Happy Birthday, Mr. Jefferson

Today Mr. Jefferson (Thomas, not George) would be 261 years old. Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell in Albermarle County, Va. Most famous for writing the Declaration of Independence while a member of the Continental Congress at the age of 33, Jefferson contributed greatly to the history of separation between church and state. Jefferson wrote the original draft of the 1786 Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom, which would later serve as inspiration for the Religion Clauses in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

His Jan. 1, 1802, letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association (PDF) is a seminal document in American church-state history. In the letter, Jefferson used the metaphor of the "wall of separation between church and state," a phrase that — as the Supreme Court noted in 1879 — has come to be accepted as an authoritative declaration of the scope and meaning of the First Amendment.

As president he refused to declare official days of prayer, a decision that he later explained in a letter to Samuel Miller:

I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.... Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government.

Inventor, diplomat, president, writer, philosopher, architect, gardener and negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson requested that only three of his many accomplishments be noted on his tomb at Monticello:

  • Author of the Declaration of American Independence
  • Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
  • And Father of the University of Virginia

Additional documents by Thomas Jefferson can be found at the Thomas Jefferson Papers Collection at the Library of Congress. (Don't miss Jefferson's recipe for vanilla ice cream.)