Author: John Ragosta

an independent historian and lawyer who has written extensively on religious freedom. His most recent book, Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed, is forthcoming from University of Virginia Press.

Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786)

The Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the General Assembly on January 16, 1786, before being signed into law three days later. The statute affirms the rights of Virginians to choose their faiths without coercion; separates church and state; and, while acknowledging the right of future assemblies to change the law, concludes that doing so would “be an infringement of a natural right.” Jefferson’s original bill “for establishing religious freedom,” drafted in 1777 and introduced in 1779, was tabled in the face of opposition among powerful members of the established Church of England. Then, in 1784, a resolution calling for a tax to support all Christian sects excited such opposition that James Madison saw an opportunity to reintroduce Jefferson’s bill. It passed both houses of the General Assembly with minimal changes to its text. One of the most eloquent statements of religious freedom ever written, the statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom. Jefferson considered it one of his crowning achievements and a necessary bulwark against tyranny.


U.S. Presidential Election of 1800

The U.S. presidential election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson was elected the nation’s third president, resulted in the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in United States history. Political parties formed after the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1788, with Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, favoring a strong federal government and banking system, and Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and James Madison, preferring the balance of power to remain in the states. These disputes came to a head when a Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which, among other things, criminalized criticism of Congress and the president. The legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions threatening the nonenforcement of what they perceived as unconstitutional laws, but that move was broadly unpopular. By 1800, political rhetoric had become particularly vicious, with the parties accusing one another of all manner of religious and civil abominations. In the end, the Democratic-Republicans prevailed in the Electoral College, but their intended candidates for president and vice president, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, tied with 73 votes each. After six days of contentious debate, the lame duck U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by Federalists, voted for Jefferson. The election, which Jefferson called the “revolution of 1800,” paved the way for a more accessible, even populist style of government in the future.


Jefferson, Thomas and Religion

Thomas Jefferson was deeply but unconventionally religious. An empiricist, he believed that a rational and benevolent God was evident in the beauty and order of the universe. He professed “Christianism,” a belief in the morals taught by Jesus of Nazareth, but he rejected Jesus’s divinity, resurrection, the atonement, and biblical miracles. As such, Jefferson’s beliefs resisted conventional labels, and in 1819 he suggested to a correspondent that “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” Jefferson meticulously cut up four copies of the Gospels (in English, French, Greek, and Latin), retaining only selected passages, without miracles, to create The Jefferson Bible, his own book for spiritual guidance and solace. Jefferson’s career was also marked by religious controversy. He was denounced as an “arch-infidel” in the presidential election of 1800, and his efforts to prevent the appointment of a minister to teach religion at the University of Virginia, one of the first state-owned colleges in the United States, met strong resistance. Jefferson embraced god-given human rights and opposed their abridgment by government. He is known as one of the founders of American religious freedom, and his phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State” has been viewed as emblematic by historians and by the modern United States Supreme Court.