Despite the separation of church and state, colonial leaders were not hostile to religion. Most were devout Christians, and even Deists who attended no organized church believed religious values reinforced the moral qualities necessary for a republic to prosper. Public authority continued to support religious values, in laws barring non-Christians from office and in the continued prosecution of blasphemy and breaches of the Sabbath. Pennsylvania’s new democratic constitution required citizens to acknowledge the existence of God, and it directed the legislature to enact “laws for the prevention of vice and immorality.” In the nineteenth century, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers took this mandate so seriously that the state became as famous for its laws against swearing and desecrating the Sabbath as it had been in colonial times for religious freedom.
The Self, an engraving in The Columbian Magazine, 1789, illustrates various admirable qualities radiating outward from the virtuous citizen, including love for one’s family, community, and nation.
Patriot leaders worried about the character of future citizens, especially how to encourage the quality of “virtue,” the ability to sacrifice self-interest for the public good. Some, like Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Rush, put forward plans for the establishment of free, state-supported public schools. These would instruct future citizens in what Adams called “the principles of freedom,” equipping them for participation in the now-expanded public sphere and for the wise election of representatives. A broad diffusion of knowledge was essential for a government based on the will of the people to survive and for America to avoid the fixed class structure of Europe. No nation, Jefferson wrote, could “expect to be ignorant and free.”