Thomas Jefferson Papers

I. Draft Reply to the Danbury Baptist Association, [on or before 31 December 1801]

I. Draft Reply to the Danbury Baptist Association

[on or before 31 Dec. 1801]


The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good to express towards me on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction, my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing.

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 only1 and 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 of2 separation between church and state. Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even3 occasional performances of devotion prescribed indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church,4 but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.5 Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience6 I shall see with sincere satisfaction7 the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious8 association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th: Jefferson

Dft (DLC); at head of text: “To messrs. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut”; note in margin written after TJ’s receipt of Document IV, TJ also marking a sentence for deletion (see note 5 below); TJ added “Jan. 1. 1802.” below his signature.

Performances Of Devotion: in October 1801, in accordance with their annual practice, the governors of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut issued proclamations for the observance of 26 Nov. as a day of public thanksgiving. Rhode Island appointed no set day, but “left every one to pray on such day, and in such manner, as their consciences should tell them was best.” Several religious societies in Newport voluntarily agreed to observe 26 Nov. as a day of thanksgiving (Hudson, N.Y., Balance, and Columbian Repository, 26 Nov. 1801; Boston Gazette, 26 Nov.; Newport Rhode-Island Republican, 12 Dec.).

News of the ratification of the peace treaty with France prompted speculation that TJ would proclaim a national day of thanksgiving (Boston Columbian Centinel, 28 Nov. 1801). For an interpretation of the fast day implications of TJ’s reply to the Danbury Baptists, see James Hutson, “‘A Wall of Separation’: FBI Helps Restore Jefferson’s Obliterated Draft,” Library of Congress Information Bulletin, 57 (1998), 136–9, 163. Other recent studies of TJ’s response can be found in the “Forum” on TJ’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly, 1892- description ends , 3d ser., 56 (1999), 775–824; Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (New York, 2002), especially 9–54, 142–8; Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, Mass., 2002), especially 155–80; and Johann N. Neem, “Beyond the Wall: Reinterpreting Jefferson’s Danbury Address,” Journal of the Early Republic, 27 (2007), 139–54.

1Word written over partially erased, illegible word.

2TJ here canceled “eternal.”

3TJ here canceled “those.”

4TJ first wrote “practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of the church” before altering the passage to read as above.

5TJ circled the preceding sentence and wrote in the margin: “this paragraph was omitted on the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings &c by their Executive is an antient habit, & is respected.”

6Sentence to this point interlined in place of “confining myself therefore to the duties of my station, which are merely temporal, be assured that your religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine and that” and “Concurring with adhering to this great act of National legislation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

7Preceding two words interlined in place of “friendly dispositions.”

8Preceding two words interlined in place of “the Danbury Baptist.”

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