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Senate Judiciary Committee Meeting, July 1809
Considering the nomination of former President Thomas Jefferson to the Supreme Court:
Chairman: We’re honored to have you to appear before us, Mr. Jeff … I mean, Mr. President. We thank you again for your outstanding service to our country, especially as president of the United States for the last eight years. We particularly honor you for originating the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State.” We on this committee are concerned about giving any place to public displays of religiosity.
Jefferson: Thank you, gentlemen. Yes, I did coin the phrase you mention in my personal letter, as president, to a little Baptist congregation in Danbury, Conn. They had expressed concern that our government might institute a preferred national religion, as had England, and I wrote to assure them that the First Amendment to our Constitution had guaranteed the federal government would keep its hands off individual and regional expressions of faith.
Chairman: But sir, forgive me – all during your years as president, you attended worship services, with many members of Congress and other officials in our government, in the very chambers of Congress itself! It would seem to some that government buildings were serving as churches themselves – isn’t that breaching “the wall”?
Jefferson: I’m afraid, sir, you are misunderstanding my intent with those words. I was assuring the little Baptist congregation that our government would keep its hands off the church – but not that church members could not inform and influence government. Surely you are aware that all our foundational documents reflect, and depend upon, our mutual recognition of a Superintending Providence. Why shouldn’t any available building, official or otherwise, serve worshippers on Sunday? I see nothing wrong with that.
Chairman: Hmmm – but Mr. President, you went way beyond that, didn’t you? For instance, just three months after your now famous letter to the Baptists about “the wall,” you as president signed the enabling act for Ohio to become a state, requiring the new state “not to be repugnant to the Northwest Ordinance.” Were you not aware, sir, that the Northwest Ordinance states that “education shall be forever encouraged” for the explicit reason that “religion, morality, and knowledge” are “necessary to good government?” Do you now feel it is appropriate, even constitutional, for the president to be endorsing religion so forcefully?
Jefferson: Mr. Chairman, I am surprised at your question. Do you not remember the famous words of our first president, George Washington: “Religion and morality are the twin pillars of freedom”? He went further, saying, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” I, personally, am not traditionally “religious,” but I firmly believe in a loving God and am convinced that we as a people are dependent on His protection and blessing. As president I signed bills appropriating financial support for chaplains in Congress and in the armed services, and I explicitly urged all officers and soldiers to diligently attend divine services. What is your concern?
Chairman: Well, er, uh, sir – we’re here to consider your ability to serve impartially on the Supreme Court. If you were confirmed to our highest court, would your personal religious convictions influence your decisions?
Jefferson: How could they not, sir, although always within the dictates of our Constitution? I remind you that our first chief justice, John Jay, with whom I have had some differences but who is one of the chief architects of the Constitution itself, said, “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” He did not intend, nor certainly would I, to impose personal beliefs on fellow citizens – but what kind of faith would it be if it did not at all influence our decisions? By the way, you didn’t mention that in 1803, and later in 1806 and 1807, I initiated treaties with several Indian tribes and obtained from Congress funds, out of the federal treasury, to pay missionaries to promote Christianity among the Indians. Do you find fault with that as well?
Chairman: To be perfectly frank, Mr. Jeffer – excuse me, Mr. President–we are deeply concerned about all of that. It is our considered opinion that there should be no mention of any God or religion or scripture anywhere reflected on government property or in any political gathering or utterance. We had hoped that the author of the “wall of separation” phrase would agree with us!
Jefferson: [unfolding a written page] Not only do I disagree strongly with you, good sirs, but in 1804 I wrote my good friend Abigail Adams: “Nothing in the Constitution has given them (the federal judges) a right to decide for the executive, more than to the executive to decide for them … but the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional, and what not, not only for themselves in their own spheres of action, but for the legislature and executive also, in their spheres, would make the judiciary a despotic branch.” I sense that is the direction in which you would take the judiciary. And if you are looking for someone who will join you in usurping constitutional powers and becoming blind to the “nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof” part of the First Amendment – I am clearly not your man. [general murmuring and discontent among the committee members]
Chairman: Well, Mr. Jefferson, there seems to be no point in taking this inquiry further; we here in 2005 were hoping for a prominent champion of our personal views, and you are a profound disappointment to us. Do you wish to say anything further?
Jefferson: Yes, Mr. Chairman and members of this committee, I do. You interviewed me because of my authorship of the “wall of separation” phrase; you seem to forget that I also authored our Declaration of Independence, in which I declare that we are all “CREATED equal, and endowed by our CREATOR with certain unnalienable rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I haven’t changed my views, though you apparently have. I ask you, and you can chisel this in granite, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Good day.
Chairman: Thank you, Mr. Jefferson. This committee will take a recess to consider what other candidates may be more to our liking.