What did Jefferson mean by “Separation of Church and State”
“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from meddling in religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion , but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States . Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the General Government . It must rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808
 Referencing the 1st Amendment
 Referencing the 10th Amendment
 Observing no Federal authority is delegated over the issue.
 Declaring then that it must be a matter decided at the State level.
This was written 6 years after the earliest known reference to the phrase “Separation of Church and State” by Thomas Jefferson . Most of us have been taught that Jefferson was adamant about an absolute separation between religion and all government, but in the quote above, Jefferson says something very different. He says that religion, along with doctrines and disciplines, were to remain with State governments at the highest level. Therefore, he was stating there is no necessary separation between individual State governments and religion according to the 1st Amendment, but only with the Federal government. So, did he change his mind? Of course not.
Jefferson, along with Madison, did argue for a separation in his State of Virginia. However, as Jefferson points out, this is not a matter to be directed by the general (federal) government, but reserved to the individual States separately. To be decided on by their respective people.
Earliest known reference to Separation of Church and State:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut, 1802
In his letter to Samuel Miller, Jefferson references the 1st and 10th amendments of the US Constitution:
1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The 1st Amendment begins with “Congress shall make no law”. This unambiguously applies this restraint against the Federal government (general government) and not the Individual States themselves.
Jefferson also references the 10th amendment which of course states that all authority not delegated to the Federal government are reserved to the States or to the people.
He then observes that per the US Constitution, the Federal government has no delegated authority over the matter. So even in absence of the 1st and 10th amendments, Jefferson argues that the Federal government has ZERO authority over the issue, he then concludes that it must rest with the States.
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
While Jefferson deferred the authority over religion to the State governments, Jefferson also believed that his State of Virginia should protect the religious rights of all people equally. This is a reflection of his understanding of the role of various governments. Where the ideal of Jefferson held that religion was a personal matter, not to be interfered with by the State of Virginia or the Federal government, he did not find it in the capacity of the Federal government to force this ideal upon the other States.
“[When] the [Virginia] bill for establishing religious freedom… was finally passed,… a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”
–Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821
US Bill of Rights and the Incorporation Doctrine
What is little known about the Bill of Rights is that they were all originally intended to apply as restraints ONLY against the Federal Government, but because of the Incorporation Doctrine of the 20th Century, this interpretation according to original intent has been changed so that the Supreme Court has slowly been incorporating the Bill of Rights so that some apply against the States as well. What many believe to be an expansion and protection of freedoms, has been a violation of them by removing from us our right to self governance, which was a paramount concept at the time of our founding and crucial in preventing tyranny from the central government. In order for the Federal government to protect our rights, it has to necessarily define them.
Regarding the original intent of the Bill of Rights, consider the following:
Bill of Rights Preamble:
“The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution expressed a desire in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”
This says that the States expressed a desire to prevent misconstruction or abuse of Federal powers, so further declaration and restrictions would be placed in order to extend public confidence in the new Federal government.
Supreme Court Decision of Barron vs Baltimore 1833
The courts decided according to original intent that the Bill of Rights, including the 5th amendment did not apply to the States, but only the Federal Government.
Important quotations from Barron v Baltimore:
“The constitution was ordained and established by the people of the United States for themselves, for their own government, and not for the government of the individual states.”
“Had the framers of these amendments intended them to be limitations on the powers of the state governments, they would have imitated limitations on the powers of the state governments, they would have imitated the framers of the original constitution, and have expressed that intention.”
“These amendments contain no expression indicating an intention to apply them to the state governments. This court cannot so apply them.”
The Incorporation Doctrine
In his letter to Samuel Miller, Thomas Jefferson referenced the 1st amendment and 10th amendment, but he also makes the point that even in exclusion of these amendments the Constitution grants no authority to regulate religion, therefore the Federal government has no such power. This also applies to the limits of the entire US Bill of Rights according to original intent. The original Constitution provided no power to the Federal government to enforce the US Bill of Rights against the individual state governments, this did not occur until the 20th century interpretation of the 14th amendment with the Supreme Court Case Gitlow v. New York in 1925, which created the “Incorporation Doctrine“. Prior to this, the US Bill of Rights did not apply to the individual State governments. They were restricted by their individual State Constitutions and related Declaration of Rights or State Bill of Rights.
Why the Lie?
Why then have we been told that the founders, especially Jefferson intended for there to be a “Separation” between all government and religion? Why weren’t we told the complete truth? Why weren’t we told the simple truth that the FEDERAL government was never to interfere with religion, which includes necessarily morality, but the people were left to decide the relationship between religion and law within their own state? Why didn’t we just read the Constitution for ourselves and see what was in black and white? Why didn’t we just read the original words of Jefferson in their proper context?
For those who are concerned that Liberty is being violated by an ever expanding central government. The States are your strongest legal safeguard. Allowing the Federal government the ability to force the “Bill of Rights” upon the States ironically threatens your rights, it does not secure them. While at the same time, if we allow the Federal government to enforce morality, that is in clear violation of the Constitution and it is also a threat to our liberty.
Considering the Bill of Rights, notice your “freedom of religion”, it has been all but chased out of public life, even on the State level. This was not the founders’ intent, not even Jefferson himself.
Consider your other rights, do you think the Federal government is protecting them or is it a direct threat to them? Our founders knew any centralized authority would eventually become a threat to our Liberties, which is why they delegated very few and defined powers to the Federal government. Ironically, the specific protection of our “liberty” was not one of them, except from the threat of foreign enemies where the Federal government was to protect the States from foreign invasion. The protection of our “liberties” otherwise, was to rest with the people and to be administered by the individual States under directives of their respective citizens.
Read: War on Religion
Is it any wonder why our Federal government is out of control? We have abandoned the structures of government that our founders carefully put in place, we have abandoned their warnings. The primary reason for which is that we simply don’t know them. It is about time we begin to relearn history with an objective lens. It is time that we dust off the original sources of history and rediscover the true intent of our founders for ourselves.
Why not start today? Check out our basic Study Guide. It is a collection of simple videos and articles to help you learn the basics of our founding principles.
“In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Second Inaugural Address, 1805
“But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. … But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity.”
– James Madison, Federalist No. 46, 1788
“On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Judge William Johnson, June 12, 1823
“The States can best govern our home concerns and the general government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore… never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold at market.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Judge William Johnson, June 12, 1823