October 30, 1890
THE time for the usual annual Thanksgiving day of the American people is approaching, and undoubtedly the President will issue the usual thanksgiving proclamation. This is a reminder of the manner in which principles are trodden under foot and how a wrong by custom may become a matter of course, and soon be considered as entirely legitimate and right. The drafters of each of our greatest political documents,—and there are none greater—the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States, were radically opposed to this deviation from American principles. After speaking of the violation of these principles “in Congress when they appointed chaplains,” Madison says:—
President Jefferson was even more decided. While he occupied the executive chair, he would not, under any circumstances, nor with any amount of persuasion, issue thanksgiving proclamations. In a letter to the Rev. Mr. Millar, during his second term of office, he gave his reasons for his firmness in reference to the question. In the letter he said:—
Seven years previous he had declared the same thing in reply to a Baptist, address. In a letter to his friend, Mr. Lincoln, dated January 1, 1802, the said:—
The Baptist address, now enclosed, admits of a condemnation of the alliance between Church add State, under the authority of the Constitution. It furnishes an occasion, too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did. The address, to be sure, does not point at this, and its introduction is awkward. But I foresee no opportunity of doing it more pertinently. I know it will give great offense to the New England clergy: but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.
Chief Justice Waite, in discussing the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution, says that, to ascertain its meaning we must go “to the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted;” and then he proceeds to quote Jefferson who, in connection with Madison, was mainly instrumental in securing the adoption of that amendment among the others. No other individual, excepting, perhaps, Madison, was so well qualified to interpret the meaning of that provision; and Jefferson states positively that “the Constitution has directly precluded them [the United States] from” assuming an authority over religious exercises.
“But it is only proposed,” says Jefferson, “that I should recommend, not prescribe, a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant, too, that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty, on those who disregard it; not, indeed, of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription, perhaps, in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed?”
Jefferson not only considered that these religious proclamations were thus an infringement on the rights of the individual, but that they were also injurious to religion and to the State as well. “I do not  believe it is for the interest of religion,” he continued, “to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies, that the general Government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.” Thus emphatically does President Jefferson declare the proclamation of religious fasts and festivals to be unconstitutional.
Madison, in his letter to Livingston, said, in continuation: “I know not what may be the way of thinking on this subject in Louisiana [i.e. in reference to appointing a festival which was not recognized by the Catholics]. I should suppose the Catholic portion of the people, at least, as a small and even unpopular sect in the United States, would rally, as they did in Virginia when religious liberty was a legislative topic, to its broadest principle.” Madison thus asserts that the “broadest principles” of the Constitution would entirely preclude the chief Executive from thus interfering in the religious affairs of the Nation, and suggests that Catholics would have the right to demand that the Constitution should be strictly adhered to.
“Notwithstanding the general progress,” continues Madison, “made within the last two centuries in favor of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it in some parts of our country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between government and religion, neither can be duly supported. Such indeed, is the tendency to such a. coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against.” Yet, instead of guarding against this danger, we see the practice becoming more and more common, and even see the people petitioning by the thousands for further encroachments by the Government on the religious rights of individuals. Madison seemed to foresee this, and emphasized the importance of educating public opinion on the subject.
“And in a government of opinion, like ours,” he said, “the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation of ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together. It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of religion by law was right and necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; and that the only question to be decided was, Which was the true religion? The example of Holland proved that a toleration of sects dissenting from the established sect was safe, and even useful. The example of the Colonies, now States, which rejected religious establishments altogether, proved that all sects might be safely and advantageously put on a footing of equal and entire freedom; and a continuance of their example since the Declaration of Independence has shown that its success in the Colonies was not to be ascribed to their connection with the parent country. If a further confirmation of the truth could be wanted, it is to be found in the examples furnished by the States which have abolished their religious establishments. I cannot speak particularly of any one of the cases excepting that of Virginia, where it is impossible to deny that religion prevails with more zeal and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronized by public authority. We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without kings than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson: that religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with, the aid of government.”
Thus closes Madison’s dissertation on the subject of appointing religious observances, and these opinions coming, as they do, from the principal framers of our political system, show how unwarranted and unconstitutional it is, on the part of the President to assume the authority to appoint a day of thanksgiving or any other religious festival.