Jefferson Letter to Lincoln, 1802

Jefferson Letter to Mr. Lincoln (January 1, 1802)

In this letter, Jefferson requests that Mr. Lincoln read his address to the Danbury Baptist Association and comment on its contents. The Baptist address strongly condemns the union of church and state under the new Constitution and Bill of Rights. In addition, the address contains Jefferson’s long-awaited explanation of why he, unlike Washington and Adams, saw a presidential proclamation of fasting and thanksgiving as repugnant to the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Of interest here is Jefferson’s acknowledgment of the address’ potential to offend the North, whose clergy and people favored both a unity of church and state and the presidential proclamations. Jefferson asked Mr. Lincoln, who was familiar with the Northern temperament to water down the address, which presently had been written to satisfy Southern sentiment.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

January 1, 1802

Averse to receive addresses, yet unable to prevent them, I have generally endeavored to turn them to some account, by making them the occasion, by way of answer, of sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets. The Baptist address, now enclosed, admits of a condemnation of the alliance between Church and State, under the authority of the Constitution. It furnishes an occasion, too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did. The address, to be sure, does not point at this, and its introduction is awkward. But I foresee no opportunity of doing it more pertinently. I know it will give great offence to the New England clergy; but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them. Will you be so good as to examine the answer, and suggest any alterations which might prevent an ill effect, or promote a good one, among the people? You understand the temper of those in the North, and can weaken it, therefore, to their stomachs: it is a present seasoned to the Southern taste only. I would ask the favor of you to return it, with the address, in the course of the day or evening. Health and affection.

Source: IV The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private 427 (H. A. Washington ed., 1984).