In the late 1820s America was in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical Christian movement that dominated public discourse in those formative years. At that time, Christian evangelism spawned, among other political movements, Abolitionism, Zenophobia (Know Nothings opposed immigrants because many were Catholic) and a demand that the United States Postal Service cease to deliver mail on Sundays.
The later demand was placed squarely before the Congress, which appointed a special committee to study the question and recommend a resolution. The result is the definitive defense of the separation of church and state which is as relevant in 2014 as it was when published nearly 200 years ago.
The reports are not easily found… I read about them in Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Age Of Jackson,” and finally tracked down a copy in a campaign biography of Richard M. Johnson, chair of the committee(s), and later vice president under Martin Van Buren.
The reports are reproduced here:
COL. JOHNSON’S REPORTS,
IN THE CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES, ON THE SUNDAY MAIL QUESTION.
In the Senate of the United States, January 19, 1829, Mr. JOHNSON, of Kentucky, made the following Report :
The Committee to whom was referred the several Petitions on the subject of Mails, on the Sabbath, or first day of the week, report that some respite is required from the ordinary vocations of life, is an established principle, sanctioned by the usages of all nations, whether Christian or Pagan. One day in seven has also been determined upon as the proportion of time; and, in conformity with the wishes of a great majority of the citizens of this country, the first day of the week, com- monly called Sunday, has been set apart to that object. The principle has received the sanction of the national legislature, so far as to admit a suspension of all public business on that day, except in cases of absolute necessity, or of great public utility.
This principle the committee would not wish to disturb. If kept within its legitimate sphere of action, no injury can result from its observance. It should, however, be kept in mind, that the proper object of government is to protect all persons in the enjoyment of their religious as well
as civil rights; and not to determine for any, whether they shall esteem one day above another, or esteem all days alike holy.
We are aware that a variety of sentiment exists among the good citizens of this nation, on the subject of the sabbath day, and our government is designed for the protection of one, as much as of another. The Jews, who, in this country, are as free as Christians, and entitled to the same protection from the laws, derive their obligation to keep the sabbath day from the fourth commandment of the decalogue, and, in conformity with that injunction, pay religious ho- mage to the seventh day of the week, which we call Saturday. One denomination of Christians among us, justly celebrated for their piety, and certainly as good citizens as any other class, agree with the Jews in the moral obligation of the sabbath, and observe the same day. There are also many Christians among us, who derive not their obligations to observe the sabbath from the decalogue, but regard the Jewish sabbath as abrogated.
From the example of the apostles of Christ, they have chosen the first day of the week, instead of that set apart in the decalogue, for their religious devotions. These have generally regarded the observance of the day as a devotional exercise, and would not more readily enforce it upon others than they would enforce secret prayer or devout meditations. Urging the fact that neither their Lord, nor his disciples, though often censured by their accusers for a violation of the sabbath, ever enjoined its observance, they regard it as a subject on which every person should be fully persuaded in his own mind, and not coerce others to act on his persuasion.
Many Christians, again, differ from these professing to derive their obligation to observe the sabbath from the fourth commandment of the Jewish decalogue, and bring the example of the apostles, who appear to have held their public meetings for worship on the first day of the week, as authority for so far changing the decalogue, as to substitute that day for the seventh. The Jewish government was a theocracy, which enforced religious observances; and though the committee would hope that no portion of the citizens of our country would willingly introduce a system of religious coercion in our civil institutions, the example of odier nations should admonish us to watch carefully against its earliest indications.
With these different religious views, the committee are of pinion that congress cannot interfere. It is not the legitimate province of the legislature to determine what religion is true, or what false. Our government is a civil, not a religious institution. Our constitution recognizes, in every person, the right to choose his own religion, and to enjoy it freely, without molestation. Whatever may be the religious sentiments of citizens, and however variant, they are alike entitled to protection from the government, so long as they do not invade the rights of others.
The transportation of the mail on the first day of the week, it is believed, does not interfere with the rights of conscience. The petitioners for its discontinuance, appear to be actuated by a religious zeal, which may be commendable, if confined to its proper sphere ; but they assume a position better suited to an ecclesiastical, than to a civil institution. They appear, in many instances, to lay it down as an axiom, that the practice is a violation of the law of God. Should congress, in their legislative capacity, adopt the sentiment, it would establish the principle that the legislature is a proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God.
