The Meaning of Marriage

Ed talks with historian Sarah Barringer Gordon about the 19th Century showdown over the meaning of marriage and the scope of religious “free exercise” – when Mormons took their case for polygamy to the Supreme Court.

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PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re looking at the ways past generations of Americans have argued over how to connect or disconnect church and state.

ED: An early version of that argument played out in the summer of 1832. A cholera epidemic had just struck New York City. And it was hell. Victims suffered, losing fluid so quickly that their skin puckered and turned blue. The disease was responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in the first week alone. And then it began to spread, first to Philadelphia and then as far as New Orleans.

PETER: Worst of all, no one knew what caused it. The most obvious answer was that cholera was a scourge sent by an angry God, which meant that a public health crisis was also a religious crisis.

ED: So a church in New York wrote to President Andrew Jackson with a plea. He should declare a national day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. National repentance, they thought, might ease the country’s suffering.

PETER: But Jackson politely declined. He thought that religion ought to stay completely separate from matters of state, even in the midst of a crisis.

BRIAN: I sat down with historian Adam Jortner to discuss how that simple disagreement turned into a political firefight. Adam told me that the church’s request didn’t seem that controversial at the time. Other presidents, after all, had declared days of prayer in the past.

ADAM JORTNER: These fast days had been approved by George Washington approves one. James Madison approves one. So it’s not that no one in the federal government had ever said, no, you can’t have a fast day.

BRIAN: So what changed? They sound like heavy hitters, Washington and Madison.

ADAM JORTNER: Well, Jackson is a pretty heavy hitter too. And he is not in favor of organized religion. I’m going to come right out and say that. He’s a religious guy. But Jackson is just a guy who doesn’t like organized churches generally. When he’s in the Tennessee legislature in 1796, he actually votes for a bill that says, if you’re a minister, you can’t hold political office. I think he really also did believe that there should be this total separation between church and state.

BRIAN: Now, I note that 1832 is a presidential election year. Did presidential politics have anything to do with this decision and what followed?

ADAM JORTNER: Well, no sooner has Jackson turned the reform church down than Henry Clay, who’s his arch rival and who everybody knows is going to run against him in 1832, Henry Clay stands up in the Senate. And he asks them to pass a bill asking for a day of fasting for God to avert the cholera.

BRIAN: And we need to point out this is before C-SPAN and Fox News.

ADAM JORTNER: That is correct. But it’s not before newspapers. And I think that Clay is aware that Jackson has offended some people, particularly in the state of New York. And Clay knows he has got to win New York State. New York State has a third of the electoral votes he needs to win. And he probably picked this up because he knows that New York State is also where an enormous number of revivals have broken out in the 1820s and early 1830s.

This is where Charles Finney, the great evangelist, has been holding his huge revivals. And he knows there are potential voters there. But he also knows that he, Henry Clay, is well known as a card-playing gambler. He has been involved in duels. He’s a drinker. So he’s not exactly the kind of person these religious types are going to vote for.

So he stands up and says, I am a member of no religious sect. I regret that I am not. I wish that I was. And I might be a drinker and a gambler. But I think the state should recognize God and ask God for his protection.

BRIAN: So hold on. Time out here. We’ve got Jackson, the religious man, who doesn’t like organized religion. And we have Clay, who acknowledges that he’s not a religious man, wishes that he were. But he introduces this legislation. Adam, is this a wedge issue?

ADAM JORTNER: I think it is. I think it is an attempt to go to voters and say, if you are religious, you should vote for me. And nothing else matters. Clay is trying to tap into a group of voters in New York State who haven’t yet turned to politics. And it’s a way of connecting the fear they’re having over the cholera to the vote they’re going to cast in November.

BRIAN: So tell me what each side goes on to argue here. I assume there’s a big back and forth.

ADAM JORTNER: Once Clay’s bill passes the Senate and not too much opposition, but when it gets to the house, Jackson’s allies are ready. And they accuse Clay of trying to subvert religion, of trying to become a tyrant. Actually, one of Jackson’s supporters accuses Clay of prostituting our holy religion.

BRIAN: How did they explain the fact that previous presidents had done the very thing that they now thought was an abomination?

ADAM JORTNER: There’s a guy named Julian Verplanck, who’s a congressman from the State of New York. And he actually points out that when Madison proposes a fast day in 1812, people got up. And they started preaching about politics from the pulpit. And what you get is people, if they didn’t like Madison’s administration, they railed against the government. If they did like Madison, they supported the government. And this was not the way churches should be operating. And I think that that experience of a fast day– it would’ve been 20 years ago at that time– really affected the tenor of this debate that they didn’t want to have any more fast days.

BRIAN: Was this just a battle inside the beltway? I know we didn’t have a beltway then. Or is this something that people on the ground were really passionate about?

ADAM JORTNER: I think that it’s hard to tell from a distance of so many decades. But if you read what the newspapers are saying, you see this deep passion about preserving the separation of church and state. One of the newspapers actually says that Clay is a priest. It says Priest Clay was trying to amalgamate church and state.

People read those newspapers. And they would gather together. And then they would read it out loud to each other. So I think that there’s a real feeling in Jacksonian America that separation of church and state is what makes democracy work.

BRIAN: So how does this work out?

ADAM JORTNER: Well, Jackson wins. The House defeats Clay’s resolution. And so it goes down. And then in November, Clay goes down. He gets crushed by Jackson. But there is an afterthought to this, which is that a lot of state governor’s pass fast day resolutions in the wake of Clay’s failure. And a lot of those pass.

So I do think that the supporters of the fast day did end up getting some of what they wanted. They do get some governors to pass their resolution. And ultimately, those Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists in New York State do become part of Clay’s future party, the Whig party. They’re strong supporters of the Whigs in later elections.

BRIAN: So what does this tell us about the use of religion for partisan purposes?

ADAM JORTNER: I think the lesson of this story is that, first of all, it’s not that the arguments about church and state are religious people wanting more religion in politics and then irreligious people wanting less. I think there are religious people on both sides of the issue. It’s possible to be religious and be afraid of church involvement in politics. And I was shocked at the extent to which politicians were willing to go on record to defend the separation of church and state and didn’t feel the need to apologize for it, that it was actually a positive good.

But I also think this is a story where politicians go looking for religious voters. Sometimes church and state in the 21st century is conceived of as religious people want solutions to their problems. They go into politics. But it happens the other way around too. Politicians can need supporters. They look around. And they find religious voters. And they say, ah, we will give you something that you want. We’ll have more religion in politics. And then you’ll be part of our coalition. And you’ll support our other objectives.

BRIAN: So Adam, tell me, how did the rates of cholera in states that passed resolutions compare to the rates of cholera in states that decided not to pray?

ADAM JORTNER: There is no difference that I know of.

BRIAN: Thank you for clearing up the record. And thanks for joining us on BackStory.

ADAM JORTNER: Thanks, Brian. It’s my pleasure.