James Madison and the Social Utility of Religion:
Risks vs. Rewards
Thomas Jefferson overshadowed his close friend and coadjutor, James Madison,
in many ways but in one, at least, Madison was demonstrably superior to
his Monticello neighbor--in his ability to keep his religious views private.
Despite a desire to be "most scrupulously reserved on the subject" of
religion, Jefferson by the end of his life revealed more about his faith
than any other founding father. He divulged so much about so sensitive
a subject for one reason only: to defend himself against Federalist charges,
broadcast in the election of 1800, that he was an atheist.
Jefferson spent the last twenty-five years of his life refuting these
aspersions, although at no time did he conceal his deviations from orthodox
Christianity; the Trinity, for example, he dismissed as the "abracadabra
of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus;" the vicarious
atonement was a compound of "follies, falsehoods, and charlatanisms;"
predestination and original sin were "heresies of bigotry and fanaticism."
With breathtaking intellectual audacity Jefferson compiled an edition
of the New Testament containing what he judged to be the authentic sayings
of Jesus, an exercise he considered as easy as finding "diamonds in a
dunghill." As a result, it is possible to ascertain precisely what aspects
of Christianity Jefferson accepted and what he rejected. The abundance
of evidence allows us to fix him, as his grandson did, on the Unitarian
band of the religious spectrum of his day.
Madison, on the other hand, defies definition or description. Seeking
evidence of his faith quickly leads to the conclusion that there is, in
the words of the poet, no there there, that in the mature Madison's writings
there is no trace, no clue as to his personal religious convictions. Educated
by Presbyterian clergymen, Madison, as a student at Princeton (1769-1772),
seems to have developed a "transient inclination" to enter the ministry.
In a 1773 letter to a college friend he made the zealous proposal that
the rising stars of his generation renounce their secular prospects and
"publicly . . . declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates
in the cause of Christ." Two months later Madison renounced his spiritual
prospects and began the study of law. The next year he entered the political
arena, serving as a member of the Orange County Committee of Safety. Public
service seems to have crowded out of his consciousness the previous imprints
of faith. For the rest of his life there is no mention in his writings
of Jesus Christ nor of any of the issues that might concern a practicing
Christian. Late in retirement there are a few enigmatic references to
religion, but nothing else. With Madison, unlike Jefferson or any of the
other principal founding fathers with the possible exception of Washington,
one peers into a void when trying to discern evidence of personal religious
Scholars, nevertheless, have tried to construct from this unyielding
evidence a religious identity for Madison. He is such a commanding figure
in the founding period's controversies over religion's relation to government
that a knowledge of his personal religious convictions is sought as a
key to his public posture on church-state issues. The very paucity of
evidence has permitted a latitude of interpretation in which writers have
created Madison in the image of their own religious convictions. To Christian
scholars Madison is a paragon of piety; to those of a more secular bent
he is a deist. His major 19th century biographer, William C. Rives, a
pillar of the church in Virginia, argued that on Christianity's "doctrinal
points" Madison was a model of "orthodoxy and penetration." Madison's
major 20th century biographer, Irving Brant, pronounced him
a deist. Reacting to this ascription, a Presbyterian minister-scholar,
James Smylie, asserted in 1966 that Madison was nothing less than "a lay
theologian." Another 20th century biographer, Ralph Ketcham,
seems, initially, to have subscribed to Rives's view, asserting in 1960
that Madison was a man of "humble faith," who had a "deep personal attachment
to some general aspects of Christian belief." By 1971, however, Ketcham
seems to have turned to Brant's view, asserting that even in his college
days Madison was no "more than conventionally religious" and that he later
became a deist. Two recent scholars, William Lee Miller and Edwin Gaustad,
stress the mature Madison's indifference to issues of religious faith.
Within the last two years, John Noonan, a Catholic intellectual and jurist,
has pushed the pendulum back toward Reeves by insisting that Madison was
"a pious Christian," a "true follower" of Jesus and that he was guided
by a "faith . . . palpably alive, a faith stupendous in modern eyes, a
faith that God in us speaks to us." He spoke, Noonan concluded, "as a
believer in Christianity's special light," as one who "looks to the evangelization
of the world."
These differences can, perhaps, be bridged by arguing that an 18th
century deist could be a "true follower" of Jesus's moral teachings and
have a strong faith in God but it is not clear that Noonan or those sharing
Brant's view would accept this attempt at reconciliation. The strongest
evidence produced by Noonan for Madison's exemplary faith are calculated
compliments to Christianity, included in a document written to appeal
to evangelical forces during a petition campaign in 1785, and a statement
in 1833 in which the aged ex-president lauded Christianity as the "best
& purest religion." This last assertion, however, sounds very much
like the deistical maxim, frequently indulged by Jefferson, that the "pure"
religion of Jesus had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul
and the early church fathers.
To make his case, Brant relied on the testimony of Madison's contemporaries,
one of whom knew the fourth president well--the Reverend Alexander Balmaine,
the husband of one of Madison's favorite cousins and the Episcopal priest
who officiated at his marriage to Dolly Paine Todd. Brant also used the
testimony of the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, William Meade, who claimed,
on at least one occasion, to have talked religion with the former president.
Balmaine's account, as recorded by Meade, asserted that after returning
to Montpelier from college Madison
Offered for the Legislature, and it was objected to him, by his opponents,
that he was better suited to the pulpit than to the legislative hall.
His religious feeling, however, seems to have been short-lived. His
political associations were those of infidel principles, of whom there
were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet
subjected him to a general suspicion of it
According to Bishop Meade:
I was never at Mr. Madison's but once, and then our conversation took
such a turn--though not designed on my part--as to call forth some expressions
and arguments which left the impression on my mind that his creed was
not strictly regulated by the Bible.
