A Read Letter Day

As Thomas Jefferson stood at the door of the White House, there was one guest that stood out among those he welcomed that New Year’s Day.Approaching with fanfare and driving a team of six horses, Elder John Leland arrived with a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese. The cheese, a congratulatory gift for the recently elected Jefferson, was four feet in diameter, 17 inches high, and the work of 900 “republican” cows.The events that bought both Jefferson and the “Mammoth cheese” to the White House provide the backdrop for the writing of one the most famous and influential letters in the history of religious liberty in America.

In the presidential campaign of 1796 Jefferson lost the electoral college vote to Federalist John Adams by a margin of 71 to 68 and served as vice president during Adams’ presidency.After a long and bitter campaign against Adams in 1800, Jefferson won the electoral vote 73 to 65.One of the factors that helped Jefferson to edge Adams was the support of evangelicals like John Leland.But evangelical support for Jefferson was not a given, especially since Jefferson (a deist) was viewed with suspicion by many who held to Christian Orthodoxy.Though the Constitution required that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust,”in the contentious atmosphere of that election Jefferson was derided by his Federalist opponents as an “infidel” and a “howling atheist.” During the campaign the New England Palladium wrote, “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous ‘prostitute,’ under the title of goddess of reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High.”

Even though Jefferson was labeled anti-religion by some, he had become a hero to evangelical Baptists—not in spite of his views on separation of church and state, but because of them.John Leland was a famous and fiery Baptist preacher who for a time lived not far from Jefferson’s Monticello.Though they approached religion very differently, their convictions on religious liberty were in full harmony, and the two men became allies.In 1786 Leland used his popularity as a preacher to support Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.When the presidential election of 1800 came around, the evangelicals, as a minority religion that had experienced persecution at the hand of the established state churches, were keen to vote for someone who was a strong advocate of religious liberty.Leland, now living in Massachusetts, remembered Jefferson’s work for religious liberty in Virginia and (as he had done for Madison in his run for the Constitution’s Ratification Convention) campaigned strongly for Jefferson.When the votes in Leland’s own town of Cheshire (which was situated in the heart of Federalist New England) were counted, the results showed that all votes were for Jefferson, with the exception of one lone vote for Adams, which was thrown out because it was assumed it had been a mistake.

John Leland and Baptists across America were thrilled when Jefferson won the presidency.To celebrate, Leland asked everyone in Cheshire who owned a cow to donate a day’s milk to make an extraordinary gift for the new president.The community got to work, and as Leland later told Jefferson that the cheese “was produced by the personal labor of freeborn farmers and with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave.”Upon delivery Leland also let Jefferson know that “not one Federalist curd was accepted as a contribution,” since milk from a Federalist cow would “leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour.”The cheese cured over the summer of 1801 in a cider press (there was no cheese press large enough in New England to curd and mold it in).When finished, it was inscribed with the words “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God.”

While the cheese was drying in in Cheshire, 100 miles away, the Danbury Baptist Association was preparing a letter to send with Leland on his trip to deliver the cheese. Founded as an advisory council for Baptist Churches in the western part of the state, the Danbury Baptist Association identified “full gospel liberty” as one of its principal values. But the gospel liberty envisioned by the Baptists was threatened by the state of Connecticut’s continuing support for the established Congregationalist Church. At the time dissenters who felt it was against conscience to pay taxes to support the state church could receive an exemption, but a 1791 law made even this more difficult.The letter from the association, dated October 7, 1801, begins by congratulating Jefferson and affirming to him that “our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty.”The Danbury Baptists went on to express their concerns about the future of religious liberty in Connecticut, where “religion is considered as the first object of legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men, [or] should reproach their chief magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dares not, assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.”

In November Leland personally drove the letter and the cheese by sleigh to the Hudson River, traveled by sloop to Baltimore, and finally by wagon to Washington.At each stop along the way, crowds gathered to see the “Mammoth Cheese” and to listen to the “mammoth priest.”In a letter to his son-in-law describing the cheese, Jefferson noted that Leland was “offered 1000 D[ollars] in New York for the use of it 12 days as a shew (sic). It is an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution.”In Washington, Jefferson received the cheese from Leland with gratitude, but because of his policy to refuse gifts while in office, he insisted on paying Leland $200 for it.The cheese found a home in the east room of the White house, where it remained until at least March of 1804, at which point it was said to be “very far from being good.”Various accounts claim that Jefferson continued to serve the cheese to guests until 1805, when the cheese became so bad that the remainder had to be dumped into the Potomac River.

Later that day, after receiving the cheese from Leland, Jefferson sat to write a response to the Danbury Baptists.Far from being a hasty note of gratitude, Jefferson’s response went through several drafts, with Jefferson soliciting input from several advisors.In crafting his reply, Jefferson knew the importance of having allies such as the Danbury Baptists in predominantly Federalist New England, and further desired that his response would sow “useful truths and principles among the people” about religious liberty. The most famous passage from the final draft reads: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, 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 and state.”

Jefferson’s desire for the letter to “sow useful truths and principals” ultimately found fertile soil. The letter was published in several New England newspapers at the time and has gone on to affect several Supreme Court rulings on matters of religious liberty. Beginning with the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation” has been used to explain the intention of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.In the majority opinion of the Everson case, Justice Hugo Black, citing Jefferson’s letter, declared that the First Amendment’s wall of separation must be “high and impregnable.” For Black this meant that “neither a state nor the federal government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa.”

On Sunday, January 3, 1802, two days after delivering the cheese, John Leland preached (by invitation) before a joint session of Congress with Thomas Jefferson in attendance.Leland used Matthew 12:42 as his text: “Behold, a greater [one] than Solomon is here,” a tongue-in-cheek approbation of Jefferson that infuriated the Federalists.Thomas Jefferson’s presence at the Christian service could be seen as merely politically motivated (i.e., to appease the concerns of the religiously minded), but perhaps Jefferson’s attendance at a religious service for a joint session of Congress in the United States Capital building also helps to illustrate the intent of his wall metaphor.Jefferson believed that government and religion should be indifferent toward one another, religion being neither persecuted nor given special status.In order to achieve this ideal relation, Jefferson believed that there needed to be strong self-imposed boundaries between the government and religion, that good fences would make good neighbors.Jefferson saw such a wall of separation as allowing church and state to be good neighbors, not business partners and bedfellows, not enemies, but mutually respectful neighbors who dared not interfere with the domain that rightly belonged to the other.The wall would help to ensure this mutual respect, protecting each from the other.

Whatever else the wall metaphor meant in 1802, for Jefferson it did not mean that there could never be contact or connection between the two sides.It was such a connection between such political leaders as Jefferson and such evangelicals as Leland that eventually helped to win the fight for disestablishment of state churches across the nation.A victory that was the probably the most significant success in the story of the Baptist struggle for religious liberty in America and one of the most important outcomes of the revolution.Leland himself would become a prominent force in achieving disestablishment of the state churches in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Today political and spiritual leaders alike should take note of the attitude with which both Jefferson and Leland viewed the First Amendment.Jefferson and Leland were well aware that this sort of self-imposed restraint by the government was not normal in the scope of human history, and they looked upon the freedom of conscience granted by the First Amendment with “sovereign reverence.” For them any contact and connection between their worlds was to be used to build the wall, not to tear it down, in order that they might always live as the best of neighbors.


Article Author: ​Reed Richardi

 Reed Richardi writes from New Market, Virginia.