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Sowell disses Thomas Jefferson

October 31, 2010

The religious conflicts that so marked Europe were carried to America with the earliest colonists. So it is a bit surprising that there had built a strong move toward religious tolerance at the birth of our nation. Thomas Jefferson spear-headed this, proposing the Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom during the War of Independence. It met significant opposition in the Virginia Assembly, from Patrick Henry and others whose views inclined more to what today would be called the religious right. James Madison toiled with Jefferson for years on this issue, writing Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in 1785. Jefferson’s statute passed the next year. In 1789, in political defense of the new Constitution, Madison proposed the Bill of Rights.

The press has much criticized today’s religious right candidates who have attacked the key importance of separation of church and state to religious freedom. Thomas Sowell has run to their defense with a short article for NRO. So what does the learned Sowell think is the most important thing about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to the 1st amendment? This:

There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution about a “wall of separation” between church and state, either directly or indirectly. That phrase was used in a letter by Thomas Jefferson, who was not even in the country when the Constitution was written.

Yes, Jefferson was minister in France from 1785 to 1789. But Sowell is old enough to realize that even before the internet, people corresponded and conducted business from abroad. Jefferson stayed abreast the debate over the Constitution. Madison did not at first desire a Bill of Rights. Jefferson helped sway him. And what did Jefferson want in it? Jefferson describes that in a letter he sent to Madison, writing from France in 1787:

I will now tell you what I do not like [about the proposed Constitution]. First, the omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly and without the aid of sophism for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land and not by the laws of nations.

Most of that was included. Sowell should know basic American history. Jefferson played a key role in the creation of the Bill of Rights, even while working abroad to establish trade relations. The 1st amendment was not something entirely novel, but culminated ideas and legislation Jefferson and Madison had fostered for over a decade. If anyone were seeking an originalist interpretation of the 1st amendment, the two founders first to read are Jefferson and Madison.

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