Brant also cites a Bostonian's account of an 1815 dinner table conversation
He talked of religious sects and parties and was curious to know how
the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian
creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated
to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.
Two bits of evidence, heretofore overlooked, seem to corroborate the
claims of those who assume that the mature Madison either lost interest
in religion or migrated spiritually into one of the many mansions of deism.
First, there is the curious episode of the publication in 1802 of the
sermons of the Reverend John Witherspoon, Madison's mentor at Princeton
and, subsequently, his friend and political comrade. As was customary
in Madison's day, Witherspoon's writings were published by public subscription.
The list of subscribers was so extensive that the promoters of the publication
must have scoured the nation to obtain support. The subscribers were a
veritable who's who of the nation's political elite; Jefferson, John Adams,
John Jay, John Dickinson and many other luminaries. Also included were
many of Madison's friends and classmates at Princeton. But Madison's own
name was absent. Was the omission accidental? Or had Madison refused to
sponsor a theological opus because of disenchantment with its orthodox
Perhaps a better clue to Madison's outlook is a letter to Jefferson,
December 31, 1824, in which he complained about Presbyterian "Sectarian
Seminaries," armed with charters of incorporation, disseminating obsolete
religious doctrines, by which he clearly meant Calvinism.
Unassailable charters allowed a "creed however absurd or contrary to
that of a more enlightened Age" to be perpetuated indefinitely. The Reformation
itself, Madison continued, must be considered the "greatest of abuses,"
if legal impediments could prevent its doctrines from being brought up
to date. The idea that Madison was espousing, that religious truth must
evolve to incorporate the discoveries of science and other branches of
modern learning, was far from the theological orthodoxy of most 19th
century American churches. It can be inferred that his own religious views
had evolved from the verities he had learned at Princeton, but how and
in what direction neither this nor other writings disclose.
Madison's religious practice is better documented than his religious
principles. According to Bishop Meade:
Whatever may have been the private sentiments of Mr. Madison on the
subject of religion, he was never known to declare any hostility to
it. He always treated it with respect, attended public worship in his
neighborhood, invited ministers of religion to his house, had family
prayers on such occasions--though he did not kneel himself at prayers.
Note that Meade only attests that Madison attended church when he was
at home in Orange County. He was evidently far less conscientious when
he was away at Congress for long stretches of time in the 1780s and 90s.
In Jefferson's company in 1791 he allegedly told the governor of Vermont
that he had not been in a church for "several years," even though it is
known that he attended religious services in New York on April 30, 1789,
the day of Washington's inauguration. As president, Madison followed Jefferson's
practice of worshiping at both a local congregation and in the hall of
the House of Representatives. Madison is said to have been a pewholder
at the First Presbyterian Church, located on the site of the present-day
Rayburn House Office Building, and to have contributed to its building
fund. He also attended services in the House of Representatives, once
arriving, the British minister reported, in a coach and four. On another
occasion a Massachusetts congressman noted Madison's presence in the House
when a local Masonic lodge attended in a body. Madison's presence at service
in the House indicates that, like Jefferson, he had no objection to religious
activities on public property.
Evaluating Madison's motives for attending church services depends on
estimating his personal religious convictions. His reasons may have ranged
from simply expressing his faith to bald political calculations. No office
holder in the early republic wanted to be branded an infidel, as Jefferson
had been, and Madison surely would not have wanted to offend the sensitivities
of his political base in Orange County, composed largely of evangelical
Baptists. Jefferson attended church when he was at Monticello, sometimes
at a local Episcopal chapel and after his presidency at the Albemarle
County Court House, where services rotated weekly between Episcopalians,
Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. He endured these last services,
despite his virulent contempt for the Calvinism that infused them. In
partaking of the court house's religious fare, some of which he considered
malignant superstition, Jefferson was evidently practicing what his friend,
the British Unitarian preacher, Joseph Priestley called "thinking with
the wise, and acting with the vulgar." There is a temptation to apply
this epigram to Madison, but given his success in concealing his religious
views, it can be done with considerably less confidence than with Jefferson.
The gnawing uncertainty about Madison's personal religious convictions
lessens the confidence with which judgments can be made about the motivation
of some aspects of his public policy initiatives concerning the relationship
of religion to government, an area in which his impact on American law
and politics was extraordinary in his own lifetime and continues to be
so in modern America. Scholars consider Madison, along with Jefferson,
to be the chief advocate and apologist for what is today called the "strict
separationist" view of church-state relations, that is, the view that
there must be "a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious
activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form
of public aid or support for religion." Madison has been called an absolutist
in his opposition to government assistance to religion. This term fits
his career in Virginia politics but distorts his actions at the national
level, where he was willing to adjust his church-state convictions, as
he was his convictions on other crucial issues, to political realities.
Late in life Madison further modified his strict separationist convictions
in one particular area, the incorporation of religious societies, by endorsing
government intervention in the ecclesiastical sphere to limit the entrenched
influence of certain religious institutions.
Madison's passion for the separation of church and state was kindled
by exposure as a young man to the sufferings of neighbors enduring religious
persecution; like Moses witnessing the beating of the Hebrew slave by
the Egyptian taskmaster, Madison was moved by this experience toward a
lifelong commitment to relieve his countrymen from spiritual oppression.
The events that aroused what Madison later called his "very early and
strong impressions" in favor of religious liberty were a series of imprisonments
of Baptist ministers in 1773-1774 in Culpeper County for preaching without
licenses in violation of the toleration acts then in force in Virginia.
