Common Law Constitutionalism: The Meaning of Establishment Circa 1800

In this post, I speculated about the possibility that the meaning of “establishment” might be illuminated by the English experience of the term before the Constitution’s drafting. The idea would be to understand “establishment” not by reference to a fixed meaning traceable to the founding, but instead by reference to a general, but not limitless, range of meanings in use as a matter of the common law experience antedating the Constitution. That range might have a core and a periphery, and while the periphery, it is true, might change over time, any changes would be very gradual and always intimately connected with the historical common law meanings of establishment.

Our Center board member, Don Drakeman, helpfully points me to a different kind of common law evidence–uses of the term establishment in state courts after ratification of the Constitution. He argues that a shift was occurring in the meaning of the term during this period: from a narrow meaning limited to what Thomas Curry has called a meaning “modeled on the Anglican establishment in England,” to a broader meaning covering the issue of general assessments for funding churches. The former meaning would suggest a “sect preference” approach to the issue of establishment, while the latter would not.

In his book, Church, State, and Original Intent (at pages 216-229), Don describes the different post-First Amendment views in Massachusetts and New Hampshire circa 1800 about the meaning of establishment as expressed in three court cases—Avery v. Tyringham (1807), Barnes v. Falmouth (1810), and Muzzy v. Wilkins (1803).

Tyringham concerned Article III of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the preamble of which at that time stated that “the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; and [that] these cannot generally be diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.” Based on that rationale, the Massachusetts Constitution goes on to authorize towns “to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of GOD, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” But Article III also provided that “no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.” The opinion of Justice Theodore Sedgwick (who also served as a member of the First Congress that adopted the Establishment Clause) concluded that in these “strong and energetic” provisions “the religion of Protestant Christianity is established. Liberty of conscience is secured.” (emphasis in original) That interpretation suggests that the sort of explicit public support for Protestant Christianity contemplated by the Massachusetts Constitution does constitute an establishment, even though Massachusetts never had an expressly authorized or designated official church establishment.

In a later Massachusetts case, Barnes v. Falmouth (1810), Justice Theophilus Parsons considered whether the minister of an unincorporated church could share in taxes raised under Article III. Justice Parsons wrote that the case provided an occasion to “consider the motives which induced this people to introduce into the constitution a religious establishment, the nature of the establishment introduced, and the rights and privileges it secured to the people, and to their teachers.” Here is Don’s description of the opinion:

According to Chief Justice Parsons, the rationale for an establishment is based on the fact that “[c]ivil government…availing itself only of its own powers, is extremely defective”; accordingly, “the people of Massachusetts…adopted and patronized a religion, which by its benign and energetic influences, might cooperate with human institutions, to promote and secure the happiness of its citizens.” Fortunately, he writes, “the people were not exposed to the hazard of choosing a false and defective religious system. Christianity had long been promulgated, its pretensions and excellences well known, and its divine authority admitted.” In particular, “This religion, as understood by Protestants, tending, by its effects, to make every man…a better husband, parent, child, neighbor, citizen, and magistrate, was by the people established as a fundamental and essential part of their constitution.” Pointing out that there is “liberty of conscience” for all, “whether Protestant or Catholic, Jew, Mahometan or Pagan, the constitution then provides for the public teaching of the precepts and maxims of the religion of Protestant Christians to all the people.” It is, therefore, “the right and duty of all corporate religious societies, to elect and support a public Protestant teacher of piety, religion, and morality.” Unincorporated churches could not share in taxes raised under Article III, concluded Parsons; otherwise, which teacher to be supported depends “exclusively on the will of a majority of each society incorporated for these purposes.”

221-222. Don argues that Justice Parsons’s description of this arrangement as an “establishment” shows that some Massachusetts jurists believed that the town-by-town assessments for Protestant teachers were themselves believed to be establishments. It is an interesting question whether the assessments themselves, or instead the assessments only as part of the general, if unofficial, privileging of Protestant Christianity as the civic religion, is really what Justices Parsons and Sedgwick are describing as an “establishment.” The latter possibility might narrow the meaning of establishment somewhat: the privileging of Protestant Christianity by all of the means described by these Justices in the Massachusetts Constitution—including the assessment scheme—comes perhaps closer to the meaning of establishment as “official” privileging than does a meaning which considers assessments favoring religion alone as an establishment.

A third piece of evidence can be found right over the border among some Justices in New Hampshire, where, Don writes, “at about the same time, a distinguished jurist who was a member of the Second through the Fifth Federal Congresses made a point of saying that the Granite State’s town-based general assessment tax system for the support of Protestant ministers, which was quite similar to the Massachusetts approach, was clearly not an establishment of religion.” 223

The issue arose in the 1803 case of Muzzy v. Wilkins, where Chief Justice Jeremiah Smith “considered whether a Presbyterian was entitled to an exemption from the town taxes in support of the Congregational church under New Hampshire’s constitution, which empowered the legislature to authorize the towns of the state to make provision for public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.” According to Chief Justice Smith, the assessment system alone did not constitute an establishment: “No one sect is invested with any political power much less with a monopoly of civil privileges and civil offices. All denominations are equally under the protection of the law, are equally the objects of its favor and regard.”

Chief Justice Smith’s is that rare opinion where a judge actually provides a definition of an “establishment”: “A religious establishment is where the State prescribes a formulary of faith and worship for the rule and governance of all the subjects.”

This definition, it is true, is narrower than what can be discerned from the general approach in the two Massachusetts decisions. But New Hampshire’s state constitution at the time did not (so far as I know) contain the sort of language unofficially, but quite explicitly, privileging Protestant Christianity as was the case in Massachusetts. It might be that it was this general privileging (even if unofficial, and to include, in Massachusetts, state assessments) that was thought by both Massachusetts and New Hampshire jurists to constitute “establishment.”

At any rate, it would be worthwhile, as well as interesting, to explore the range of common law meanings of establishment before ratification of the First Amendment as well. As Don says in the book, it would probably be impossible to arrive at a single fixed meaning. But it might well be possible to reach consensus about a general range or spectrum of meanings, with core or uncontested meanings graduating outward toward peripheral or contested ones.

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