Library of Congress defends exhibit on Jefferson, religion

Monday, August 31, 1998

Thomas Jefferso...
Thomas Jefferson

The Library of Congress’ top administrator has come to the defense of an exhibit and report that a group of 24 professors has called biased and inaccurate.

In early June, the library unveiled its “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” exhibit. On the day the exhibit opened, James Hutson, head of the library’s manuscript division, issued an essay, “The Wall of Separation Between Church and State: What Jefferson Originally Wrote and What it Means.”

The exhibit and report suggest Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” metaphor was merely a political statement. Political groups such as the Christian Coalition cited the exhibit as evidence that Jefferson and other Founding Fathers never intended for church and state to be separate.

A group of 24 church-state scholars, led by Robert S. Alley, a retired University of Richmond humanities professor, issued a letter in late July urging the library “to refrain from presenting those conclusions as settled fact.” The group also criticized Hutson’s essay as offering “an unbalanced treatment of this important topic on the basis of questionable analysis that has not, as far as is known, been subjected to independent scholarly review.”

James Billingto...
James Billington

James Billington, the librarian of Congress, sent a two-page letter to Alley in mid-August defending the library’s presentation of the exhibit and Hutson’s report.

“I do not believe that either Dr. Hutson or other Library staff have been presenting or would present interpretations as ‘settled fact,’” Billington wrote. “The Library of Congress is not, nor has it ever aspired to be, the equivalent of a High Court of American scholarship, promulgating definitive judgments on controversial matters.”

Billington and library spokeswoman Helen Dalrymple refused to comment on the library’s response to the scholars. Hutson, however, told that he was pleased with Billington’s letter.

“It was a fair answer,” Hutson said. “As I’ve said before, we have no control over how people interpret our exhibit.”

Billington’s brief defense, however, failed to address many of the concerns the scholars had raised. Alley told that the group noted several problems with the exhibit and report that received “no response.”

In particular, Alley said, it was “irresponsible” of the library to misconstrue a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut regarding the “wall of separation” metaphor.

Hutson’s nine-page essay centered on an 1802 letter Jefferson wrote to the Connecticut Baptists. In that letter, Jefferson used the metaphor “wall of separation,” which has been cited often by the U.S. Supreme Court to interpret the establishment clause of the First Amendment as requiring government to remain neutral toward religion.

Hutson questioned the federal courts’ use of the Baptist letter for interpreting the establishment clause.

“[I]t will be of considerable interest in assessing the credibility of the Danbury Baptist letter as a tool of constitutional interpretation, to know, as we now do, that it was written as a partisan counterpunch, aimed by Jefferson below the belt at enemies who were tormenting him more than a decade after the First Amendment was composed,” Hutson wrote.

Hutson based his conclusion on what the library has described as newly deciphered notes by Jefferson. According to Hutson, FBI laboratories discovered earlier this year that Jefferson deleted a description of the church-state wall as “eternal” from the final letter sent to the Baptists.

Four years ago, Alley discovered on his own that Jefferson had deleted “eternal” from the final letter and noted in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal that “whatever prompted the President to strike the word, it is clear that as he first phrased his assessment of the First Amendment, the word ‘eternal’ came to mind.”

Alley also said: “While it certainly can be argued that Jefferson struck the word because he decided he did not mean it, a more plausible explanation is that he saw the word as an intrusive adjective that deflected from the effect of the crisp phrase ‘wall of separation.’ “

Alley told that no one, including the library, knows for certain why Jefferson deleted the word.

Alley said he was disheartened that the library’s exhibit had been presented to suggest the “wall of separation” metaphor had no value.

The exhibit closed Aug. 29, but is still available on the library’s Web site.