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Nature’s God And The Founding Fathers
Jefferson and Madison led a revolutionary fight for complete separation of church and state. Their reasons probed the basic relation between religion and democracy
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
It is a curious fact of American history that the man who was inseparably associated with Jefferson in his fight for religious freedom, and who was to become his closest friend for nearly half a century, grew up only thirty-odd miles from Monticello, yet never met him until late in 1776. James Madison of Montpelier, in Port Conway, Virginia, came to the capitol at Williamsburg in May of that year, an elected delegate to the state convention. By that time, Jefferson was off to his appointment with fame in Philadelphia, and so the two did not meet until the following autumn—and even then their contact was slight. But in the meantime something had happened at Williamsburg to form a bond between them no less strong for its resting temporarily unperceived.
The government of Virginia was in process of being overhauled in the spring of 1776, and although young Madison, a relatively unknown delegate, did not have a great deal to do with the new state constitution, he was a member of a committee appointed to draw up a bill of rights. The great George Mason of Gunston Hall was chief author of the articles in this bill, which was to become the prototype for similar manifestoes in other states as well as, eventually, for the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.
It must have cheered Jefferson to see that prominent among the Virginia articles was one on religious freedom. Madison was instrumental in giving that article its final and significant form when the committee proposal went before the Virginia convention on June 12, 1776. Only five years out of college at Princeton, he was already an accomplished student of constitutional law, a man cast very much in Jefferson’s mold. As he saw it, Mason’s expression of the principle of religious freedom was deficient in two respects: it allowed for continuation of a state-supported church, and it spoke of “toleration in the exercise of religion” rather than absolute freedom of conscience. Recognizing that it was not quite time to push for disestablishment in Virginia, Madison let that go, but proposed a rewording that would move forward from the idea of mere toleration (which implied the right of the state either to grant or withhold religious freedom) to that of freedom of conscience as an unalienable natural right. The convention was not willing to go quite that far, but, in its permanent form, the article pronounced that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” It was a quiet yet important triumph in the struggle for complete liberty of thought in America.
When he began to become well acquainted with Madison, in the summer of 1779, Jefferson was fresh from a half-successful effort to abolish state sanction of religion in Virginia. Government salaries for Anglican ministers had been suspended, but their church was still functioning as the official one in the state, and other impediments to religious liberty persisted. It was impossible to be legally married, for example, unless the ceremony was performed by an Anglican clergyman, and heresy against the Christian faith was still a crime. Jefferson’s comprehensive “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” would have swept aside all such restrictions, as well as forbidding government support of any church. But it ran into fierce opposition in the Virginia legislature when it was introduced in June, 1779, and failed to pass.
Nevertheless, the Bill for Religious Freedom must have exerted a strong attractive force between Jefferson and Madison. They were now often in close consultation, Jefferson as newly elected governor, Madison as a member of his executive council; their personal friendship was also growing fast. Although Madison had been, from his college days, more skeptical and less orthodox than he has been painted by many biographers, his commitment to absolute freedom of thought as the undergirding of a free society was henceforth more intense. By the time Jefferson left for France, Madison was well prepared to carry on their campaign not only in Virginia, but in the first Congress, to which he would go as a representative in 1789.
In Virginia, Madison’s skill finally brought victory for Jefferson’s disestablishment bill, but not without a tough running battle against an opposition headed by the redoubtable Patrick Henry. By 1784 the state Anglican hierarchy was vociferously pressing for new tax funds to support the church, and Henry proposed an annual assessment for “the support of the Christian religion or of some Christian church,” without naming any particular sect. This attempted shift from the traditional, single-church form of establishment to the multiple, embracing several denominations, was part of a trend now apparent in more than one of the states of the new nation. It was a type of defensive strategy which would continue for nearly two centuries, as efforts to retain government sanction for religion moved to an ever broader and less sectarian base. In Virginia in 1784 the Presbyterians, hitherto enemies of establishment, now joined the phalanx demanding it in the broader form. They seemed as ready, Madison noted to his friend James Monroe, “to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out.”