By this time Baptists were thickly settled in Orange County, so much so
that in 1771 5000 attended an open air meeting at Blue Run Church near
Montpelier. Young Madison informed himself of his neighbors' beliefs and,
looking beyond their emotional forms of worship, satisfied himself that
they were "in the main very orthodox." He was, therefore, indignant when
they suffered from the "diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution"
in adjacent Culpeper County. The plight of the Baptists prompted Madison,
characteristically, to reflect on their situation and derive general principles
from their misfortunes. The source of all the trouble, it was obvious
to him, was the laws establishing the Church of England as the official
religion of the commonwealth of Virginia. Establishments of religion,
Madison concluded, had broad, deleterious effects on society at large
that extended well beyond the violation of individual rights. They had
a tendency to produce a mentality susceptible to political "slavery and
Subjection" and were unfriendly to "genius," enterprise and economic growth.
Madison actively tried to help the Baptists. On January 24, 1774, he
wrote a friend that he had "squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed"
their adversaries. The recipients of his invective are unknown. He may
have confronted them as a character witness in judicial proceedings, for
there is a tradition that he "repeatedly appeared in the court of his
own county to defend the Baptist nonconformists." If so, he was unsuccessful.
But the next time Madison appeared in a public forum, he achieved an historic
victory for religious liberty.
The occasion of Madison's triumph was the Virginia Revolutionary Convention,
May 6-July 5, 1776, which instructed its delegates at the Continental
Congress to declare independence, drafted a constitution for the commonwealth,
and adopted George Mason's famous Declaration of Rights. The story has
been told often and well of how the modest young Madison amended Mason's
Declaration, transforming the latter's grant of the "fullest Toleration
in the Exercise of Religion" to a guarantee that "all men are equally
entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of
conscience." Brant's estimate of the importance of Madison's amendment
is certainly correct: it "asserted, for the first time in any body of
fundamental law, a natural right which had not previously been recognized
as such by political bodies in the Christian world." Madison offered a
corollary to his amendment which would have effectively disestablished
the Anglican Church by depriving its ministers of all "peculiar emoluments
or privileges." Challenged by the Church's supporters, this initiative
failed, sustaining the Anglican Church's power to tax everyone in the
state for its support. Virginia's dissenting denominations had now gained
equal religious rights but remained tributaries to the old established
church, an anomaly that was addressed when the first legislative session
under the new constitution convened on October 7, 1776.
Thomas Jefferson, fresh from his own triumphs in Philadelphia, appeared
at this session as a representative from Albermarle County and led a campaign,
which he later described as inciting the "severest contests in which I
have ever been engaged," to bring religious liberty to Virginia in its
fullest measure. Jefferson did not achieve everything he sought, which
included "totally and eternally restraining the civil magistrate from
all pretensions of interposing his authority . . . in matters of religion,"
but he and his allies obtained their principal goal of liberating dissenters
from paying taxes to support the ministers of the Church of England. This
exemption weighed so heavily on the Anglicans, who were left as sole supporters
of the parish ministry, that they were also relieved of the burden of
paying church taxes. The result was that, when the assembly adjourned
on December 21, 1776, it had established a sweeping system of voluntary
support for religion.. Many delegates believed that the assembly had stumbled
into the wrong kind of religious equality and that Virginia's public and
spiritual interest would be better served by requiring all citizens equally
to pay taxes to the churches of their choice, an expedient called a "general
assessment." Before adjourning the delegates resolved that because "great
Varieties of Opinions have arisen touching the propriety of a general
assessment . . . it is thought prudent to defer this matter to the Discussion
and final Determination of a future assembly when the Opinions of the
Country in general may be better known." It would take a decade for the
assembly to get a definitive reading on public opinion; in the meantime
the utility of a general assessment became the principal religious
issue in Virginia.
Where was Madison during the "desperate contests" in the fall of 1776?
He was a passive member, whose youth and modesty, Jefferson later recalled,
"prevented his venturing himself in the debate." Nevertheless, he had
a ringside seat at the struggles and absorbed the flood of arguments,
pro and contra, that inundated the assembly in the form of petitions,
newspaper articles and declamation on the floor of the house. Many of
these he would put to good use later.
In 1777 there was inconclusive skirmishing in the assembly about a general
assessment bill. Sentiment, however, began to build for public assistance
to religion and in 1779 an assessment bill passed a second reading in
the assembly which compromised the religious freedom guaranteed by the
Declaration of Rights by prescribing an official religious creed that
entitled subscribers to receive government tax dollars. Once again, Madison,
now a member of the Governor's Council, absorbed the arguments without
taking a public position and once again the Assembly deferred the vexing
issue for further consideration. The conclusion of the war with Britain
in 1783 allowed the Assembly to give its undivided attention to domestic
issues, one of which was the general assessment. In the fall of 1784 its
supporters came within a whisker of passing their favorite measure in
the form of Patrick Henry's "Bill establishing a provision for the teachers
of the Christian Religion." Henry's bill was more generous in spirit than
the 1779 assessment bill, for it required no creedal affirmations and
simply allowed each citizen to pay a modest tax to the church of his choice
and permitted non-church members to designate their tax for education,
a provision intended, apparently, as bait for Jefferson's supporters who
had been vainly trying to establish a state system of public education.
Henry's bill progressed to the point of being enrolled in anticipation
of passage when Madison, fresh from a tour in the Confederation Congress,
and his allies persuaded the House of Delegates on Christmas Eve 1784
to defer it until the fall 1785 meeting of the Assembly so that the public
opinion could be canvassed.
The story of how Madison and a diverse band of evangelicals and civil
libertarians mounted, in 1785, a successful public relations campaign
against Henry's bill, highlighted by Madison's celebrated religious liberty
manifesto, the Declaration and Remonstrance, is a familiar one in American
church-state literature, especially since it resulted in 1786 in the passage
by the Virginia Assembly of Jefferson's landmark Statute for Religious
Freedom. The downfall of the general assessment bill is usually depicted
as a kind of slow moving Armageddon, in which Madison and his followers,
representing the forces of light and progress, gradually vanquish the
legions of reaction who would have dragged America back into the dark
ages of religious persecution and bigotry.