It would involve a legislative decision in a religious controversy; and, on a point in which good citizens may honestly differ in opinion, without disturbing the peace of society, or endangering its liberties. If this principle is once introduced, it will be impossible to define its bounds. Among all the religious persecutions with which almost every page of modern history is stained, no victim ever suffered, but for the violation of what government denominated the law of God. To prevent a similar train of evils in this country, the constitution has wisely withheld from our government the power of defining the divine law. It is a right reserved to each citizen, and while he respects the equal rights of others, he cannot be held amenable to any human tribunal for his conclusions.
Extensive religious combinations, to effect a political object, are, in the opinion of the committee, always dangerous. This first effort of the kind, calls for the establishment of a principle, which, in the opinion of the committee, would lay the foundation for dangerous innovations upon the spirit of the constitution and upon the religious rights of the citizens. If admitted, it may be justly apprehended that the future measures of government will be strongly marked, if not eventually controlled, by the same influence All religious despotism commences by combination and influence ; and, when that influence begins to operate upon the political institutions of a country, the civil power soon bends under it; and the catastrophe of other nations furnishes an awful warning of the consequences.
Under the present regulations of the post office department, the rights of conscience are not invaded. Every agent enters voluntarily, and, it is presumed, conscientiously, into the discharge of his duties, without intermeddling with the conscience of another. Post offices are so regulated, as that but a small proportion of the fi day of the week is required to be occupied in official business. In the transportation of the mail, on that day, no one agent is employed many hours.
Religious persons enter into the business without violating their own conscience, or imposing any restraints upon others. Passengers in the mail stages are free to rest during the first day of the week, or to pursue their journeys at their own pleasure. While the mail is transported on Saturday, the Jew and the Sabbatarian may abstain from any agency in carrying it from conscientious scruples. While it is transported on the first day of the week, another class may abstain from the same religious scruples. The obligation of government is the same to both these classes ; and the committee can discover no principle on which the claims of one should be more respected than those of the other, unless it should be admitted that the consciences of the minority are less sacred than those of the majority.
It is the opinion of the committee, that the subject should be regarded simply as a question of expediency, irrespective of its religious bearing. In this light, it has, hitherto, been considered. Congress have never legislated upon the subject. It rests, as it ever has done, in the legal discretion of the postmaster general, under the repeated refusals of Congress to discontinue the sabbath mails. His knowledge and judgment, in all the concerns of that department, will not be questioned. His immense labors and assiduity have resulted in the highest improvement of every branch of his department. It is practised only on the great leading mail routes and such others as are necessary to maintain their connexion. To prevent this, would, in the opinion of the committee, be productive of immense injury, both in its commercial, political, and in its moral bearings.
The various departments of government require, frequently, in peace, always in war, the speediest intercourse with the remotest parts of the country; and one important object of the mail establishment is to furnish the greatest and most economical facilities for such intercourse. The delay of the mails one day in seven, would require the imployment of special expresses, at great expense, and sometimes with great uncertainty.
The commercial, manufacturing, and agricultural interests of our country are so intimately connected, as to require a constant and most expeditious correspondence between all seaports, and between them and the most interior settlements. The delay of the mails during the Sunday, would give occasion to the employment of private expresses, to such an amount that probably ten riders would be em- ployed where one mail stage is now running on that day ; thus diverting the revenue of that department into another channel, and sinking the establishment into a state of pusillanimity, incompatible with the dignity of the government of which it is a department.
Passengers in the mail stages, if the mails are not permitted to proceed on Sunday, will be expected to spend that day at a tavern upon the road, generally under circumstances not friendly to devotion, and at an expense which many are but poorly able to encounter. To obviate these difficulties, many will employ extra carriages for their conveyance, and become beavers of correspondence, as more expeditious than the mail. The stage proprietors will themselves often furnish the travellers with those means of conveyance; so that the effect will ultimately be only to stop the mail, while the vehicle, which conveys it, will continue, and its passengers become the special messengers for conveying a considerable proportion of what would, otherwise, constitute the contents of the mail.
