Independence is that it sought to overturn the long abuses and powers of tyrants. It revealed the truth of self-government and that power is inherent in the people. In the second introduction of the document, Jefferson declared:

…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson, always the philosopher, reminds the reader that governments are instituted to protect the natural rights of man, to preserve their freedom above all else. Government is not intended to serve the bureaucracy, rulers, or an elite class.

USA-Thomas_Jefferson_MemorialThomas Jefferson believed that the practice of one’s faith should not be impinged upon by one’s government. He wrote of this in a letter or address to the Danbury Baptist Association:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,” he wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”


jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

justice is blindIn a rather snarky piece in The Atlantic, author Anthony Murray questions whether or not a Supreme Court justice who believes in “natural law” (quotations marks are Murray’s) can make sound rulings. Murray is especially worried about cases involving the HHS mandate such as Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Secretary, etc. and Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al. v. Sibelius.

Murray misunderstand natural law. He believes it to be religious, and frantically scrambles through the words of Thomas Jefferson in order to prove his point. Rather, he says, the framers of the Constitution rely on “positive law:”

If natural law were regarded as simply a religious creed, it would not conflict with the positive laws embedded in our Constitution and laws. The threat lies in the use of natural law by courts in judicial decisions. Invoking it in construing the Constitution and statutes raises an obvious question: If natural law exists, what is in it? Is it a blank slate on which anyone may write subjective beliefs? Does it include religious dogmas? If so, of what religions? (more…)

Jeffersons-TombstonePerhaps it’s because we Americans are still getting over Christmas, or talking about the Super Bowl, but National Religious Freedom Day doesn’t get a lot of press. But indeed: January 16 is National Religious Freedom Day, adopted originally by the state of Virginia and now remembered annually by the White House. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Statute for Religious Freedom reads, in part:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.