There are several things wrong with this interpretation, one being that
it can not explain why, if the general assessment bill was so wrong-headed
and regressive, it was supported by "most Protestants in Virginia," not
to mention several of Virginia's most eminent patriots and champions of
human liberties, including Henry himself, Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall,
Edmund Pendleton and George Washington. Nor can it explain why similar
general assessment bills were supported, after 1776, by the legislatures
of five other states and by a galaxy of revolutionary heroes, including
John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman Oliver Ellsworth,
and in neighboring Maryland, Samuel Chase, William Paca and Charles Carroll.
This explanatory failure is the result of a form of scholarly malpractice
that Herbert Butterfield denounced early in the last century as the Whig
interpretation of history. According to Butterfield, "Whig" historians
regularly succumb to the temptation of concentrating on precursors of
present day "progress" and denying their opponents the benefit of "historical
understanding." Butterfield warned that Whig historians will fix their
eyes on "certain people who appear as the special agencies of . . .progress."
In Whig eyes Madison and his supporters deserve to be explained and extolled
because they are the pioneers of what is currently regarded as the "progressive"
doctrine of strict separation of church and state. No time need be wasted
on their opponents, as an offhand remark by Irving Brant, a prime example
of Butterfield's Whig historian, indicates. Brant noted that Henry's 1784
speech, advocating "religious assessments," had not survived but that
this was not a matter of regret, since it would have contained nothing
worth reading; "a plea to unite church and state is not," wrote Brant,
"of the sort on which libertarian fame is built." Ignoring the case for
general religious assessments does not alter the reality that in post-1776
large numbers of Americans, great and small, approved them. We need to
know why they did, if we would fully understand Madison's opposition to
the state support of religion.
Advocates for assessment endorsed the distinction Virginia's Presbyterian
leadership made in 1784 between supporting religion as a "Spiritual system"
and "in a civil way." No one wanted to turn the clock back to an era in
which the state supported a system of religious beliefs because it purported
to offer the one, true path to spiritual bliss. What many Virginians wanted,
in common with citizens in other states, was to avail themselves of what
petitioners to the General Assembly repeatedly called the "Public utility"
of religion, by which they meant its capacity to promote the general welfare
of society. Not only in Virginia but in Congress and throughout the nation
religion was repeatedly acclaimed in the 1780s for its ability to promote
happiness, prosperity, peace, order, security and safety. Summarizing
the case for the public utility of religion, a Presbyterian minister observed
that "if we consider the end of civil society and the evils it was designed
to remedy, we will be convinced that from its very nature, that it [government]
cannot reach that end, nor guard against those evils, without the aid
of religion. Let it suffice to observe that the security of life, liberty
and property" is impossible without religion. It is no exaggeration to
assert that many, troubled by the unsettled social conditions of the 1780s,
and the apparent disintegration of popular morality, regarded religion
as the only hope for society's secular salvation.
Religion was expected to come to the rescue by creating a population
of law abiding, good neighbors. It would, the citizens of Amherst County
confidently predicted, "dispose Men to mutual acts of benevolence and
render them dutiful subjects to the state." Why was this so? Because religion
was considered to be a uniquely effective incubator of virtue and morality.
"The Doctrines of Christianity," asserted Virginia's Episcopal clergy
in 1776, " have a greater Tendency to produce Virtue amongst Men than
any human Laws or Institutions." "Good morals," added Madison's cousin,
Bishop James Madison, "can spring only from the bosom of religion." Religious
faith, a "Social Christian" declared in the Virginia Gazette, Sept.
18, 1779, "made men more quiet, better members of society." "More than
any single thing," it created, "good order, good morals, and happiness
public and private. It makes good men and good men must be good citizens."
According to Bishop Madison, religion did more; it produced "the perfection
of citizens." Religion had tools that the secularists lacked: first love,
the love of Christ, which was expressed in obedience to his commandments
and, if this failed, the "system of future rewards and punishments" derided
as bribes and terror by opponents, but effective nonetheless in guaranteeing
virtuous behavior. It was a truism of the age that virtue was a prerequisite
for republican government. In producing virtue religion enabled the state
to achieve its preeminent revolutionary goal: the perpetuation of republicanism.
That the state should concern itself with the character of its citizens
was an old idea, stretching back to classical antiquity. That it could
use religion to shape civic consciousness was an equally venerable strategy
of statecraft which persisted, Madison noted, in the Europe of his day.
(No less an authority than David Hume, described by some scholars as Madison's
mentor in political philosophy, advocated an established church as a way
to endow government with "security and stability.") Madison himself pointed
out that the state's use of religion for civic purposes was a favorite
project of earlier generations of British statesmen. Other Virginians
reminded their fellow citizens that the wisdom of this policy had been
acknowledged "at every Period of time and in every Corner of the Globe."
"The wisest Legislators of Antiquity," they claimed, were "expressive
of their veneration for religion, at least as an assistant to civil Government."
Plutarch, for example, had asserted "a City might be as well built in
the air, without any earth to stand upon, as a Commonwealth can be either
constituted or preserved without the support of religion."
The contest between the supporters of the general assessment and Madison
was not, however, another skirmish in the battle between ancients and
moderns, for Henry and his counterparts in the other states were innovators.
Heretofore states had promoted religion by "exclusive establishments,"
i.e., by supporting one particular denomination. By proposing to give
the individual citizen the option of designating his taxes to any one
of a number of denominations, the advocates for general assessment had
devised a new mechanism which was, in the view of the legal historian,
Leonard Levy, unique, a judgment with which Madison agreed. "Experience
gives no model of Ge[nera]l Ass[essmen]t," he observed in December 1784.
