top of page
  • tara

Getting History Right

By Tara Ross & Joseph C. Smith. Jr.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith works as a bureaucrat in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite history to suit the demands of Oceania’s government. News articles are rewritten so that disfavored individuals are no longer mentioned. Some documents are not filed but are instead thrown into “memory holes” where they can be destroyed. The past is what the government says it is.


Indeed, the Ministry of Truth is so effective in re-writing the past that Smith himself falls prey to its workings. He finds himself unable to remember non-official versions of past events. In desperation, he starts a diary, in violation of the law.


1984 illustrates the dangers that can occur when truth is distorted and history is mistaught. Without knowledge of the past, the people of Oceania have no anchor. They believe what the government tells them to believe. Their opinions and actions are shaped by the government-filtered information that they receive. As Orwell’s book comes to a close, Smith’s efforts to break free of the government have failed. He believes that he loves Big Brother, despite the death sentence that hangs over his head.

Orwell wrote his book in 1949, as a warning to future generations, but his words remain relevant today. Many aspects of American history are routinely mistaught in schools. In some cases, critical events of the past are ignored by textbooks that instead focus too much attention on more recent or more politically correct events. But worse than these “sins of omission” are those occasions when false information is disseminated and declared to be truth.


Unfortunately, those who teach about church-state relations have fallen prey to both of these faults. Many relevant aspects of the founding simply are not taught to students. Those events that are taught are presented in a misleading or erroneous fashion. As a result, Americans do not know what the Constitution has to say about the relationship between church and state.


Misunderstandings Wreak Havoc


Litigation regarding the proper relationship between government and religion has become a staple of American life. Can a nativity scene appear in public? May Ten Commandments statues be placed on government property? Will students be allowed to pray at their graduation ceremonies? Such litigation, at its heart, boils down to a dispute over the meaning of the so-called “religion clauses” of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Those clauses are short—a mere sixteen words. They declare: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Unfortunately, there is much disagreement—combined with a fair amount of confusion—over the meaning of these words.


The confusion can be traced back to Americans’ lack of knowledge about their own history.  Many believe that the Constitution requires a strict “separation of church and state.” It does not. Nevertheless, the misperception persists. Even precedents of the Supreme Court reflect this misstated concept of American history. The result is that religious activity in this country has often been unnecessarily restricted.


In many ways, Americans find themselves living as if they were in Oceania. They believe the version of history that has been perpetuated, and they act accordingly. Many even enjoy the manner in which they are made a prisoner of misstated history.  The misunderstanding has its roots in events that occurred long ago, about a decade after the First Amendment was ratified.


The Genesis of “The Wall of Separation”


Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the third American President on March 4, 1801. The presidential election had been intensely fought. Jefferson had been accused of atheism or deism, but not everyone believed the charges. Indeed, many religious minorities believed that Jefferson was, instead, nothing more than a champion of religious liberty who had been unfairly persecuted for his stance against the establishment.


Following Jefferson’s inauguration, he received many congratulatory letters. One of these, from the Danbury Baptist Association, landed on his desk on December 30, 1801.  Jefferson decided to respond, and he put considerable thought into his response. Some scholars have speculated that Jefferson probably saw the Danbury Baptists’ letter as presenting him with a two-fold opportunity. First, Jefferson’s response could strike back at the ministers who had attacked him so ferociously during the 1800 presidential campaign. This reasoning was political, not constitutional. Second, Jefferson’s views on religious policies differed from those of his contemporaries. He had been criticized for his failure to issue Thanksgiving Day proclamations, as Washington and Adams had.  Jefferson thus saw the letter not only as an opportunity to explain himself, but also to promote his view. He told his attorney general that responding to the letter would provide an occasion for “sowing useful truths & principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.” Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists was a vehicle to promote his own religious policy views, much as he might have sought to advance his own economic policy or his own foreign policy.


When Jefferson responded to the Danbury Baptists, however, he chose to anchor his statement regarding religious liberty to the words of the First Amendment. In the letter, completed on January 1, 1802, Jefferson declared: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”  With a few strokes of the pen, Jefferson thus became the first American to authoritatively suggest that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires separation between religious and civil entities. But, despite his strong words, his letter did not  come to have constitutional significance for more than 75 years.