Nor can the committee discover where the system could consistently end. If the observance of holydays becomes incorporated in our institutions, shall we not forbid the movement of an army; prohibit an assault in time of war; and lay an injunction upon our naval officers to lie in the wind upon the ocean on that day? Consistency would seem to require it.
Nor is it certain that we should stop here. If the principle is once established, that religion, or religious observances, shall be interwoven with our legislative acts, we must pursue it to its ultimatum. We shall, if consistent, provide for the erection of edifices for the worship of the Creator, and for the support of Christian ministers, if we believe such measures will promote the interests of Christianity. It is the settled conviction of the committee, that the only method of avoiding these consequences, with their attendant train of evils, is to adhere strictly to the spirit of the constitution, which regards the general government in no other light than that of a civil institution, wholly destitute of religious authority.
What other nations call religious toleration, we call religious rights. They are not exercised in virtue of govern- mental indulgence, but as rights, of which government cannot deprive any portion of her citizens, however small. Despotic power may invade those rights, but justice still confirms them. Let the national legislature once perform an act which involves the decision of a religious controversy, and it will have passed its legitimate bounds. The precedent will then be established, and the foundation laid, for that usurpation of divine prerogative in this country, which has been the desolating scourge to the fairest portions of the world. Our constitution recognizes no other power than that of persuasion, for enforcing religious observances.
Let the professors of Christianity recommend their religion by deeds of benevolence — by Christian meekness — by lives of temperance and holiness. Let them combine their efforts to instruct the ignorant — to relieve the widow and the orphan — to promulgate to the world the gospel of the Saviour, recommending its precepts by their habitual example: government will find its legitimate object in protecting them. It cannot oppose them, and they will not need its aid. Their moral influence will do infinitely more to advance the true interests of religion, than any measure which they may call on congress to enact.
The petitioners do not complain of any infringement upon their own rights. They enjoy all that Christians ought to ask at the hand of any government — protection from molestation in the exercise of their religious sentiments.
Resolved, That the committee be discharged from the further consideration of the subject.
In the House of Representatives of the United States, March 4, 1830, Mr. JOHNSON, of Kentucky, made the following Report.
The Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, to whom the Memorials were referred for prohibiting the transportation of the Mails, and the opening of Post Offices. on Sundays, report —
That the memorialists regard the first day of the week as a day set apart by the Creator for religious exercises ; and consider the transportation of the mail, and the opening of the post offices, on that day, the violation of a religious duty, and call for a suppression of the practice. Others, by counter memorials, are known to entertain a different sentiment, believing that no one day of the week is holier than another. Others, holding the universality and immutability of the Jewish decalogue, believe in the sanctity of the seventh day of the week as a day of religious devotion; and by their memorial now before the committee, they also request that it may be set apart for religious purposes. Each has hitherto been left to the exercise of his own opinion ; and it has been regarded as the proper business of government to protect all, and determine for none. But the attempt is now made to bring about a greater uniformity, at least, in practice ; and, as argument has failed, the government has been called upon to interpose its authority to settle the controversy.
Congress acting under a constitution of delegated and limited powers. The committee look in vain to that instrument for a delegation of power authorizing this body to inquire and determine what part of time, or whether any, has been set apart by the Almighty for religious exercises. On the contrary, among the few prohibitions which it contains, is one that prohibits a religious test; and another which de- clares that congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there- of. The committee might here rest the argument, upon the ground that the question referred to themj does not come within the cognizance of congress ; but the perseverance and zeal with which the memorialists pursue their object, seems to require a further elucidation of the subject. And, as the opposers of Sunday mails disclaim all intention to unite church and state, the committee do not feel disposed to impugn their motives ; and whatever may be advanced in opposition to the measure, will arise from the fears enter- tained of its fatal tendency to the peace and happiness of the nation. The catastrophe of other nations, furnished the framers of the constitution a beacon of awful warning, and they have evinced the greatest possible care in guarding against the same evil.
