Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In the opinion of this reviewer, Dreisbach is undeniably correct. His research is thorough, and his analysis comports with the history of the period. Dreisbach’s study of Jefferson's likely meaning when he utilized the phrase “wall of separation” makes a valuable contribution to an important area of the constitutional law, an area of great consequence to Christians. The fact that it is written by a law professor at a "top twenty" law school increases its significance and credibility in the scholar world. The book has a minimum of legal jargon and can easily be understood. Daniel Dreisbach’s book is highly recommended.”
-Faith and Mission


“Excellent introduction to the thorny interpretive issues that continue to grow around Jefferson's wall.”
-The Journal of Southern History


“This book is vintage Dreisbach. . . . Anyone studying Jefferson's views of separation would be wise to use Dreisbach’s primary texts and to ponder his sage interpretation of them. This is a book that can be read in an evening, but pondered for a career.”
-John Witte Jr.,Michigan Law Review

“On an evaluative note, the book is helpful for gaining an understanding of the historical context of Jefferson’s metaphor.”
-Journal of Church and State


“Daniel Dreisbach’s book is a welcome and much needed addition to the scholarship on the First Amendment. Dreisbach analysis of Jefferson's metaphor, its political context, and consequences for church-state jurisprudence, provide an intellectual perspective as the Court and nation reconsider issues of accomodations of religion in the public square.”
-Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies

Library Journal
President Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor is central to U.S. Supreme Court analysis of First Amendment religious practices and relations between religious institutions and governmental activities. Dreisbach (justice, law, and society, American Univ.) demonstrates the underpinnings and both 19th- and 20th-century interpretations of this pervasive metaphor, which began as a phrase in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury, CT, Baptist Association in 1802. He shows how the "wall" metaphor represents a struggle for religious liberty and in a similar fashion has been used as a component of a strict separation policy between church and state. This historical analysis offers new insight into the foundations of church-state discourse in the United States while also providing documentary underpinnings to Phillip Hamburger's analysis of 17th- to 19th-century religious writings in Separation of Church and State. Almost half of Dreisbach's volume contains extensive appendixes, notes, and a bibliography. This well-constructed book will be useful for academic libraries as an addition to their history and law collections. Steven Puro, St. Louis Univ. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814719350
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2002
  • Series: Critical America Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 0.81 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel L. Dreisbach is an Associate Professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at American University. He is the editor of Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson’s Virginia and Religion and Politics in the Early Republic.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: The Creation of an American Metaphor 1
2 The President, a Mammoth Cheese, and the "Wall of Separation": Jeffersonian Politics and the New England Baptists 9
3 "Sowing Useful Truths and Principles": Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association 25
4 "What the Wall Separates": A Jurisdictional Interpretation of the "Wall of Separation" 55
5 Early References to a "Wall of Separation": Prefiguring the Jeffersonian Metaphor 71
6 Creating "Effectual Barriers": Alternative Metaphors in Defense of Religious Liberty 83
7 "Useful Truths and Principles ... Germinate and Become Rooted" in the American Mind: Jefferson's Metaphor Enters Political and Juridical Discourse 95
8 Conclusion: The Re-Creation of Church-State Law, Policy, and Discourse 107
App Documents from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson 129
Notes 155
Selected Bibliography 245
Acknowledgments 271
Index 273
About the Author 283
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2003

    The Very Best Scholarship on Thomas Jefferson's Views on Religious Liberty

    Occasionally one can say that a book is the very best on a subject. This book certainly deserved that description, and the author is to be commended. Daniel Dreisbach is both a Rhodes Scholar and holds a doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of Virginia. His meticulous research on Jefferson lays to waste the outlandish judicial misrepresentations of Thomas Jefferson's views on religious liberty. Dreisbach has made the most careful study of the badly misunderstood Danbury Baptist letter which contained Jefferson's famous 'wall of separation' phrase. It was not a statement of hostility toward chruches. It was a nonpreferentialist statement of his oppostion toward ESTABLISHED national religion. This volume alone makes it impossible for the federal courts to claim any intellectual honesty in their Jeffersonian basis for the prevailing jurisprudence in First Amendment cases. If religious liberty is to be understood, this book must be the centerpiece of all discussions on Thomas Jefferson's role in early America.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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