Henry's forces supported their scheme with innovative arguments, the
most striking being that it did not violate the freedom of religion clause
of the Declaration of Rights of 1776. According to Richard Henry Lee,
the Declaration "rather contends against forcing modes of faith and forms
of worship than against compelling contributions to support religion in
general." How, indeed, could requiring the citizens of Virginia to give
financial support to the church of their choice be construed as violating
freedom of conscience. People could believe anything they wanted and support
any church they wanted. "Men are left as free as Air in the choice of
their own religion," claimed petitioners from Surry County on November
14, 1785. The distinguished Virginia jurist and eminent commentator on
Blackstone, St. George Tucker saw in the general assessment nothing "incompatible
with the most perfect liberty of conscience in matters of religion."
The supporters of general assessment packaged the measure as a panacea
for the social instability of the post war period, promising that it offered
a cheap, safe, equitable means of empowering the government of Virginia
to obtain the highest ends for which it had been constituted in 1776:
happiness, prosperity, security, order and perpetuation of republicanism.
Why did Madison oppose such a program? In the first place the scandal
of the persecution of the Baptists in 1773-1774 seems to have produced
in him a visceral aversion to public officials' employing "Religion as
an engine of Civil Policy," a policy Madison believed to be morally wrong--"an
unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation"-- and objectionable on
practical grounds as well, for it would not, in his view, work as advertised.
Consider in this respect three statements made by Madison in 1787. In
a memorandum, called "Vices of the Political System," which Madison composed
in the spring of 1787 to guide his thinking about the forthcoming federal
constitutional convention, he speculated about ways to prevent the injustices
that seemed to disfigure republican governments. Could religion, Madison
asked himself, "be a sufficient restraint? It is not pretended to be such
on men individually considered. Will its effects be greater on them considered
in an aggregate view? quite the reverse." Madison repeated these views
in a speech in the Federal Convention on June 6, 1787, adding that not
only was "little to be expected" from religion in a positive way but that
it might become "a motive to persecution and oppression." He aired them
for a third time in Federalist 10, published November 22, 1787.
In that famous essay Madison inquired how "the public good, and private
rights," might be secured against tyrannical majorities. "We well know,"
he answered, "that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on
as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice
and violence of individuals and lose their efficiency in proportion to
the number combined together." These are extraordinary statements, betraying
a pessimism about the social value of religion so extreme that they separate
Madison from all other Founders, Jefferson included.
Do any of Madison's subsequent statements mitigate this harsh skepticism
In 1825 he recommended to Jefferson that Washington's Farewell Address,
which contained in its middle section an encomium on religion and morality
as the "great pillars" of "human happiness" and "political prosperity,"
be included in the curriculum at the University of Virginia but there
is no evidence that these particular passages commended Washington's valedictory
to him. There is little else to offset the impression that by the mid-1780s
Madison had reached the singular conclusion that religion was not a positive
By 1785, the year of the decisive struggle over the general assessment,
Madison had reached one other significant conclusion about the social
characteristics of religion, specifically, about the conditions most conducive
to its growth. He had become convinced that religion did best, when it
stood on its own bottom, unassisted by the state. During the decade long
controversy over the general assessment the Baptists repeatedly argued
that history proved this point, citing the unprecedented growth of genuine
Christianity during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire, when
it was unassisted and often persecuted by the state, and its deterioration
from the moment the Emperor Constantine made it the official imperial
religion early in the fourth century. Madison was persuaded by this argument
and used it in his speeches and writings in 1784-5.
Madison also developed a theory of his own about religion's capacity
to sustain itself in the absence of state support, although his reasoning
on this point is difficult to reconstruct because of a paucity of evidence.
In notes for a speech in December 1784 he commented on the "propensity
of man to Religion," which he later explained as a psychic need in humans
for the consolations and explanatory apparatus of organized religion.
Madison's evangelical allies believed that religion would flourish because
of its "native excellence" and because Christ, as the head of the Church,
would "support it to its final consummation," but there is no evidence
that he shared this brand of optimism. Late in life Madison expressed
his satisfaction that the advocates of voluntarism had been vindicated
by the vibrant state of religion in Virginia--the "morality of the priesthood
and the devotion of the people have manifestly increased," he wrote in
March 1819 He admitted, however, that "causes other than the abolition
of the legal establishment of religion" were responsible by which he meant
the series of major religious revivals that began in 1800. Since Madison
could not have foreseen these events in the mid-1780s, his expectations,
at that point, about the prospects for voluntary propagation of religion
in Virginia are unclear but he must, at least, have believed that the
commonwealth's denominations would acquire enough strength to thwart each
other's dangerous designs. In fact, a diverse, flourishing religious community
was necessary for Madison's calculations about the conditions for securing
social peace. In 1788, at the Virginia Constitutional Convention, he articulated
his famous theory, which he applied in both the secular and spiritual
spheres, that multiple healthy sects were necessary in any polity to prevent
a dominant brand of believers from oppressing or even cutting the throats
of its competitors--once again, an expression of his fears about the dark
side of religious faith.
Here, then, were the practical reasons for Madison's opposition in the
crucial years, 1784-5, to tax support for religion. Government support
of religion would not, he was convinced, give taxpayers the benefits they
were promised and, even if religion could produce "Strength and Stability
of Government," as the people of Amelia County expected, or "peace, order,
and decency," as the citizens of Caroline County hoped, it would do its
work better if left alone.
The principles on which Madison founded his opposition to tax
supported religion have had great resonance in American history. These
principles were the gravamen of Madison's celebrated Memorial and Remonstrance,
written in June 1785. This document has been extolled by Madison's admirers
as "the most powerful defense of religious liberty ever written in America,"
as a manifesto worthy of "Milton, Jefferson, or Mill." The Memorial
did, in fact, resemble two of Jefferson's most important state papers.