The law, as it now exists, makes no distinction as to the days of the week, but it is imperative that the post masters shall attend at all reasonable hours, in every day, to perform the duties of their offices ; and the post master general has given his instructions to all post masters, that, at post offices, where the mail arrives on Sunday, the office is to be kept open one hour, or more, after the arrival and assorting the mail ; but in case that would interfere with the hours of public worship, the office is to be kept open for one hour after the usual time of dissolving the meeting
This liberal construction of the law does not satisfy the memorialists. but the committee believe that there is no just ground of complaint, unless it be conceded that they have controlling power over the consciences of others. If congress shall, by the authority of law, sanction the measure recommended, it would constitute a legislative decision of a religious controversy, in which even Christians themselves are at issue. However suited such a decision may be to an eccleasiastical council, it is incompatible with a republican legislature, which is purely for political, and not religious purposes.
In our individual character, we all entertain opinions, and pursue a corresponding practice, upon the subject of religion. However diversified these may be, we all harmonize as citizens, while each is willing that the other shall enjoy the same liberty which he claims for himself. But in our representative character, our individual character is lost. The individual acts for himself; the representative, for his constituents. He is chosen to rep resent their political, and not their religious views — to guard the rights of man; not to restrict the rights of conscience. Despots may regard their subjects as their property, and usurp the divine prerogative of prescribing their religious faith. But the history of the world furnishes the melancholy demonstration that the disposition of one man to coerce the religious homage of another, springs from an unchastened ambition, rather than a sincere devotion to any religion. The principles of our government do not recognize in the majority, any authority over the minority, except in matters which regard the conduct of man to his fellow man. A Jewish monarch, by grasping the holy censer, lost both his sceptre and his freedom ; a destiny as little to be envied, may be the lot of the American people, who hold the sovereignty of power, if they, in the person of their representatives, shall attempt to unite, in the remotest degree, church and state.
From the earliest period of time, religious teachers have attained great ascendency over the minds of the people ; and in every nation, ancient or modern, whether Pagan, Mahometan, or Christian, have succeeded in the incorporation of their religious tenets with the political institutions of their country. The Persian idols, the Grecian oracles, the Roman auguries, and the modern priesthood of Europe, have all, in their turn, been the subject of popular adulation, and the agents of political deception. If the measures recom- mended should be adopted, it would be difficult for human sagacity to foresee how rapid would be the succession, or how numerous the train of measures which might follow, involving the dearest rights of all — the rights of conscience. It is, perhaps, fortunate for our country that the proposition should have been made at this early period, while the spirit of the revolution yet exists in full vigor. Religious zeal enlists the strongest prejudices of the human mind: and, when misdirected, excites the worst passions of our nature, under the delusive pretext of doing God service. Nothing so infuriates the heart to deeds of rapine and blood ;nothing is so incessant in its toils ; so persevering in its de- termination ; so appalling in its course; or so dangerous in its consequences. The equality of rights secured by the constitution, may bid defiance to mere political tyrants : but the robe of sanctity too often glitters to deceive. The constitution regards the conscience of the Jew as sacred as that of the Christian; and gives no more authority to adopt a measure affecting the conscience of a solitary individual, than that of a whole community. That representative who would violate this principle, would lose his delegated character, and forfeit the confidence of his constituents. If congress shall declare the first day of the week holy, it will not convince the Jew nor the Sabbatarian. It will dissatisfy both; and, consequently, convert neither. Human power may extort vain sacrifices ; but deity alone can command the affections of the heart. It must be recollected that in the earliest settlement of this country, the spirit of persecution which drove the pilgrims from their native home, was brought with them to their new habitations; and that some Christians were scourged, and others put to death, for no other crime than dissenting from the dogmas of their rulers.
With these facts before us, it must be a subject of deep regret that a question should be brought before congress,
which involves the dearest privileges of the constitution, and even by those who enjoy its choicest blessings. We should all recollect that Cataline, a professed patriot, was a traitor to Rome; Arnold, a professed whig, was a traitor to America; and Judas, a professed disciple, was a traitor to his divine master.
With the exception of the United States, the whole human race, consisting, it is supposed, of eight hundred millions of rational beings, is in religious bondage; and, in reviewing the scenes of persecution which history everywhere presents, unless the committee could believe that the cries of the burning victim, and the flames by which he is consumed, bear to heaven a grateful incense, the conclusion is inevitable that the line cannot be too strongly drawn between church and state. If a solemn act of legislation shall, in one point, define the law of God, or point out to the citizen one religious duty, it may, with equal propriety, proceed to de- fine every part of divine revelation ; and enforce every religious obligation, even to the forms and ceremonies of worship ; the endowment of the church, and the support of the clergy.
