A First Test for Separation of Church and State

A Depiction of the Cholera Outbreak in New York City in 1832.

With the communications and transportation revolution came new, unforeseeable consequences. One such consequence was the spread of cholera and other contagious diseases, which would test the mettle of Americans.

Cholera spread from India, along trade routes, all the way to the United States. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 469. In 1832, cholera hit the cities of New York and New Orleans, and it spread along “river and canal routes, exacting a heavy toll wherever crowded and unsanitary conditions (polluted water in particular) prevailed.” Id. at 469-70 citing Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years (Chicago, 1987); Sheldon Watts, Epidemics and History (New Haven, 1997), 167-212.

Responding to the outbreak, Henry Clay introduced a resolution in the Senate, which the Senate passed, calling upon President Andrew Jackson “to declare a day of national ‘prayer, fasting, and humiliation.'” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 470.

President Jackson, however, decided that he would not comply with the resolution, seeing it as a violation of the separation of church and state. See id. Fortunately for Jackson, the resolution did not pass the House of Representatives, so he was not forced to confront the issue with Congress and the American public. See id.

Ultimately, churches around the country would observe the national day of prayer, and twelve state governments endorsed the national day of prayer as well. See id. Notably, just over a decade later, President Zachary Taylor would be confronted with the same situation, as a cholera outbreak occurred in 1848-49. Id. Then, President Taylor issued the proclamation. Id.

President Jackson’s decision not to issue the proclamation aligned him more with Thomas Jefferson’s school of thought than that of George Washington, James Madison, and John Adams. He had shown that despite his populist tendencies, there were boundaries when it came to the government’s role in Americans’ lives. This was an early example of application of the principles that the Founding Fathers had debated, such as the separation of church and state.

While President Taylor’s proclamation in the following decade would seem to reverse this, it perhaps shows how the American system of government permits variation from president to president of policy decisions. While some, like Jackson, were concerned with the unnecessary entanglement of church and state, others, like Taylor, had no such worries. Nonetheless, the debate continues, and Americans are forced to confront this issue in their lives every so often. That continuing debate is crucial as it encourages Americans to remain inquisitive and question whether the principles of yesterday should be embraced today.

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