Like the Danbury Baptist letter, "raw political motives" (Thomas Buckley's
description) were at work in writing the Memorial, for it was a
petition written to obtain signatures sufficient to turn the political
tide against the supporters of general assessment. Like the Declaration
of Independence, the Memorial was not intended to contain anything
"new." Both documents, said Madison, were meant to "assert not to discover
truths." In fact, every point in the Memorial had been repeatedly
made from 1776 onward by opponents of general assessment. Madison's contribution
was to express his fellow citizens' objections with an elegance and lucidity
that elevated them from the din of the political controversy to a lofty
place in the literature on religious liberty..
The first principle Madison enunciated was that any government embrace
of religion violated the fundamental natural right to freedom of conscience
which had been reserved by individual citizens when they left the state
of nature to enter civil society.. This was pure John Locke and, accordingly,
scholars have interpreted the Memorial as an expression of Lockean
liberalism. In doing so, they have overlooked the fact that Madison employed
an argument of another school of British political thinkers, equally familiar
to the readers of the Memorial, which undoubtedly had a greater
impact on them by enabling them to appreciate his contention that the
general assessment bill posed a clear and present danger to the people
The nature of the threat was conveyed by a question Madison posed in
article three of the Memorial: "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." Here Madison was warning his audience
that the general assessment bill, as innocuous as its supporters made
it appear, could lead to an abuse of power-- a particularly egregious
abuse, he added, for it might lead to nothing less than the establishment
in Virginia of the Inquisition or to an effort to establish religious
uniformity in the commonwealth on the model of, say, James I, which might
drench the land in "Torrents of blood." These were familiar charges--Baptists
had warned that the general assessment might lead to the Inquisition--
and an anonymous writer in the Virginia Gazette, November 8, 1783
anticipated the argument in Madison's Memorial by warning that
the general assessment would "certainly open a door for the great red
dragon, that horrible monster persecution, to enter into our Western world.
For if the Legislature have a power to enforce a maintenance for the Clergy,
they must also have a right to impose creeds, and forms of worship, and
demand a universal conformity to them, on pain of suffering and punishment
for the neglect, as they shall judge proper, both in kind and degree."
Other opponents of the tax did not scruple to see that "the severest persecutions
in England were ransacked for colors in which to paint the burdens and
scourges of religious freedom," not neglecting to cite the possibility
of the rekindling in Virginia of the "Smithfield fires" in which Protestant
martyrs had been burned alive in the 1550s.
Even to intimate, as Madison did in his Memorial, that Henry,
Lee, Marshall, Washington and other supporters of the general assessment
favored a policy that could conceivably end in auto-de-fas in Albemarle
County appears to be the grossest form of demagoguery, an effort to frighten
the citizenry into opposing the general assessment by circulating the
crudest kinds of chimeras.,Yet Madison was never called to account by
either friends or enemies of the religious tax because they recognized
that he was employing a thoroughly respectable form of analysis, clothed
in impeccable revolutionary credentials.
This mode of analysis derived from what has been called opposition or
country ideology, a set of assumptions about political behavior rooted
in the English Commonwealth period of the mid-17th century which blossomed
in early 18th century Britain among the opponents of Sir Robert
Walpole. The central feature of this ideology, which was received in colonial
America with an enthusiasm that it never enjoyed in the mother country,
was its paranoid-like fear of power, its conviction that the principle
feature of power was its "aggressiveness: its endlessly propulsive tendency
to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries" to devour liberty. One
of the principal antidotes prescribed for the menace of the power was
jealously, which in the 18th century meant suspicion, a hyper-active,
deliberately cultivated suspicion which viewed political power with a
"watchful, hawk-eyed" vigilance, capable of detecting the first symptoms
of aggression. In his famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania
John Dickinson had, in 1768, declared that " a perpetual jealousy respecting
liberty is absolutely requisite in all free states." In the 1760s and
1770s American leaders worked to cultivate "an extreme spirit of jealousy"
in their fellow citizens with such conspicuous success that Charles Carroll
of Maryland concluded in 1773 that "jealousy and suspicion had become
the vary basis of American politics." Most Americans believed that only
by indulging their jealousy had they detected in the British colonial
policies prior to 1776 the seeds of slavery meditated for them by George
III and his henchmen.
Americans did not simply switch off their jealously after 1776. They
now insisted that it was a republican virtue--"Republican jealousy," they
claimed, "was the guardian angel of these States"-- and "directed it against
themselves." Explained Senator William Plumer, "the prejudices which the
revolution had engendered against the arbitrary government of Great Britain
made the people jealous of giving to their own officers so much power
as was necessary." "Jealousy," said Silas Deane in 1777, is now "the ruling
feature in the American character." The reservoir of jealousy in Virginia
in the post war years was as deep, possibly deeper, than anywhere else
in America ; it was Jefferson's credo, for example, that "free government
is founded in jealousy." Madison played on this sentiment in his Memorial.
"It is proper," he wrote, "to take alarm at the first experiment on our
liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens
and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution." Madison
then quoted the notorious words of the British Declaratory Act of 1766,
"in all cases whatsoever," to alert his readers that the general assessment
act was potentially as dangerous as the Stamp Act which preceded it or
the Tea Act which followed , to which, in fact, he alluded by mentioning
a "three pence" duty, the levy imposed on tea in 1773. Just as Americans
had mobilized to defeat these oppressive British statutes, they must do
the same to nip the general assessment in the bud. "Let warning be taken
at the first fruits of the threatened innovation," Madison enjoined his
fellow citizens. And let them arouse themselves to defeat it.
There was, Madison later admitted, a downside to the suspicion he and
his supporters were trying to fan in the summer of 1785, which became
painfully evident in the effort to ratify the Federal Constitution two
years later. In that contest Madison and his fellow Federalists confronted
a surfeit of "green eyed hell-born" jealousy in the arguments of the Antifederalists
whose credo was that "fear, or jealousy or watchfulness " was "indispensably
necessary for the preservation of liberty." The Antifederalists were pure
exponents of opposition ideology, for they believed that any grant of
power by the people to their elected representatives would be abused.
