Freedom of Conscience
FEBRUARY 01, 1981 by THOMAS JEFFERSON
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), first Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President of the United States. Jefferson was born in Virginia and trained as a lawyer, but his interests were too broad and his talents too diverse to be confined to a single profession. He was a linguist, mathematician, architect, inventor, essayist, planter, diplomat, statesman, and one of the most prolific correspondents of all times. Paul L. Ford published what became the standard collection of his Writings in 9 volumes in the 1890s. This selection is extracted from Notes on the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: Prichard and Hall, 1788), pp. 169-71.
The error seems not sufficiently eradicated that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors but will not cure them. Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose rein to them, they will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only . . . .
Were the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potato as an article of food. Government is just as infallible, too, when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the Inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere; the government had declared it to be fiat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error, however, at length prevailed; the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in and to make it an article of necessary faith.
Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then; and, as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size by lopping the former and stretching the latter . . . . Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves?