From Theocracy to Religious Liberty: Connecticut’s Journey From Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” Letter to a State Constitution as Told Through Newspapers of the Time by Chris Rodda, 412 pp.
In her latest book, From Theocracy to Religious Liberty: Connecticut’s Journey From Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” Letter to a State Constitution as Told Through Newspapers of the Time, Chris Rodda explores a decade and a half of political tension and struggle in the state of Connecticut between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. At the heart of the issue was religious toleration and freedom.
When Thomas Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800, most of the country was already in support of the Democratic-Republicans except for a few Federalist strongholds, Connecticut being one of the most important. At the time, Connecticut was still essentially a theocracy in which clergy held an enormous amount of religious and political control. Unlike other states that had already written their own constitutions following the American Revolution, Connecticut was still governed by the charter of Charles II, which had been enacted in 1662. The Democratic-Republicans greatly opposed Connecticut’s lack of a state constitution guaranteeing religious freedom for all, while the Federalists saw no need for such a document and argued that the charter was itself a constitution.
Using contemporaneous newspaper articles, Rodda, a senior research director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation who has also researched and written about prominent Religious Right “Christian nation” propagandist David Barton and whose previous work includes the two-volume Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History, tracks the back and forth between these political parties and their competing ideologies.
While the beginning of the 1800s (and much of the next decade) saw continued support for the Federalists, the following few years marked a historic transformation in the history of Connecticut. By 1817, 15 years after Jefferson coined his famous metaphor of the “wall of separation between church and state,” the Democratic-Republicans took political control of Connecticut and drafted a constitution in 1818 that finally affirmed religious liberty.
As Rodda makes clear, the clergy of Connecticut played a large role in maintaining the power of the Federalists in the beginning of the 1800s, even as their support declined in other parts of the country. She writes, “The Federalist clergy, like the right-wing clergy of today, were outspokenly political, preaching that it was a religious duty to vote for Federalists.” Like today’s televangelists, many clergy members were celebrity figures that people looked up to for both religious and political guidance.
Rodda exposes the stunning parallels between the Federalist party of the 1800s and the Republican Party today. Political polarization is nothing new. Just as the Religious Right of today allege that Democrats threaten religion, “in the election of 1800, the Federalist press and clergy warned that if Jefferson was elected, Bibles would be burned, churches leveled, and the clergy driven from their pulpits and even killed.” These fear tactics, while completely unfounded, caused (and still cause) great panic among certain religious groups.
While many of us might only think of the Federalist Party as the vehicle of Alexander Hamilton who believed in strong government and a national banking system, many Federalists remained English loyalists, and some even considered secession from the U.S. They also “believed that the rich should rule, feared that more people being able to vote would put them out of power, regarded immigrants with contempt and hypocritically boasted of having ‘all the religion.’”
Rodda’s detailed research and use of contemporary newspaper articles to relay the political climate of the early 1800s shows that the Federalist tactic of trying to portray themselves as taking the religious and moral high ground was ultimately unsuccessful as the party faded in popularity.
Rodda’s writing seems more relevant than ever as we face similar issues over religion, states’ rights, fake news and conspiracy theories that Americans were also facing over 200 years ago. The book is extremely persuasive, but it’s also heavy on primary sources; a little more analysis and explanation might have been helpful for readers. However, Rodda manages to skillfully uncover a part of Connecticut’s history rarely talked about and reach the heart of the political struggles that we still grapple with today.