1785 Two Hundred Years Ago

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In June of 1785, James Madison ensconced himself in his library in Orange County, Virginia, and wrote “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.” His aim was to rally opposition against a bill that would impose on the people “a moderate tax or contribution annually,” first defined as being “for the support of the Christian religion or of some Christian church, denomination or communion of Christians.” In a later version of the bill, teachers of the Christian religion were identified as the beneficiaries of the tax. In either case, Madison feared the bill’s “dishonorable principle and dangerous tendency.” He stood alone against its many backers, who claimed their object was to halt moral decay. In fact, they were spurred on by the powerful Episcopalian Church, which hankered after state moneys.

In “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Madison argued the necessity of keeping church separate from state. Religious liberty is “an unalienable right,” he wrote, “because the opinions of men, depending only upon the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.… Religion is wholly exempt from the cognizance [of Civil Society].” The former student of theology tactfully pointed out the effect of state support upon religion: “ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.”

Printed and circulated as a petition, “Memorial and Remonstrance” was signed by countless Virginians. When the legislature convened in November to consider the bill, a table stood before them buried beneath a mound of the petitions. “Such an overwhelming opposition of the people [was displayed],” wrote Madison, “that the plan of a general assessment was crushed under it.” No vote was even taken.

Jubilant, Madison brought forth Thomas Jefferson’s 1779 Ordinance of Religious Freedom and pushed it through the assembly. Heresy ceased to be a crime, and an end was put to religious tests for civil office. “I flatter myself,” the diligent legislator wrote Jefferson, “[we] have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

June 23: Massachusetts and New Hampshire prohibit British ships from exporting American goods.

July 6: Thomas Jefferson’s decimal system of money is adopted by the Continental Congress.