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`Re-discovered' Jefferson letter shows support for religious liberty. (People & Events).

A recently re-discovered 201-year-old letter from Thomas Jefferson underscores the third president's strong support for religious liberty.

The missive, dated July 2, 1801, was sent to the Delaware Baptist Association; it was written in response to a note the association had sent to Jefferson expressing support for his strong stands in favor of religious freedom and congratulating him on his election to the presidency.

Baptists were an often-persecuted minority at that time, and they were strong believers in church-state separation. Many were pleased to see Jefferson win the election of 1800 and wrote to express their appreciation for Jefferson's long history of supporting religious liberty.

Wrote Jefferson in reply, "I join you, fellow citizens, in rendering the tribute of thankfulness to the Almighty ruler, who, in the order of his providence, hath willed that the human mind shall be free in this portion of the globe; that society shall here know that the limit of it's [sic] rightful power is the enforcement of social conduct; while the right to question the religious principles producing that conduct is beyond their cognisance."

Jefferson goes on to write, "I rejoice too with you in the happy consequences of our revolution, namely our separation from the bloody horrors which are depopulating the other quarters of the earth, the establishment here of liberty, equality of social rights, exclusion of unequal privileges civil & religious, & of the usurping domination of one sect over another."

The five-paragraph letter was found in a box March 23 at Hollingsworth House, a Colonial-era home in Elkton, Md. The house is currently being convened into a museum, and volunteer Martha Alford came across the letter while searching through the box during a clean-up. A draft of the Baptist letter to Jefferson was also found.

The Historic Elk Landing Foundation, which is restoring the house, asked a document specialist at Christie's auction house to authenticate the Jefferson reply. The expert, Chris Coover, said the process did not take long.

"Essentially, I knew it at a glance," Coover said. "The handwriting is unmistakable."

The letter was not completely unknown before the find. The Library of Congress has a copy Jefferson made by pressing another piece of paper over the letter while the ink was still wet. But that version, known as a "press copy" is so light as to be virtually unreadable.

The Foundation plans to display the letter at the house at some point. For now, it is being stored in a safe-deposit box.
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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