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Jefferson’s Excessively Rare Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom
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One of the three achievements of which Jefferson was most proud, as listed on his epitaph.

Only the second known newspaper printing, and the first front-page printing.

[THOMAS JEFFERSON]. Prominent front-page printing of “A Bill for establishing religious Freedom, (Printed for the Consideration of the People),” The Providence Gazette; and Country Journal (Rhode Island), May 13, 1780, 1:1-2.

Inventory #25999       Price: $75,000

Jefferson drafted the bill in 1777, and John Harvie (1742-1807) introduced it in the Virginia General Assembly on June 12, 1779. James Madison reintroduced a slightly different version in October 1785, and the General Assembly adopted a further revised version on January 16, 1786.

This eclipses by roughly six years the rare 1786 Paris four-page printing of the Act, making it the earliest obtainable printing of Jefferson’s proposed bill.  It is closer to Jefferson’s original text than either the amended act or Jefferson’s hybrid version created in 1786.[1]

Here, it is introduced by a local commentator signing as “Roger Williams,” in homage to America’s earliest advocate of religious toleration and separation of church and state.

Complete Transcript of Introduction
Mr. Carter,

            In times of public dissention, wherein the exertions of municipal law are too feeble to check the encroachments of popular or despotic leaders, or of factions directed to particular views, the men who nobly oppose the vicious torrent, give an irresistible proof of the innate excellence of human nature. Commotions, of every kind, are near the confines of usurpation: They terminate in horror, when the rights of mankind are essentially violated. Of all those rights, freedom of thinking, in matters religious, is the most important. Actions are the necessary consequence of volition; and therefore religious establishments counteract their own intentions. Religion is relative only to the creature and the Creator: It existed the same, where in the mundane or other systems, coeval with nature in gradation; and consequently anteceded the objects of civil institution. For governments therefore, whether republican, monarchical or despotic, to enforce religion, as pertaining to their formation, is absurd and ridiculous; but more especially so, when freedom is the glorious prize for which we dare to fight, to bleed, to die!—Unhappy contrast! The first State but one, in the confederated union of America, is attempting to enslave the free-born mind.—The first State but one, in the confederated union of America, is boldly declaring the rights of humanity, in the most critical of times! Happy Virginia! thy unsullied charms will smile with truth, when the universal boon shall be known to all, and heaven pronounce impartial freedom.

            The following, Sir, is an Act of the State of Virginia: That the noble sentiments therein contained may universally prevail, in the anxious prayer of your very humble servant.

                                                                        ROGER WILLIAMS.

Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, as introduced June 12, 1779, and printed here
(deletions in final version in blue)

A Bill for establishing religious Freedom.

(Printed for the Consideration of the People.)

Well aware, that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds, thatAlmighty God has created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain, by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it, by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacities, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy Author of religion, who, being Lord of both body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking, as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money, for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors,is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labour for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than on our opinions in physics or geometry, that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce, this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though, indeed, those are criminal who do not withstand such temptations, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others, only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough, for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and, finally, that truth is great, and will prevail, if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous, when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

 

We the General Assembly of Virginia do Enact, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry, whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal with our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights herein asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

“An Act for establishing religious Freedom,” as adopted January 16, 1786

An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry, that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or Ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the Acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this Act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any Act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such Act will be an infringement of natural right.

 

Additional Content
This issue also includes a report that King Louis XVI had given the Marquis de Lafayette permission to rejoin the army of the United States (p1/c3); rumors from London that Parliament would be dissolved (p1/c3); news of John Adams’ arrival in Europe as a negotiator to try to end the Revolutionary War (p2/c1); the installation of the Rev. Samuel Williams as Hollis Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University (p2/c2); news of raids by Native Americans in Pennsylvania, skirmishes with British forces, and local news of taxes and a burglary (p3/c1-3); a proclamation by British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton offering a pardon to all those who would return to their loyalty to the Crown (p4/c1); a brief letter by Lafayette to the Massachusetts General Assembly: “Nothing but those particular marks of their favour, and the grateful feelings they have excited, could increase the happiness I enjoyed in finding myself on the American shore, and the warm desire I feel of being again with my American fellow-soldiers, in the defence of our noble cause.” (p4/c2)

The Providence Gazette and Country Journal(1762-1817) was the first newspaper published in Providence, Rhode Island. Sarah Updike Goddard (ca. 1701-1770), her son William Goddard (1740-1817), and her daughter Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816) established the weekly newspaper in 1762. When William Goddard moved to Philadelphia to establish the Pennsylvania Chronicle in 1767 Sarah Goddard published The Providence Gazette and Country Journal with the assistance of Philadelphia-born John Carter (1745-1814), who had been a printer’s apprentice to Benjamin Franklin. Carter purchased The Providence Gazette and Country Journal in 1768. Postmaster-General Franklin appointed John Carter as the postmaster of Providence in 1772, and Carter held the position until 1792. In 1795, Carter shortened the title of the newspaper to The Providence Gazette, until 1811, when he restored the original title. Carter sold the newspaper to Hugh H. Brown and William H. Wilson in 1814, and the newspaper continued under that title until 1817. Successor newspapers continued into the 1830s.

CENSUS OF NEWSPAPER PRINTINGS BEFORE JANUARY 16, 1786:

Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser. April 10, 1780. Boston, MA (p4/c1)

Providence Gazette; and Country Journal. May 13, 1780. Providence, RI (p1/c1-2)

Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy Or, American Oracle of Liberty.May 25, 1780. Worcester, MA (p2/c1-2)

Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser.April 14, 1785. Alexandria, VA. (p2/c1-2)

Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser.November 18, 1785. Baltimore, MD (p2/c3)[2]



[1]For Jefferson’s combination of parts of the bill and act into an odd hybrid in 1786, see the editorial discussion in 82. A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 18 June 1779.

[2]The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser. June 7, 1785. Baltimore, MD (p2/c3-p3/c1) proposed the same text for a similar act of the Maryland General Assembly by “A Citizen,” but since Maryland is not Virginia, it is omitted here.

 


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