Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jefferson and Madison: The Sabbath Law (No Kidding)

There are quotes floating around from both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that might seem to prove they wanted the government to strongly accommodate religion, and you can find quotes that seem to say they would not want such a thing. Part of this is due to the understanding of "religion" in the early days of our country. Today we use it to mean any sort of religion (including, in some definitions, secularism and atheism). But back then they generally were referring to Christianity.

There is also general misunderstanding about the difference between the federal government and the various state governments. The founders wanted the federal government to stay out of the business of the states as much as possible. So when the First Amendment was written, prohibiting Congress from establishing any law respecting an establishment of religion, the founders were limiting the federal government, knowing full well that many states had indeed established an official religion. The new Constitution did nothing to interfere with the state religions.

Why do we hear so much from the words of Jefferson and Madison? Good question. They were only 2 of the founders, but many other contributed. Also, Jefferson was in France when the Constitution was written. But they are both truly outstanding men in our history. Jefferson was the wordsmith for our Declaration of Independence and Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution. So did they really want religion kept far from government? Would they have disapproved of displaying the Ten Commandments in/on/around a public building?

Or let's go way out on a limb. Would these men have approved of a "sabbath law" that provided for a fine if a man was caught working on the Sabbath? Actually, yes, they would. In fact, they were both from Virginia and were the two men mainly responsible for the Virginia Sabbath Law in 1786. It was Bill No. 84 and said:

"If any person on Sunday shall himself be found labouring at his own or any other trade or calling, or shall employ his apprentices, servants or slaves in labour, or other business, except it be in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity, he shall forfeit the sum of ten shillings for every such offence, deeming every apprentice, servant, or slave so employed, and every day he shall be so employed as constituting a distinct offence." (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 555)

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