Jefferson and Madison in Warsaw:What Would They Do Author of this text: Kaz Dziamka
A presentation given at the 9th
International Conference: „The Legacy of History: English and American Studies
and the Significance of the Past"
Cracow, Poland, April 3-5, 2002
like to start off by quoting the title of this conference: „The Legacy of the
Past: English and American Studies and the Significance of the Past." The
subject of my presentation is indeed about the significance of the past, in my
case, the significance of the legacy of American constitutional experience — not
so much for the United States, but for Poland, or, more specifically, for
Poland's Third Republic's experiment in modern democracy.
Aldous Huxley once talked about the "usable past," the idea that for
most problems we don't need new solutions. The solutions are already there, in
the past. The problem is to study the past, to search out the wisdom of the
legacy of history.
my discussion I will focus on American democracy as it should be, as it was
designed, largely by only two men: James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, the most
important Founding Fathers of the American Republic and the two most important
politicians in American history. Even
though the reality of life in the United States falls rather short of the
American political ideals, these ideals nevertheless inspire us and give us
something to live up to. I believe
that Polish politicians could learn from the wisdom of American political ideals.
most important political principle governing American democracy as spelled out
in the U.S. Constitution is undoubtedly the First Amendment of the Bill of
Rights, sponsored by James Madison, the „Father of the U.S. Constitution":
shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or
the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government
for a redress of grievances.
the most remarkable part of this Amendment is the so-called establishment clause
(„Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion") and
the free exercise clause („or prohibiting the free exercise thereof") both
phrased by Madison. This idea — that
the political government should not help establish or support any church and
that U.S. citizens should be free to worship or not as they like — was
revolutionary in the eighteenth century. As
American historian Henry Steel Commager argues, to disestablish the church and
to allow for religious freedom was:
the most important decision reached in the New World. Everywhere in the western
world of the eighteenth century, church and state were one; and everywhere the
state maintained the established church and tried to force conformity to its
dogma… Thus the United States took the lead among the nations of the earth in
the establishment of religious freedom. That is one reason America has never had
any religious wars or religious persecutions. (qtd in Larue 13)
(The last statement-that
„America has never had any religious wars or religious persecutions" — is
unfortunately not true. Until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom
Act was passed, the US government had often been in flagrant violation of its
own constitutional law by, for instance, persecuting and denying religious
freedom to Native Americans. What
is true, however, is that had the US government respected the First Amendment,
there would probably have been no religious persecutions in the United States.)
the time the Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791, and became part
of the U.S. Constitution, it was not clear to everybody what exactly the
establishment and free exercise clauses meant.
The first important official-and
destined to become the most famous — interpretation
of the First Amendment came from President Thomas Jefferson, a friend and close
associate of James Madison, who on January 1, 1802, wrote a letter to the
Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut.
The U.S. President was responding to a letter from the Association in
which the writer was concerned about the establishment of the Congregational
Church in Connecticut. Jefferson's
letter, partly quoted below, contains the famous metaphor of „the wall of
separation" between church and state. According to Edd Doerr, president of
Americans for Religious Liberty, this interpretation of the First Amendment
makes Jefferson's letter „destined to rank" (Voice
of Reason 1) with the most famous American political documents: the
Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights:
(..) Believing with you that
religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes
account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers
of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with
sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that
their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of
separation between Church & State...(emphasis added) (Free Mind)
"That wall, embodied in the First Amendment, is," points out Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.,
former U.S. Senator from Connecticut, „perhaps America's most important
contribution to political progress on this planet" (311).
The ratification of the Bill of Rights marked the highlight of Madison
and Jefferson's long-fought legal battles to disestablish churches in America.
What made the successful ratification of the Bill of Rights possible was,
in particular, Jefferson's 1777 „Bill for Religious Freedom" in the state
of Virginia and Madison's 1785 essay "Memorial and Remonstrance against
Religious Assessments," a broadside against a bill by Patrick Henry for
tax-supported Christian education.
Jefferson, in particular, freedom of religion-and freedom from religion -
critically important. In what is most likely his most often quoted statement
about religious freedom, Jefferson points out the following in Notes
on Virginia: „The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only
as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say
there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my
leg" (Query 17, 285).
many subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States, the „wall
of separation" metaphor has became the guiding principle in legal decisions.
For example, in a landmark case Everson
v. Board of Education in 1947, Justice Black argued eloquently in favor of
strictly separating religion from government:
„establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least
this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither
can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion
over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away
from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in
any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious
beliefs or disbelief, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any
amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or
institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to
teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can,
openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or
groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against
establishment of religion by law was intended to erect „a wall of separation
between church and state" .. That wall must be high and impregnable.
(qtd in Voice of Reason 4)
First Amendment is, then, clear evidence of the secular character of the U.S.
Constitution, the basis of the American democracy. Compared to the Polish Constitution, adopted in 1997, the U.S.
Constitution contains no mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, or any Supreme
Being. Even the word „religion"
is mentioned only in the First Amendment (to disestablish it) and in Article 6,
Section 3, to ban all religious tests for public office: „[..] no religious
test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust
under the United States."
the most distinguishing attribute of the American political system is its
secular — non-Christian, non-religious — character.
Contrary to a popular myth, the United States was not founded as a Christian
nation. This is exactly what, for
example, a late eighteenth-century trade agreement states, an agreement in the
Treaty of Tripolis, signed by the Senate under President John Adams in 1797:
„The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the
Christian religion…" (qtd in Boston 78).
sharp contrast, the Preamble to the Polish Constitution alone mentions „God"
twice: „[..] those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good
and beauty" and „recognizing our responsibility before God."
The Polish Preamble also talks, erroneously, about Polish culture being
rooted „in the Christian heritage," even though the real roots of Polish
culture are Slavonic (which is to say non-Christian) and even though
Christianity was forced upon the Slavic tribes by political fiat in 996, when
Poland's Slavic Piast ruler, Mieszko I, "adopted" Christianity.
is even worse is that the fundamental democratic principle of the separation of
church and state has been further compromised by the decision of the Polish
Government to ratify the Polish Concordat in 1998.
Several provisions of this religious treaty between Poland and the
Vatican are such serious violations of this principle that they would never be
adopted in the United States because such provisions and other privileges of the
Catholic Church in Poland would effectively destroy separation of church and
state, the foundation of the American democracy. Here are ten examples:
in Poland of the principle of the separation of church and state:
Article 12 of the Concordat introduces Catholic („religious")
indoctrination at public expense in public schools, including nurseries and
colleges, as well as in the military (Article 16).
1 2 3 Dalej..
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