Jefferson Letter to Miller, 1808


Thomas Jefferson Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, 1808

This letter shows Jefferson thought the constitutional division between federal and state powers, as well as the First Amendment, prevented him from issuing a proclamation setting aside a day for fasting and thanksgiving. First, the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states all powers not delegated to the federal government. No power whatsoever to regulate religious matters had been delegated to the federal government. Thus, any authority to do so, if such authority exists, must rest with the states. The concept expressed in this letter is significant because it contributes to Jefferson’s thoughts on the degree of separation between church and state. As explained in the introduction to the Danbury Baptist letter, the Supreme Court relied heavily on Jefferson’s thoughts regarding this subject in the Everson v. Bd. of Educ.decision. In the majority opinion, the Court portrays Jefferson as an absolutist. Although he may have interpreted the constitutional restraints on governmental interference more narrowly than some of his contemporaries, Jefferson was by no means an absolutist. As this letter indicates, Jefferson opposed any federal regulation of religious matters. As to whether he opposed state government regulation of religion is less clear, but his letter does express his understanding that if the authority to regulate religious matters can be placed in the hands of men, it must be done at the state level.

Second, Jefferson argues that the restraints of the First Amendment prevent him from making a national proclamation. Regardless of the issuance of proclamations by his predecessors, Jefferson’s personal feeling is that the Constitution proscribed such activities. Although the proclamation merely suggests to the nation that it pause from its activities to fast and give thanks to the Supreme Being on an appointed day, the activities suggested are specific forms of religious conduct. Furthermore, Jefferson fears public reproval of all who choose not to observe this suggested conduct. Fasting and thanksgiving are religious activities whose purpose and observance should be left to each religious sect. A government official, especially the President of the United States, has no business interfering with religious beliefs by issuing a national proclamation.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

Washington, Jan. 23, 1808

SIR,–I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, or religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I shouldrecommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U.S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

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Source: Thomas Jefferson: writings 1186-87 (Merrill D. Peterson ed., 1984)