It was with a kiss that Judas betrayed his divine master, and we should all be admonished, — no matter what our faith may be, that the rights of conscience cannot be so success- fully assailed, as under the pretext of holiness. The Chris- tian religion made its way into the world in opposition to all human governments. Banishment, tortures, and death, were inflicted in vain to stop its progress. But many of its professors, as soon as clothed with political power, lost the meek spirit which their creed inculcates, and began to in- flict on other religions, and on dissenting sects of their own religion, persecutions more aggravated than those which their own apostles had endured. The ten persecutions of Pagan emperors, were exceeded in atrocity by the massacres and murders perpetrated by Christian hands; and in vain shall we examine the records of imperial tyranny for an engine of cruelty equal to the holy inquisition. Every
religious sect, however meek in its origin, commenced this work of persecution as soon as it acquired political power. The framers of the constitution recognized the eternal principle, that man’s relation with his God is above human legislation, and his rights of conscience unalienable. Reasoning was not necessary to establish this truth ; we are conscious of it in our own bosoms. It is this consciousness which, in defiance of human laws, has sustained so many martyrs in tortures and in flames. They felt that their duty to God was superior to human enactments, and that man could exercise no authority over their consciences ; it is an inborn principle which nothing can eradicate.
The bigot, in the pride of his authority, may lose sight of it — but strip him of his power ; prescribe a faith to him which his conscience rejects ; threaten him in turn with the dungeon and the faggot; and the spirit which God had implanted in him, rises up in rebellion and defies you. Did the primitive Christians ask that government should recognize and observe their religious institutions 1 All they asked was toleration ; all they complained of, was persecution. What did the protestants of Germany, or the Hugenots of France, ask of their catholic superiors 1 Toleration. What do the persecuted Catholics of Ireland ask of their oppressors? Toleration.
Do all men in this country enjoy every religious right which martyrs and saints ever asked 1 Whence, then, the voice of complaint 1 Who is it, that, in full enjoyment of every principle which human laws can secure, wishes to wrest a portion of these principles from his neighbor’? Do the petitioners allege that they cannot conscientiously participate in the profits of the mail contracts and post offices, because the mail is carried on Sunday 1 If this be their motive, then it is worldly gain which stimulates to action. and not virtue or religion. Do they complain that men, less conscientious in relation to the sabbath, obtain advantages over them, by receiving their letters and attending to their contents % Still their motive is worldly and selfish. But, if their motive be to induce congress to sanction, by law, their religious opinions and observances, then their efforts are to be resisted, as in their tendency fatal, both to religious and political freedom. Why have the petitioners confined their prayer to the mails 1 Why have they not requested to suspend all its executive functions on that day “? Why do they not require us to enact that our ships shall not sail 1 that our armies shall not march 1 that officers of justice shall not seize the suspected, to guard the convicted 1 They seem to forget that government is as necessary on Sunday as on any other day of the week. The spirit of evil does not rest on that day. It is the government, ever active in its functions, which enables us all, even the petitioners, to worship in our churches in peace.
Our government furnishes very few blessings like our mails. They bear from the centre of our republic to its distant extremes, the acts of our legislative bodies, the decisions of the judiciary, and the orders of the executive. Their speed is often essential to the defence of the country, the suppression of crime, and the dearest interests of the people. Were they suppressed one day of the week, their absence must be often supplied by public expresses ; and besides, while the mail bags might rest, the mail coaches would pur- sue their journey with the passengers. The mail bears, from one extreme of the Union to the other, letters of rela- tives and friends, preserving a communion of heart between those far separated, and increasing the most pure and refined pleasures of our existence; also, the letters of commercial men convey the state of the markets, prevent ruinous speculations, and promote general, as well as individual, interest ; they bear innumerable religious letters, newspapers, magazines, and tracts, which reach almost every house throughout this wide republic. Is the conveyance of these a violation of the sabbath.
