After the Louisiana Purchase

Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase sparked some correspondence on religious matters. As chief executive over the new federal Louisiana Territory Jefferson received a letter from the federally appointed Governor of Louisiana, William Claiborne, on June 15, 1804. It included a letter from Rev. Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon, and 11 other Nuns of the Order of St. Ursula at New Orleans. They requested that Jefferson make sure that the Catholic convent’s property ownership be confirmed by Congress. Jefferson replied on July 13: “…The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s [sic] own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society by training up it’s [sic] younger members in the way they should go cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.”

This is a remarkable letter that goes beyond simply assuring this Catholic convent that it has nothing to fear from the more Protestant-oriented American government. He paraphrases Proverbs 22:6 (“train up a child in the way he should go”) and affirms this Christian educational ministry, and promises “patronage”of the U.S. government. Government aid for missions and Indians in federal territories is again constitutionally permissible to Jefferson. His ruling principle in the religious issue was federalism not secularism. Federalism embodies the concept of independent jurisdictions of the national and state governments – neither of which may interfere in each other’s unique responsibilities and authority.

It is worth noting here that a couple years later on May 20, 1806, Jefferson’s account book said he “Gave…50 Dollars to the order of Governor Wilkinson or other acting governor of Louisiana for building a church there.” So in addition to supportive federal governmental words and policies for religious groups in the new federal territory, Jefferson also puts his personal resources into the same efforts. And although here it is not government money, he has no qualms with giving it to the Governor for distribution for church purposes.


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