The Executive Religious Recommendations of Early U. S. Presidents Are Not Legitimate Legal Precedent For “In God We Trust” on the Nation’s Coins and Notes or “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The executive religious recommendations issued during the first twenty-eight years of the American Republic by three of its first four Presidents are frequently cited as authority for the view that the U. S. Constitution was not intended to prohibit the U. S. Congress from making laws declaring “In God We Trust” on the nation’s coins and recommending the belief that the people of the United States are “under God”, or as some claim “a nation under the authority of God and subject to God’s natural law.” [Note 1]
The implied (but never clearly articulated) logic of this argument is that the men who established our Constitution of 1787 with the understanding that it was one of limited and enumerated powers which granted Congress and President no authority whatsoever over religion somehow intended for the President possess general advisory power over our religion including the authority to issue executive religious recommendations to the people; and for Congress to possess the authority to make “advisory” laws respecting an establishment of the duty to trust in God that the people owe to their Creator. However, the logic fails for several reasons including the fundamental and undeniable fact that the U. S. Constitution grants no such authority to the President or Congress.
The argument also fails to consider the fact that no executive religious proclamation ever claimed its authority came from the Constitution. It also fails to considerer the fact that during the Early Years of the Republic executive religious proclamations were eventually judged to be illegal, or at least improper, and the practice was discarded after the War of 1812.
The American people gave President Washington a pass with respect to the single religious recommendation he issued after the Whiskey Rebellion without a request from Congress despite it obvious political objectives. However, ten thousand people took to the streets of Philadelphia when John Adams did the same thing. [Note 2] Adams was turned out of office and replaced by Thomas Jefferson who would have taken a bullet rather than trespass upon the prerogatives of Jehovah by assuming even the slightest advisory authority over the people’s religion.
Congress during the War of 1812 passed resolutions requesting President Madison to issue executive religious recommendations. Madison complied with the requests even though “it was understood” that he “was disinclined to such interpositions.” Congress abandoned the practice of requesting executive religious recommendations after the War of 1812. No President for the next forty-six years issued a religious recommendation, as John Adams did twice, without a request from Congress.
In July of 1832 a worldwide cholera epidemic reached Canada and was headed south for New York. President Andrew Jackson refused a request from the Dutch Reformed Church of New York to issue a religious recommendation to the people. His letter of refusal was released to the press and was widely published. [Note 3]
In violation of what many considered the rules of morality and etiquette, the Senate passed and sent to the House a resolution requesting the President to issue a recommendation of fasting and prayer. In the 1830’s many held that a gentleman should never request another gentleman to perform an act that was known to go against the other man’s conscience and convictions. The House took up the matter on June 30, 1832 and again on July 5, 1832.
The champions of the rights of conscience argued that:
· No one could believe that the General or State governments ought to have anything to do with the subject of religion;
· The President of the U. S., unlike the King of England, was not the head of the Established Church;
· The Constitution conferred no authority on the President to appoint a day for religious purposes;
· The President had made it publicly known that he believed he had no power to issue religious recommendations;
· Although it was only a recommendation, it would come to the people clothed in executive authority.
The sponsors of mixing religion and politics argued that that Presidents Madison, Washington and Adams had issued religious recommendations. One supporter advanced the nonsensical argument that the resolution should not be objected to on Constitutional grounds because it was not obligatory. He then argued that was an “extra official act based on upon no claim to legal authority.”
The debate deteriorated into a partisan squabble over whether Congress was being intimidated by President Jackson. The wise statesman of the day was Representative Gulian Verpanck, future mayor of New York, who urged the House to reject the argument that President Madison’s issuance of religious proclamations during the War of 1812 was legitimate precedent. He recounted that,
“I well remember that fact, as well as the other days of political religious observance under State authority during the same eventful period.
That fast, I well remember, was kept, not in that unmixed spirit of humility and innocence enjoined by President Madison in his peculiar style of accurate and condensed eloquence, but (as it will now be allowed on all hands) with to much of the “old leaven of malice and bitterness.” The pulpit was made the rostrum of turbulent and rancorous political declamation. The language of scripture itself was employed by divines in their sermons, and by magistrates in their proclamations, to point political sarcasm and to rekindle political rage.
Such was then, and such will always be, “the inequities of our holy things,” when they have been made subject to political legislation.”
Verplanck closed with the words, “Let us leave prayer and humiliation to be prompted by the devotion of the heart, and not to the bidding of the State.” The resolution was defeated without even getting an up or down vote.
In law, a valid precedent or authority is something that establishes a principle or rule which may be adopted in subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. The executive religious proclamations did not involve the law making authority of Congress as did the 1954 legislation that inserted in “under God” in the pledge. The precedent established by the early executive recommendations was superseded by the termination of the practice after the War of 1812.
In view of the fact that the Constitution was adopted with the understanding that it granted the national government no authority whatsoever over religion and the termination of issuing executive religious recommendations after the War of 1812, the recommendations during the first twenty-eight years of the republic cannot be accepted as legitimate legal precedent for Congressional law making authority over the people’s religion including the religious duties to “Trust In God” and be “under God.”
[Note 1] See ‘Under God,’ without doubt by Randy Singer (Mar 25, 2004) at http://www.bpnews.ne...umn.asp?ID=1349
[Note 2] "I have no doubt you werefast asleep in philosophical tranquility, when ten thousand people, and perhaps many more, were parading the streets of Philadelphia, on the evening of my Fast Day; when even Governor Mifflin himself, thought it his duty to order a patrol of horse and foot to preserve the peace; when Market Street was as full as men could stand by one another, and even before my door; when some of my domestics in frenzy, determined to sacrifice their lives in my defense; when all were ready to make a desperate salley among the multitude, and others were with difficulty and danger dragged back by the others; when I myself judged it prudent and necessary to order chests of arms from the War Office to be brought through by lanes and back doors: determined to defend my house at the expense of my life, and the lives of the few, very few domestics and friends within it."
Source of Information: Letter of John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 30 June 1813, in Works of Adams, 10:46-49—p196
[Note 3] Register of Debates, House of Representatives, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, Pages 3833 and 3834.