The First Liberty

America's Foundation in Religious Freedom

Expanded and Updated

William Lee Miller

"This is a book, filled with historical truths and imbued with generosity of spirit, that is surely worth the attention of people who care deeply about freedom of conscience."
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At a time when the concept of religion-based politics has taken on new and sometimes ominous tones—even within the United States—it is not only right, but also urgently necessary that William Lee Miller revisit his profound exploration of the place of religious liberty and church and state in America. For this revised edition of The First Liberty, Miller has written a pointed new introduction, discussing how religious liberty has taken on deeper dimensions in a post-9/11 world. With new material on recent Supreme Court cases involving church-state relations and a new concluding chapter on America's religious and political landscape, this volume is an eloquent and thorough interpretation of how religious faith and political freedom have blended and fused to form part of our collective history-and most importantly, how each concept must respect the boundaries of the other.

Though many claim the United States to be a "Christian Nation," Miller provides a fascinatingly vivid account of the philosophical skirmishes and political machinations that led to the "wall of separation" between church and state. That famous phrase is Jefferson's, though it does not appear in the Declaration of Independence nor in the Constitution. But Miller follows this seminal idea from three great standard-bearers of religious liberty: Jefferson, Madison, and Roger Williams. Jefferson, who wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the precursor of the First Amendment of the Constitution; James Madison, who was politically responsible for Virginia's acceptance of religious liberty and who, a few years later, helped draft the Bill of Rights; and the even earlier figure, the radical dissenter Roger Williams, who propounded the idea of religious freedom not as a rational secularist but out of a deeply held spiritual faith.

Miller re-creates the fierce and vibrant debate among the founding fathers over the means of establishing public virtue in the absence of established religion—a debate that still reverberates in today's passionate arguments about civil rights, school prayer, abortion, Christmas crèches, conscientious objection during warfare—and demonstrates how the right to hold any religious belief has dynamically shaped American political life.

Table of Contents


"This is a book, filled with historical truths and imbued with generosity of spirit, that is surely worth the attention of people who care deeply about freedom of conscience."—Samuel Rabinove, Legal Director of the American Jewish Committee, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"This is a book of many beauties. Its grace, depth, breadth of vision, information, discrimination, sympathy, and wit fully reward the reader's patience."—National Review, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"We are not likely to find a better mix of clear perspective, keen analysis, and happy advocacy. May Americans rediscover the meaning of their liberty in this splendid book."—News and Observer, Raleigh NC, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"This well-written, thoughtful and fair book does much to explain why, in Mr. Miller's useful terminology, we are neither a confessing state, nor—equally important—a disbelieving one."—The Wall Street Journal, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia has written one of the finest expositions on American religious liberty to appear in modern times."—The Richmond News , reviewing a previous edition or volume

"Speaking personally, I do not believe that any book has ever encouraged me to think more clearly, to be more patriotic and public-minded, and to be more worthy of the rights of free conscience than The First Liberty."—William and Mary Quarterly , reviewing a previous edition or volume

"An elegant book, erudite and wry."—Kirkus Reviews, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"The time is ripe for Miller's balanced and scholarly reminder of the central significance of religious freedom—the quintessential American liberty."—Booklist, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"Written with verve and sweep, this timely volume will reach a wide audience."—Edwin S. Gaustad, professor , University of California, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"This distinguished volume on religious freedom in America is balanced, sophisticated, nuanced and delightfully readable. Professor Miller's exciting work may well be the finest book in print on church-state relations in America."—Robert F. Drinan, SJ, Georgetown University Law Center, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"The importance of William Lee Miller's subject can hardly be exaggerated."—Cleveland Plain Dealer, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"Here is a scholar, raconteur and teacher busy teaching and provoking, at times almost evoking from the reader a desire to be let off the hook for a moment. Must the author be that interesting all the time? Well, Miller must."—Christian Century, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"Miller has written with an integrity that reminds us that these ideals of our founders were not in vain. He overwhelms us with the intensity and conviction that it took to establish our religious rights, and convinces us of how essential religious liberty was to this country's self-definition."—San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"This well-written, thoughtful and fair book does much to explain why, in Mr. Miller's useful terminology, we are neither a confessing state, nor—equally important—a disbelieving one."—The Wall Street Journal, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"Professor Miller's volume is a vivid scholarly rebuttal to the sloppy historical mythology of the 'Christian Nation' advocates and anti-separationist jurists. It is a remarkable examination of the complex intellectual giants of religious freedom—Jefferson, Madison, and Roger Williams—coupled with a crisp analysis of the Supreme Court jurisprudence which came to buttress the moral foundation of separation of church and state.

This work clearly and unequivocally documents the clarity of vision of Jefferson and Madison as they convinced Virginia and the nation to adopt the boldest political idea in modern history: genuine religious freedom for believers and non-believers alike.

This is one of the most lucid and engaging examinations of the genesis of religious liberty in American intellectual and legal history."—Barry Lynn, executive director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State

"At a moment when issues of religious liberty assume ever greater importance in this country, a new and revised edition of William Miller's The First Liberty could hardly be more timely or more welcome....Never has there been greater urgency about recognizing the uniqueness of our dual First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty—and nowhere can the curious reader find a better resource than in William Miller's superbly organized and written account of The First Liberty."—Robert M. O'Neil, founding director, Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and professor of law, University of Virginia

"William Lee Miller combines the narrative skill of a novelist with the knowledge and critical acumen of a first-rate scholar. In these fast-moving pages the ideals, stratagems, and frustrations of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Roger Williams come alive. Miller's tale gives the lie to modern demagogues who, for self-serving purposes, wrongly associate the separation of church and state with hostility to religion."—Vincent Blasi, Lamont Professor of Civil Liberities, Columbia Law School and Massee Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law

"William Lee Miller's The First Liberty is an admirable elaboration and updating of a book first published in 1985. No better introduction can be found to what is perhaps the most monumental achievement of the American Revolution: the establishment of freedom of religious conscience together with the necessary complement of separation of church and state as an inalienable human right. Miller's book is at once a history of that idea and a penetrating discussion of its vicissitudes in the American experience. While scholarly the book is also a reaffirmation of the tradition in which Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, too, united on the metaphor of 'a wall of separation' between church and state."—Merrill D. Peterson, professor of history emeritus, University of Virginia, author of John Brown: The Legend Revisited and Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

William Lee Miller is now Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He retired from the faculty of University of Virginia in 1999 as Commonwealth Professor, and the Thomas C. Sorensen Professor, of Political and Social Thought. He has taught also at Yale University, Smith College, Indiana University, and other institutions, often teaching courses in church and state and religious liberty, subjects on which he has often written. He served on the Fund for the Republics Commission on Religion and a Free Society in the 1960s. He has been an editor and writer on a political magazine, a speechwriter, and a three-term alderman. His books include Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, and Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the American Congress.

296 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-0-87840-899-3
Mar 2003

296 pp., 6 x 9

Mar 2003

296 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-442-8
Mar 2003

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