Strengthen the national government, they warned, and it would soon obliterate
the states; give the executive the power to make appointments and he would
corrupt the legislators and make them tools and partners in his tyrannical
projects. Confronting such arguments as Publius in the Federalist,
Madison commended the "sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism" but
assailed the Antifederalists for surrendering themselves to the "incoherent
dreams of a delirious jealousy." They had, he claimed, renounced "every
rule by which events ought to be calculated" and substituted "an indiscriminate
and unbounded jealousy, with which all reasoning must be vain." "The sincere
friends of liberty," he added, "who give themselves up to the extravagancies
of this passion are not aware of the injury they do to their own cause."
This admonition Madison would not apply to himself when contemplating
the prospects of government assistance to religion. Religion, in his view,
was a special case, a force against whose aggrandizing impulses and pernicious
possibilities no degree of jealousy could be considered excessive.
Madison's Memorial circulated as a petition during the summer
and fall of 1785 and was eventually signed by over 1500 Virginians, an
impressive figure but less than one-fifth of all signatories of anti-assessment
petitions. The most popular petitions came from the pens of Baptists,
who agreed with Madison's position on the total separation of church and
state but argued for it from different premises, from their traditional
scriptural view that Christ's kingdom was not of this world rather than
from a Lockean theory of the social compact. The Baptists did not scruple
to arouse anxiety and jealousy of the general assessment bill, suggesting
as Madison had done, that it might set the commonwealth on the path to
the Inquisition and conjuring up visions of bonfires for heretics. According
to a recent authority, the joint efforts of Madison and the Baptists would
have been in vain had the commonwealth's Presbyterians, who had appeared
to be gravitating toward support of the general assessment bill in 1784,
not returned to the opposition's fold in 1785. The joint efforts of these
denominations and Madison's civil libertarian allies led to the decisive
defeat of the general assessment bill, in the October 1785 session of
the General Assembly, thus ending the decade long battle over issue of
whether the state would be permitted to offer financial support, on an
impartial basis, to its Christian religious denominations. In place of
the general assessment bill, the Virginia Assembly in January 1786 passed
a famous measure strictly separating church and state, Jefferson's Statute
for Religious Freedom, which had been languishing in the House for seven
Historians have described the defeat of the general assessment bill as
"anomaly," because, in the 1780s, the tide on church-state relations was
running in the opposite direction in many states. Leonard Levy has argued
that "multiple establishments" of religion existed in six states during
this period in three of which general assessment measures were written
into law. In a campaign that simultaneously tracked events in Virginia
in an uncanny way, the Maryland Assembly submitted a general assessment
measure, which it hoped to pass, to the people of the state in January
1785, which generated the same deluge of public commentary as its sister
measure had done in Virginia. Had Virginia at any time during the first
half of 1785 passed the general assessment bill, Maryland might well have
followed her example; together the two states would have produced fresh
momentum throughout the new nation for state assistance to religion with
significant long range consequences for the American state-church relations.
The importance of the contest in Virginia in 1785 transcended the borders
of the state, as Madison knew. Virginia, he wrote late in life, had brought
"the great and interesting subject" of tax support for religion, " to
"a decisive test" and set the American nation on its future course.
After 1786 Madison's involvement with church-state issues shifted to
the national level. He was the principal architect of the federal constitution,
drawn in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Although the drafters of
the constitution were far from irreverent, some pious citizens criticized
them for paying too little attention to religion.. The constitution dealt
with it in Article 6 by proscribing religious tests as a qualification
for federal office but it was otherwise silent on matters of faith. With
good reason, Madison and most of his colleagues believed, for by denying
the new federal government power in matters of religion, they deprived
it of the authority to interfere with the peoples' faith and thus protected
the freedom of religion. This reasoning failed to satisfy many in Virginia,
including Madison's Baptist supporters, who demanded an explicit, written
declaration, protecting the free exercise of religion. Both the Baptists
and the members of the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 were apprehensive
that the new federal government might try to establish religion in the
traditional, exclusive sense and, therefore, the latter recommended that
its representatives in Congress guarantee that "no particular religious
sect or society ought to be favored or established by Law in preference
to others." Although Madison was skeptical of the power of "parchment
barriers," he agreed to introduce a bill of rights, protecting religious
freedom, in the first session of the new federal congress.
On June 8, 1789, Madison redeemed his pledge by introducing a bill of
rights which stipulated that "no national religion be established," i.e.,
no single religion legally superior to all others. Although the issue
with which Madison was concerned in 1789 was far different from the problem
in play in 1785--a general religious tax--jurists (those, for example
dissenting in the Everson case in 1947) have consulted his opinions
in 1785 to discover what he meant in 1789 when he used the term "established"
which was transmuted later in the summer into the First Amendment expression,
"establishment of religion." The attempt has been made, in other words,
to discover Madison's "original intention" regarding establishment to
discern the "true" meaning of the First Amendment. Madison would have
scorned this judicial project, as those writing at the height of the "original
intent" controversy in the 1980s, pointed out. He believed, as he repeatedly
affirmed, that the meaning of a statute must be sought in the intentions
of those who ratified it, not of those who drafted it--in the case of
the First Amendment in the minds of the members of the state legislatures,
not of the members of the First Federal Congress.
Madison continued to play a major role in the House of Representatives
until he retired from that body in 1797. He returned to public service
in 1801 as Jefferson's secretary of state and in 1809 he was elected to
the first of two terms as president. In discharging these high offices
Madison had an opportunity to correct practices which violated his convictions
about the necessity of a strict separation between church and state. That
he did not do so has exposed him to charges of political opportunism and
hypocrisy. After retiring from public life, Madison composed what has
been called his "detached memorandum," well known to scholars, in which
he denounced Congress's appointment of and payment of chaplains, both
civilian and military, as inconsistent "with the pure principles of religious
freedom." The principle here was the precisely the one that made the general
assessment bills of the 1780s so controversial: the use of tax dollars
to pay ministers of the gospel. Madison moved heaven and earth against
the latter, but, as chief executive, suffered the former in silence. Why?