The advance of the human race in intelligence, in virtue, and religion itself, depends in part upon the speed with whicn a knowledge of the past is disseminated. Withont an inter- change between one country and another, between different sections of the same country, every improvement in moral or political science, and the arts of life, would be confined to the neighborhood where it originated. The more rapid and the more frequent this interchange, the more rapid will be the march of intellect, and the progress of improvement. The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven and you retard one seventh the advancement of our country. So far from stopping the mail on Sunday, the committee would recommend the use of all reasonable means to give it a greater expedition and a greater extension. What would be the elevation of our country, if every new conception could be made to strike every mind in the Union at the same time’? It is not the distance of a province or state from the seat of government, which endangers its separation ; but it is the difficulty and unfrequency of intercourse between them.
Our mails reach Missouri and Arkansas in less time than they reached Kentucky and Ohio in the infancy of their settlements ; and now, when there are three millions of people extending a thousand miles west of the Allegany, we hear less of discontent, then when there were a few thousand scattered along their western base.
To stop the mails one day in seven would be to thrust the whole western country, and other distant parts of the republic, one day’s journey from the seat of government. But were it expedient to put an end to the transmission of letters and newspapers on Sunday, because it violates the law of God, have not the petitioners begun wrong in their efforts.
If the arm of government be necessary to compel men to res- pect and obey the laws of God, do not the state governments possess infinitely more power in this respect. Let the peti- tioners turn to them, and see if they can induce the passage of
laws to respect the observance of the sabbath : for, if it be sin- ful for the mail to carry letters on Sunday; it must be equally sinful for individuals to write, carry, receive, or read them. It would seem to require that these acts should be made penal,
to complete the system. Travelling on business or recreation, except to and from church ; all printing, carrying, receiving, and reading of newspapers ; all conversations and social inter- course, except upon religious subjects, must necessarily be punished to suppress the evil. Would it not also follow, as an inevitable consequence, that every man, woman, and child, should be compelled to attend meeting and, as only one sect, in the opinion of some, can be deemed orthodox, must it not be determined, by law, which that is, and compel all to hear those teachers, and contribute to their support? If minor punishments would restrain the Jew, or the Sabbatarian, or the infidel, who believes Saturday to be the subbath. or disbelieves the whole, would not the same require that we should resort to imprisonment, punishment, the rack, and the faggot, to force men to violate their own consciences, or compel them to listen to doctrines which they abhor?
When the state governments shall have yielded to these measures, it will be time enough for congress to declare that the rattling of the mail coaches shall no longer break the silence of this despotism. It is a duty of this government to afford to all — to the Jew or Gentile, Pagan or Christian, the protection and advantages of our benignant institutions, on Sunday, as well as
every other day of the week. Although this government will not convert itself into an ecclesiastical tribunal, it will practice upon the maxim laid down by the founder of Christianity — that it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day. If the Almighty has set apart the first day of the week as time which man is bound to keep holy, and devote exclusively to his worship, would it not be more congenial to the precepts of Christians, to appeal exclusively to the great lawgiver of the universe to aid them in making men better, in correcting their practices by purifying their hearts 1 Government will protect them in their efforts. When they shall have so instruct- ed the public mind, and awakened the consciences of individuals, as to make them believe that it is a violation of God’s law to carry the mail, open post offices, or receive letters, on Sunday, the evil of which they complain will cease of itself, without any exertion of the strong arm of civil power. When man undertakes to be God’s avenger, he becomes a demon.
Driven by the frenzy of a religious zeal, he looses every gentle feeling ; forgets the most sacred precepts of his creed ; and becomes ferocious and unrelenting.
Our fathers did not wait to be oppressed, when the mother country asserted and exercised an unconstitutional power over them. To have acquiesced in the tax of three pence upon a pound of tea, would have led the way to the most cruel exactions; they took a bold stand against the principle, and liberty and independence were the result. The petitioners have not requested congress to suppress Sunday mails upon the ground of political expediency, but because they violate the sanctity of the first day of the week.
This being the fact, and the petitioners having indignantly disclaimed even the wish to unite politics and religion, may not the committee reasonably cherish the hope that they will feel reconciled to its decision, in the case ; especially, as it is also a fact, that the counter memorials, equally respectable, oppose the interference of congress, upon the ground that it would be legislating upon a religious subject, and therefore unconstitutional.
Resolved, That the committee be discharged from the further consideration of the subject.