Scholar retreats somewhat from claims about Jefferson ‘wall of separation’ letter

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

James Hutson...
James Hutson

ARLINGTON, Va. — Nearly 200 years after Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, his words, and the intended meaning behind them, continue to spark
passionate debate.

A group of scholars, lawyers, First Amendment advocates and church representatives took issue yesterday with the latest interpretation of Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. This letter is part of a body of Jefferson’s writings that have molded modern
interpretations of his ideas about the separation of church and state.

As shown in a recent exhibit of the letter at the Library of Congress, FBI laboratories were able to determine the content of Jefferson’s edited-out remarks in his original letter. The meaning behind those edits has provoked disagreement among Jefferson-followers about what that Founding Father really meant when he wrote about the “wall of separation
between church and state.”

James Hutson, the curator of the Library of Congress exhibit containing the letter, started the controversy last summer with his self-described “casually written” paper explaining the meaning behind Jefferson’s original words. His opinion that the editing marks revealed Jefferson’s “true intentions” behind the Danbury letter immediately set off a firestorm of disagreement. Hutson’s paper contained strong language about the misuse of the “wall of separation” metaphor. Some people, Hutson said, accused him of letting his own philosophical and political biases taint his work.

Yesterday at The Freedom Forum World Center, Hutson read a revised version of his paper, which indicated that he was retreating from his previous claims that the uncovered wording significantly changed the meaning of
Jefferson’s original intent. But Hutson stuck to his view that Jefferson never meant to cut religion out of the public realm entirely.

According to Hutson’s original study, Jefferson was trying to explain to the Danbury Baptists his unwillingness to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. Hutson had cited the newly revealed editing of the draft letter as proof that Jefferson was merely making political statements. In particular, Hutson had pointed to notes on the draft in which Jefferson dubbed his presidential duties “merely temporal,” and said the “wall of separation” should only be seen as a political pronouncement. Additionally, Hutson had noted in his original paper that Jefferson deleted a description of the wall as “eternal” from the final letter sent to the Baptists.

Hutson, who emphasized that he presented his work as a scholar, not a religious-liberty expert, said he hoped his new paper would quell what he called an “unfortunate sideshow” to the exhibit.

The edits “revealed some rather important things,” Hutson said.

Jefferson’s letter was written largely for political reasons — he was being attacked by the Federalist press for being “godless,” Hutson said, for refusing to issue thanksgivings and proclamations as the English king
and George Washington had been wont to do. At first Jefferson saw the Danbury letter as an opportunity to explain his actions. The president said, in essence, that proclamations were a holdover from the monarchy, a “British weed” that needed to be pulled, according to Hutson.

Jefferson’s other reason, Hutson said, was that the president wanted it known that a “truly Republican magistrate should work only in a secular way.”

But after political colleagues suggested revisions to the letter for political reasons, the meaning behind Jefferson’s words changed, Hutson said. The president never meant to eradicate religion from public life,
as some interpreters of the “wall” metaphor have stated — in fact, Hutson said, on the very day the revised letter was sent, Jefferson was making plans to attend church services in the House of Representatives.

He wanted to prove that he was not the “Satanic figure of Federalist propaganda,” Hutson said.

“The practice of religion on public property was no problem for Jefferson if it was open and voluntary,” Hutson said. Jefferson’s actions, and the contents of the letter, “indicate that in the relationship between religion and government … a distinction could be
drawn between active and passive. [Jefferson believed] that government might serve as a passive [vessel for] religious activities.

“My view of the wall of separation … is that it is impenetrable, but punctuated by checkpoints,” Hutson said, “allowing religion to pass through … provided that it treats everyone equally who wanted to come

But even Hutson’s revised paper didn’t sit well with several audience members.

Steve Green of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said he was troubled by “the degree to which you extrapolate from one document … an overall philosophy of Thomas Jefferson’s views on the
separation of church and state.” Many other Jefferson writings support the traditional interpretation of the letter, he said.

Green also said he would hesitate to draw much significance from Jefferson’s attendance of religious services in government buildings. “At the time, those were only buildings available,” Green said.

Robert Alley of the University of Richmond questioned Hutson’s scholarly practices in developing the exhibit and concluded, “I think you’ve given more credibility to the deletions than is useful.”

In the end, the Rev. Elliott Wright said, Hutson’s work and others’ strong reaction to it provide a valuable lesson: “We see the Founding Fathers as the authors of scripture and they’re not.” This is politics, Wright said, an example of the “trial an error” of a new government.

Jefferson was “a real person. He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t know everything. And his ideas cannot necessarily [be translated] into the 20th Century,” Wright said.