Robert M. O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia (UVA) and a noted scholar of Thomas Jefferson’s views on church-state separation, died Sept. 30 of congestive heart failure. He was 83.
O’Neil, who was born in Boston, obtained three degrees from Harvard University – undergraduate and master’s degrees in American history and a law degree from Harvard Law School. He was serving as president of a system of public universities in Wisconsin when he came to the University of Virginia in 1985. During his five-year tenure, he worked to diversify the faculty and build the school’s endowment.
After leaving the presidency of UVA, O’Neil became the founding director of a university-related non-profit called the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. He spent two decades there, retiring in 2011.
O’Neil was an expert on Jefferson’s views on religious freedom, and his work served to debunk Religious Right claims about the third president.
In January 2002, Church & State ran an article to mark the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s notable metaphor of the “wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson used the phrase in a letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association dated Jan. 1, 1802. While many scholars view the letter as an important and definitive statement regarding Jefferson’s views on church-state separation, Religious Right activists have tried to dismiss it as a mere courtesy and a note dashed off without much thought. (See “Priority Mail,” January 2002 Church & State.)
In fact, as O’Neil told Church & State, Jefferson put great thought into the letter and asked several members of his cabinet to review it.
O’Neil called Jefferson’s phrase “one of the most quotable and early presidential sound bites,” and ad-ded that the metaphor “is not casual. The Danbury letter does not read like a note that was simply tossed off. It reads like a serious statement. If it had been merely a routine response, it would have had much less of the eloquence that you find in that phrase.”
In 1998, O’Neil was among 24 church-state scholars who issued a public statement taking strong exception to the Library of Congress’ assertion that the main purpose of the Danbury letter was to launch a partisan attack on the Federalists.
Jefferson’s letter, O’Neil told Church & State, was “political” only in the sense that it discussed a topic relevant to politics of the day. That did not make its intent partisan, he said.
“One could equally describe the Gettysburg Address as political, perhaps more so than the letter to the Danbury Baptists or even the Declaration of Independence, one of the most revered documents in American history,” said O’Neil. “That comment is accurate but should not be seen as pejorative.”
A lifelong educator, O’Neil taught classes in church-state relations and other topics. He also authored several books.