The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution

Preface by Cass R. Sunstein

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at on December 5, 2006.

Most Americans have never read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution in their entirety, even though the process would take the average reader less than an hour. There are several small pocket editions of the two documents, but this one is unique in that it contains an excellent introduction by Cass R. Sunstein, and that it contains Thomas Jefferson's brilliant 1777 "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia."

This latter by Jefferson - only 5 pages long in this palm-sized edition - was referred to by historian William Lee Miller as "one of the essential documents defining American civilization." Jefferson's "Bill" reads, in its entirety as follows [keep an eye out for the "mangled" phrase in the preamble that he necessarily had to include in order to get it passed, as noted later]:

SECTION I. Well aware that:

  • the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds;
  • that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint;
  • that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone;
  • that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time:
  • That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;
  • that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;
  • that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous falacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;
  • that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally,
  • that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

SECT. II. WE, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

SECT. III. AND though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

What's particularly amazing about this document is its history. Jefferson was so proud of it that he wanted written on his tombstone not that he was President of the United States, but, instead, that he was: "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the Father of the University of Virginia." (This is what is on his tombstone, by the way.)

In his autobiography, Jefferson discussed its history. At the time it was passed, the Episcopal Church was the "official" church of the state of Virginia, so this was a radical slap at the Church, as well as a dramatic grab of power away from it. Its success in Virginia in 1778, a decade before the Constitution of the United States was written and while we were at war with England, set up the possibility that the separation of church and state could be included both in the "religious tests" section of the Constitution and also in the First Amendment.

Jefferson wrote [and I have bolded a few of my favorite and particularly quotable portions]:

The first settlers of this colony were Englishmen, loyal subjects to their king and church, and the grant to Sir Walter Raleigh contained an express proviso that their laws "should not be against the true Christian faith, now professed in the church of England." As soon as the state of the colony admitted, it was divided into parishes, in each of which was established a minister of the Anglican church, endowed with a fixed salary, in tobacco, a glebe house and land with 'the other necessary appendages. To meet these expenses, all the inhabitants of the parishes were assessed, whether they were or not, members of the established church.
Towards Quakers who came here, they were most cruelly intolerant, driving them from the colony by the severest penalties.

In process of time, however, other sectarisms were introduced, chiefly of the Presbyterian family; and the established clergy, secure for lie in their glebes and salaries, adding to these, generally, the emoluments of a classical school, found employment enough, in their farms and schoolrooms, for the rest of the week, and devoted Sunday only to the edification of their flock, by service, and a sermon at their parish church. Their other pastoral functions were little attended to.

Against this inactivity, the zeal and industry of sectarian preachers had an open and undisputed field; and by the time of the revolution, a majority of the inhabitants had become dissenters from the established church, but were still obliged to pay contributions to support the pastors of the minority. This unrighteous compulsion, to maintain teachers of what they deemed religious errors, was grievously felt during the regal government, and without a hope of relief.

But the first republican legislature; which met in '76; was crowded with petitions to abolish this spiritual tyranny. These brought on the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.

Our great opponents were Mr. Pendleton and Robert Carter Nicholas; honest men, but zealous churchmen. The petitions were referred to the committee of the whole house on the state of the country; and, after desperate contests in that committee, almost daily from the llth of October to the 5th of December [1776], we prevailed so far only, as to repeal the laws which rendered criminal the maintenance of any religious opinions, the forbearance of repairing to church, or the exercise of any mode of worship; and further, to exempt dissenters from contributions to the support of the established church; and to suspend, only until the next session, levies on the members of that church for the salaries of their own incumbents.

For although the majority of our citizens were dissenters, as has been observed, a majority of the legislature were churchmen.

Among these, however, were some reasonable and liberal men, who enabled us, on some points, to obtain feeble majorities. But our opponents carried, in the general resolutions of the committee of November 19, a declaration that religious assemblies ought to be regulated, and that provision ought to be made for continuing the succession of the clergy, and superintending their conduct.

And, in the bill now passed, was inserted an express reservation of the question, Whether a general assessment should not be established by law, on every one, to the support of the pastor of his choice; or whether all should be left to voluntary contributions; and on this question, debated at every session, from '76 to '79, (some of our dissenting allies, having now secured their particular object, going over to the advocates of a general assessment,) we could only obtain a suspension from session to session until a time when the question against a general assessment was finally carried, and the establishment of the Anglican church entirely put down.

In justice to the two honest but zealous opponents who have been named, I must add, that although, from their natural temperaments, they were more disposed generally to acquiesce in things as they are, than to risk innovations, yet whenever the public will had once decided, none were more faithful or exact in their obedience to it.

Jefferson then talked at length about the various sponsors of the bill and the backroom politics, that lasted more than a year, and how James Madison's joining the Virginia legislature in 1777, and the help of George Mason, was what made it possible to actually pass the bill. At this point in his autobiography, he also talks about his opposition to the death penalty, and multiple attempts he put forward from the 1760s to the 1790s to end slavery in Virginia. Then he gets back to his Bill:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right.
It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal.

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

The restoration of the rights of conscience relieved the people from taxation for the support of a religion not theirs; for the establishment was truly of the religion of the rich, the dissenting sects being entirely composed of the less wealthy people; and these, by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected, without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen.

To these, too, might be added, as a further security, the introduction of the trial by jury, into the Chancery courts, which have already ingulfed, and continue to ingulf, so great a proportion of the jurisdiction over our property.

Today, there is an entire movement devoted to arguing that Jefferson and his peers never intended there to be "a wall of separation between church and state." I'll leave it to you to read the passages from his autobiography above (not reproduced in this book and hard to find in print outside of his autobiography itself) and his Bill itself to make up your own mind.

In the meantime, in addition to reading Jefferson's Bill, please take an additional 20 or 30 minutes to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both are written in startlingly crisp prose, easily understood without a law degree, and largely unambiguous.

These two documents have particular relevance to our day, as the Republican Party and a minority of Democrats have frontally assaulted both with the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and the most recent military appropriations bill, which strikes down the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (not part of the Constitution, but certainly contemplated by the Third Amendment and the arguments against standing armies in time of peace that led to the Second Amendment).

This small volume, which fits comfortably into a shirt pocket, is an essential distillation of the vision for this nation held by our Founders (signers of the Declaration of Independence) and the later Framers of the Constitution.

Buy several and give as many as you can to young people who have suffered the purges of the Reagan years of civics from our public schools (and the ongoing assault on teaching "liberal" American History in our colleges by folks such as David Horowitz).

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