The Power of Metaphor: Thomas Jefferson's 'Wall of Separation between Church & State'

41 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2010  

Julie A. Oseid

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: 2010


This article is the second in a planned series of articles about the writing qualities and habits of our most eloquent American Presidents. This article examines Thomas Jefferson and his use of one powerful metaphor to describe the First Amendment religion clause as "building a wall of separation between Church & State." Perhaps no metaphor about church-state relations has been more powerful, more controversial, or more lasting. I leave the debate about whether Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor is a brilliant, flawed, complex, or simplistic metaphor for the First Amendment religion clause to Constitutional scholars and historians.

Instead, this article has other goals: to examine how Jefferson's understanding of metaphor differed from the modern understanding of the use of metaphor in a legal context, to study how Jefferson came to use the "wall of separation" metaphor, to consider how the metaphor developed into a doctrinal metaphor substituting for the language and meaning of the First Amendment religion clause, and to glean lessons for legal writers from Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor. The article concludes that Jefferson's use of the "wall of separation" metaphor should serve as both inspiration and encouragement to modern legal writers as we craft our own metaphors.

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, presidents, law and religion, first amendment, separation of church and state, legal writing, legal rhetoric, wall of separation

Suggested Citation

Oseid, Julie A., The Power of Metaphor: Thomas Jefferson's 'Wall of Separation between Church & State' (2010). U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-14. Available at SSRN: or

Julie A. Oseid (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States

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