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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
Meanwhile, Madison was by no means impotent on the other side of the issue. He anonymously wrote his now famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785), which was circulated wide and far in Virginia as a petition to which thousands signed their names in protest against the renewed prospect of religious establishment. As copy after copy of the petition, crowded with signatures, streamed into the Virginia Assembly, it became very clear that the majority of the people were in no mood to forsake the religious freedom they had been promised by the 1776 Declaration of Rights. The surprised proponents of the assessment bill never even bothered to bring it to a vote.
Madison’s “Remonstrance” was a piece of shrewd political propaganda. It struck a chord more in harmony with the orthodox Christianity of those to whom it was addressed than his private views might have sustained, yet it echoed the rationalist strain of his religious discussions with Jefferson.
In fifteen paragraphs, many of them harking back to the popular article on religion in the 1776 Declaration of Rights, he argued against government support of the church. Every man’s religion, he wrote, must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right … because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.… We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.… Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? … Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.…
It is noteworthy, since it bears on the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution, that to Madison and the thousands of Virginians who signed his petition, “establishment of religion” meant any government sponsorship of any or all religions, and not just the European pattern of an exclusive, official state church. (The “Remonstrance” refers repeatedly to Henry’s general assessment bill as “the proposed establishment.”) They wanted a solid “wall of separation between church and state,” to use a phrase Jefferson invented later. Acting on the theory that a good time to dispatch an enemy was when he was on the run, Madison and his friends in the legislature now took Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Liberty off the shelf where it had seasoned since 1779, and this time saw it voted in by a substantial majority. In principle it was a twin to Madison’s “Remonstrance,” but even more trenchant in its rhetoric and forthright in its defense of absolute freedom of thought and expression —a forerunner, as well as, in a sense, an interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
A last-minute effort by the opposition to confine the benefits of the law to Christians instead of protecting even (as Jefferson noted) “the Infidel of every denomination,” failed. Early in 1786, Madison was able to send his friend the news that through their collaboration the most sweeping guarantee of freedom of conscience in the history of the western world had become a statute of Virginia. He felt that its provisions, he wrote Jefferson, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” Fervently sharing this sentiment, Jefferson saw to it that the new statute was translated into French and Italian, widely published, and “inserted in the new Encyclopedie.” He reported “infinite approbation in Europe.”
The example of Virginia—by far the largest of the thirteen states in population, and home of a cluster of distinguished men headed by the revered Washington—could hardly be ignored in the rest of America. The winds of revolution already had blown away much restrictive custom and legislation by 1786. Most of the other states had recently passed bills of rights honoring religious freedom, even though, with the exception of Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York, they still had church establishment in at least the multiple form, embracing several sects. It was to be a number of years before any of them matched Virginia, yet it was natural that her action greatly strengthened the general current toward increased freedom of thought and an accompanying separation of church and state.