In the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, the Catholic Church was under attack in large sections of Europe. The French Revolution was violently anti-Catholic and in Spain secularists sought to deprive the Church of power and control. In March 1804, the superior of the Ursuline convent in New Orleans wrote President Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern over their rights and ministry following the Louisiana Purchase from France. Jefferson’s reply, much like his “wall of separation” enunciated in 1802 in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, pointed to the “principles of the constitution and government…”
Governmental Interference with Religion in the New Republic
Jefferson’s reply to Sister Marie Therese Farjon referenced the First Amendment of the Constitution. Like many of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson opposed a European-style state religion. Further, Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment and rejected the miraculous nature of Scripture, preferring the moral teachings of Jesus without the miracles.
Jefferson wrote the nun that the works of the “holy sisters” would be respected and allowed to continue. He praised the Ursulines for their social work with orphans and other downtrodden youth. There would be no interference from the “civil authority” and the rights of property would be “guaranteed.”
Roman Catholics in the Early Years of the Republic
Jefferson’s reply should not be taken as a change in attitude toward Catholics among many Americans. Despite the on-going suspicions of a predominantly Protestant America, the wall of separation impacted all faith traditions. Over 150 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court would finally apply the First Amendment to Protestant America at a time religious diversity was expanding.
Lucas A. Powe, Jr., writing about the Warren Court and the First Amendment, states that, “…just as government had no business writing prayers, it had no business mandating Protestant devotions in public schools…” Whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or not has never been the issue. Rather, the issue has always been the extent of government establishing religion.
Debating Jefferson’s Wall of Separation
While Jefferson saluted the devotion of the Danbury Baptists just as he did the good work of the Ursulines in New Orleans, he was mindful that religion “…is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God…” This was not the providence of the legislature but it was also not construed to muzzle every man’s expression of faith. U.S. Presidents, for example, represent a wide variety of sectarian religious views.
It must also be remembered that 19th Century America was overwhelmingly Protestant, despite an ever expanding presence of Catholics due to immigration. There was only one version of the Bible, the KJV, and it was used in the nation’s classrooms. None of this could be interpreted as an establishment of religion. But that changed in the later half of the 20th Century.
Jefferson could have followed precedent in 1804 and ignored the Ursulines. The American colonial period was full of examples of anti-Catholic belief and action. But he didn’t. Rather, he followed the principles of natural rights as enshrined in the Constitution in much the same way George Washington, an Anglican, worshiped in a variety of churches reflecting different faith traditions. This was the thinking of the Founding Fathers.
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, January 1802
William A. Link and Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, editors, The South In the History of the Nation: A Reader, Volume One (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999)
Lucas A. Power, Jr., The Warren Court and American Politics (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000)