The Supreme Court first mentioned the phrase in 1879 when it decided the case of a Mormon man, George Reynolds, who was convicted of the crime of bigamy.  Reynolds argued that his conviction was unconstitutional, because his religious beliefs required him to engage in such behavior.  Ultimately, the Court decided that the punishment imposed on Reynolds was constitutional, relying in part upon Jefferson’s separation terminology.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Morrison Waite brushed off at least two facts that should have weighed against relying upon Jefferson’s views so completely: First, Jefferson was not involved in writing the Constitution; and, second, Jefferson was not a member of the First Congress, which drafted the First Amendment. Instead, without so much as acknowledging the political history behind Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, Waite concluded that Jefferson’s separationist terminology “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect” of the First Amendment.


After Reynolds, the Court more or less ignored the separationist doctrine for several decades, but a 1947 case, Everson v. Board of Education, brought the idea back to the forefront of American jurisprudence.  The issue before the Everson Court was whether a public school district could provide for pupils’ transportation not only to public, but also to parochial, schools. The Court narrowly decided that the district could fund transportation to both types of schools under the Constitution. Despite this apparently religion-friendly outcome, the Court used the opportunity to reaffirm Jefferson’s statement as the ultimate test of what is or is not permissible under the First Amendment: “In the words of Jefferson,” the Court held, “the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State.’”  Indeed, the Court did not stop with a mere regurgitation of Jefferson’s words. It went on to conclude with an even stronger statement: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”


It was thus more than 150 years after the First Amendment was ratified that a majority of Justices on the Supreme Court plucked Jefferson’s phrase out of virtual obscurity and raised it to the level of constitutional truth.  By judicial fiat, Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists finally achieved its purpose—“sowing useful truths & principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.”


A New Focus on Past Events


For the most part, both sides of modern church-state disputes have accepted the “Jeffersonian” model of religious liberty, perhaps because they are driven by the practical need to navigate Supreme Court jurisprudence. History, however, demands a rethinking of this premise. Even assuming Jefferson’s view to be a legitimate reflection of what some members of the founding generation desired for American church-state relations, his is not the only such view that should be considered. The views of others in the founding generation are relevant as well. Indeed, the focus on Jefferson has been so great that even the views of the Father of the Country, George Washington, have been completely ignored in the modern conception of appropriate church-state interactions. Such an omission is startling—and telling.


In many ways, Washington is among the most qualified to speak to the meaning of the Constitution, including the First Amendment. Washington was the most admired man of his age.  Unlike Jefferson, Washington was a key participant in the Constitutional Convention: He served as the Convention’s President.  Moreover, Washington was the first man to take the presidential oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  He served as President when the First Amendment was debated and ratified. Washington’s involvement in founding events was so pervasive that one of his biographers, Joseph Ellis, has described him as the “central feature in every major event of the revolutionary era.”


Indeed, Washington’s qualifications with respect to matters of church and state extend even further than his participation in these founding events. Washington confronted such issues throughout his time in public service, beginning with his service in the colonial military. Should he encourage the employment of government-paid military chaplains? Should he force Quakers to fight, despite their religious convictions to the contrary? Washington was confronted with these and other issues, and he had to consider the real-life consequences of his decisions. As he evaluated the issues and considered the implications of his actions, he developed a common-sense, practical approach to church-state matters. In this regard, he is unique among the Founders. His views developed over time, as the result of direct, everyday experience.


The views that Washington developed differed markedly from Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” Washington’s approach was, instead, for government to accommodate and even to encourage the practice of religion, albeit in ways that were typically non-denominational and tolerant of religious minorities. Religion, as Washington saw it, was a prerequisite for the virtue and morality that make self-government possible. He thought that the public good demanded that government at least accommodate, and in some circumstances support, religion.


One man’s views on church and state are not dispositive regarding the meaning of the First Amendment—even if that man is George Washington.  To the contrary, an appropriate perspective on American church-state history should accommodate the views of the entire founding generation. However, that has not been the case in America. The manner in which historians have focused disproportionately on Thomas Jefferson—ignoring even such a qualified man as Washington—reflects the degree to which this error has pervaded the teaching of American history on this subject.


Americans have already come to believe their rewritten history, much as if they lived in Oceania. It is time to set the record straight.


This article originally appeared in Homeschool Enrichment magazine.  Mrs. Ross and Mr. Smith are co-authors of Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State, available at




bottom of page