Daily Archives: 1 January 2014

January 1, 1802 (a Friday)

Church/State sign.

Church/State sign.

On this date, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter destined to rank with the Declaration of Independence (which he also wrote), the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and even the Magna Carta. It has influenced U.S. Supreme Court rulings, informed national debate, and shaped public opinion for over two hundred years.

This letter introduced Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, upon which the Supreme court in 1879 relied in its first religious liberty ruling, Reynolds v. United States. Citing Jefferson’s “wall” in this precedent-setting First Amendment case, the Court held that:

coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.

The Supreme Court also depended heavily on Jefferson’s metaphor in its landmark case, Everson v. Board of Education, in which it unanimously supported church-state separation. Justice Hugo Black’s eloquent words are as inspiring and relevant today as they were in 1947:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institution, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and state”…That wall must be kept high and impregnable.

The importance of Jefferson’s wall to religious freedom in the United States cannot be underestimated. If it were allowed to crumble:

  • Sectarian religion could invade public education.
  • Women could be chained to medieval sectarian medical codes.
  • Government could force taxpayers to support sectarian schools and other institutions that routinely practice forms of discrimination and indoctrination the vast majority of Americans would find intolerable.

Jefferson’s letter was a response to one from the Danbury Baptist Association written on 7 October 1801 that praised him and voiced a complaint against Connecticut’s establishment of the Congregational Church.  The Danbury Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, and they complained that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature — as “favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” Specifically, Connecticut taxed Baptists for the maintenance of Congregationalist churches unless they submitted to the “degrading” practice of obtaining exemption certificates which routed their tax money to their own congregations.

Jefferson received the letter from the Danbury Baptists on December 30 and consulted with the U.S. Attorney General, Levi Lincoln, before replying two days later. Jefferson wrote Lincoln:

The Baptist address, now enclosed, admits of a condemnation of the alliance between Church and State, under the authority of the Constitution. …I know [my response] will give great offense 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?

Those who are ignorant of the complete history of Jefferson’s position, or who deliberately distort his position (for example, David Barton), sometimes contend that the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause was intended to prevent preferential treatment of one religion over another while allowing non-preferential aid to all religions. However, this argument is completely contrary to the facts. James Madison and Jefferson defeated the non-preferential position in the Virginia legislature the year before the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia. It was later considered by the First Congress and again rejected.

Clearly, the intent of the First Amendment was not simply to block the establishment of a single religion, as some claim, but to erect an enduring wall that keeps government out of religion and religion out of government — a wall that strengthens both religion and government. But no matter how firm a wall’s foundation, constant vigilance is required to keep it from toppling.


  • Edd Doerr, “Jefferson’s Wall,” The Humanist vol. 62, no. 1 (Jan/Feb 2002).

January 1, 1825 (a Saturday)

Mantell's iguanadon teeth.

On this date, the English physician and paleontologist Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) presented his paper Notice on the Iguanodon, a Newly Discovered Fossil Reptile, from the Sandstone of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex to members of England’s Philosophical Society. His paper linked the large hypothetical “Sussex lizard” to a modern species of reptile, the iguana. Mantell’s fossil was, after Buckland’s Megalosaurus, the second large fossil reptile discovered and named, but Iguanodon was, if anything, even more striking to Mantell’s contemporaries than was Buckland’s find because Iguanodon‘s teeth suggested that it was herbivorous. All of the largest modern reptiles (e.g., crocodiles, anacondas, komodo lizards) are carnivores, as was Megalosaurus, but Iguanodon was the first known large reptile that ate plants, and for this reason, it caused quite a stir in scientific circles.   This work led to Mantell’s election to the Royal Society of London on Dec 25, 1825.

January 1, 1942 (a Thursday)

Churchill and FDR at the First Washington Conference

On this day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a declaration, which had been signed by representatives of 26 countries, called the “Declaration by United Nations”. The signatories of the declaration vowed to create an international postwar peacekeeping organization.

The agreement was reached during the First Washington Conference, also known as the Arcadia Conference (ARCADIA was the code name used for the conference), begun on December 22, 1941. Led by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, the signatories agreed to use all available resources to defeat the Axis powers. It was agreed that no single country would sue for a separate peace with Germany, Italy, or Japan – they would act in concert. Perhaps most important, the signatories promised to pursue the creation of a future international peacekeeping organization dedicated to ensuring “life, liberty, independence, and religious freedom, and to preserve the rights of man and justice.”

January 1, 1758 (a Sunday)

Cover of the tenth edition of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1758).

On this date, the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae was published, which is considered the starting point of zoological nomenclature; the oldest scientific names of animals accepted as valid today can be traced to this edition. Here, Linnaeus introduced the modern practice of using binomials for animal species, something he had done for plant species in the 1753 publication of Species Plantarum. Interestingly, in the first edition of Systema Naturae, the whales were erroneously classified as fishes; in the 10th edition, the whales were moved to the mammals.