Baron Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws
Other influential Enlightenment works included Baron Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), which advocated toleration of religious belief and freedom of worship, and the writings of Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, who discounted the divinity of the scriptures and a religious basis of the law. Montesquieu and Bolingbroke were read by the founding generation, particularly Thomas Jefferson. The works of the radical Whig philosophers, such as the authors of Cato’s Letters (1720–1723) John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, were also influential during the founding era. In addition to advocating freedom of conscience, Trenchard and Gordon spoke out against corruption in the Anglican Church. John Cartwright, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestly were later opposition writers who advocated for political and religious reform. Priestly, who corresponded with many of the founding generation before fleeing to America, called for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (which imposed a religious test for public officeholding) and disestablishment of the Church of England, insisting on an even greater separation of religious and secular realms. A final Whig writer particularly influential among many Founding Fathers was theorist James Burgh, author of Political Disquietations and Crito. Like other radical Whigs, Burgh spoke out against religious establishments, warning of “a church getting too much power into her hands, and turning religion into a mere state engine.” In Crito, Burgh called for building “an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil,” the likely source for Jefferson’s famous 1802 where he uses the same metaphor. Burgh’s fans and subscribers also included George Washington, John Adams, John Hancock, John Dickinson, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and James Wilson, a veritable “who’s who” of the founding generation.
Because these writings were so popular among members of the founding generation, intellectual historians consider them central to political thought when revolutionary leaders began the process of creating republican states out of former British colonies. To be sure, other ideological strains influenced the founding generation, including classical republicanism, the common law, natural law, and even Protestant evangelical and Puritan covenantal thought. The Founders synthesized these seemingly disparate ideological strains into a comprehensive republicanism. No one during the founding generation argued in favor of increasing church-state ties, and only a small number advocated retaining the status quo of religious establishments. The point is that the Founders imbibed multiple sources that promoted various conceptions of religious toleration, freedom of conscience, disestablishment, and church-state separation. What was important to the Founders—and is important to modern efforts to understand the period—is that the ideas about church and state were dynamic and unfolding. Because of that fluid environment, it should not be surprising that few of the Founders offered a complete understanding of church-state arrangements. But most important, there was a clear progression in favor of greater separation.
The Separationist Impulse
Several factors support claims of a clear direction toward separation during the founding period. First, the American Revolution followed a period of religious experimentalism and expansion commonly called the First Great Awakening. Although known for its emotional revivals that challenged the staid religious practices of the established churches, the Great Awakening was equally significant for breaking down forces of religious uniformity and substituting notions of religious equality and volunteerism. Historians have documented how democratic ideas flowed into the religious movement and out again, undermining assumptions about the necessity of state supported religion. The Great Awakening cemented the notion that participation in, and support of, religious worship should be voluntary, not compulsory.