The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Jefferson Thought Religious Freedom is a Natural Right”: David Collins in the Wall Street Journal

by James Wilson Institute on February 5, 2021

In a brief response to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, friend of JWI David Collins notes that Thomas Jefferson did not understand the Bill of Rights as granting religious liberty. Rather, Jefferson held that the right to religious freedom was a natural one that pre-existed government. Therefore the state exists to protect free exercise of religion, not bestow it as a privilege on citizens.

“Jefferson was indeed passionate about religious freedom, as his letter to Rush shows, but he never thought the First Amendment “established” that freedom. Like his friend James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment, Jefferson understood religious freedom as among those natural rights that governments are formed to secure, not to establish. The founders believed that the right itself pre-existed the Constitution and, as an unalienable endowment of the creator, pre-existed government itself.”

Read the full letter here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790