The answer, which he himself never ventured to express, seems to be a
principle of constitutional construction that permitted him to sign into
law a bill establishing the Second Bank of the United States in 1811,
even though he had opposed the First Bank as unconstitutional twenty years
earlier: the conviction that long settled use established a precedent
that legitimized a practice. In signing the Second Bank Bill Madison "declared,
in accordance with his 'early and unchanged opinion' that such a construction
by usage and precedent should override the intellectual scruples of the
individual." When Madison became president in 1809, Congress had been
employing and paying chaplains for more than thirty year, ample time,
he evidently thought, to give the sanction of precedent to a practice
he personally deplored.
The same considerations undoubtedly informed Madison's attitude toward
what he assailed in his "detached memorandum" as "Religious proclamations
by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts." Madison opposed
these on principle, as involving the state in religious exercises. Jefferson,
as president, had refused to issue them, even though his predecessors,
Adams and Washington had done so. When requested by Congress at the beginning
of the war of 1812 to proclaim a day of "public humiliation and prayer,"
Madison complied and issued additional proclamations during the course
of the war, apparently because he believed these pronouncements had been
sanctioned as war measures by the actions of the Continental and Confederations
Congresses which issued 20 of them between 1774 and 1784, in the writing
of one of which Madison himself had participated.
If Madison believed that, in these cases, precedent overrode his private,
he took a different line when confronted with what he regarded as "innovations"
in church-state relations. The general assessment bill had been just such
an innovation and so, too, in Madison's opinion were the various proposals
that began emerging in the 1780s that the state, or in some cases the
federal government, incorporate religious denominations, i.e., make them
corporate bodies at law, enabling them to perform such functions as receiving
bequests. Madison had supported a bill in the Virginia Assembly in 1784
to incorporate the Episcopal Church, solely because he regarded its passage
as a strategic blunder which would alienate the Presbyterians and turn
them against the general assessment bill. The legislature's power to issue
charters of incorporation he regarded as dangerous, as he explained in
the debate over the chartering of a national bank in Congress in 1791.
"He dilated," according House records, "on the great and extensive influence
that incorporated societies had on public affairs in Europe. They are
a powerful machine, which have always been found competent to effect objects
on principles, in a great measure independent of the people." Madison,
his jealousy aroused, worried that if Congress were given the power to
incorporate a bank, it "might even establish religious teachers in every
parish and pay them out of the treasury of the United States"
Madison was proud of the fact that in 1811 he had vetoed a bill to incorporate
an Episcopal church in Alexandria. By then the issue of incorporation
of religious societies was percolating in Virginia. Representatives of
most denominations considered it unfair that the Assembly resolutely refused
to give them the benefit of incorporation, even as it issued charters
to every conceivable enterprise including railroads, copper mining companies
and even mineral springs. What the churches wanted was a general incorporation
law, similar to those in other states, which would treat them equally
with other organizations and treat each denomination equally with its
sister confession, allowing all to obtain routinely charters which would
permit a more efficient administration of their affairs and permit them
to serve the community more robustly in their role as "religious charities."
The efforts of Virginia's churches to obtain charters of incorporation
filled Madison with foreboding. "The dangers of silent accumulations &
encroachments, by Ecclesiastical Bodies," he warned in his "detached memorandum,"
"have not engaged sufficient attention in the U.S." Religious institutions
supplicating the assembly must, in his opinion, be watched with extraordinary
vigilance, for charters of incorporation might be the "crevices . . .
thro which bigotry may introduce persecution; a monster, that feeding
& thriving on its own venom, gradually swells to a size and strength
overwhelming all laws divine & human." "Are the United States," said
Madison, now thoroughly worked up, "duly awake to the tendency of the
precedents they are establishing, in the multiplied incorporations of
Religious Congregations with the facility of acquiring & holding property
real and as well as personal." The churches of Virginia could become as
bloated with wealth as the English monasteries before their dissolution
in the 16th century; "how enormous were the treasures of [those]
religious societies, and how gross the corruptions engendered by them."
Reverting to the lessons of the Revolution, as he had in 1785, Madison
suggested that the incorporation of religious societies was potentially
as dangerous as the passage of the Tea Act and should be opposed on the
same principle. The jealousy of Americans should never sleep; "let them
exert the same wisdom [as in 1773], in watching against every evil lurking
under plausible disguises and growing up from small beginnings." By 1824
Madison had become so exercised about the dangers of religious corporations
that he proposed to Jefferson that the state of Virginia should consider
moving against certain theologically retrograde "sectarian seminaries,"
shielded by the "perpetual inviolability of charters." In 1833, three
years before his death, he repeated this proposal, complaining about the
"omission of the public authorities, to limit the duration of the charters
of religious corporations, & the amount of property acquirable by
them [which] may lead to an injurious accumulation of wealth." The sacred
principle of separation of church and state could, apparently, be comprised,
if the wrong kind of religion or a rich kind of religion was being protected
by objectionable legal vehicles.
Madison is, of course, still appealed to as an oracle on church-state
issues but what is it, exactly, that he has to say to us? If it seems
implausible that public officials, by extending modest, even handed support
to religious institutions, risk unleashing the "red dragon of persecution"
and imposing a spiritual despotism on the country, then Madison has nothing
to teach us except the folly of allowing an obsolete ideology of "argus-eyed
jealousy" to prevent our leaders from enlisting religion's unique resources
to help rescue our fallen fellow citizens and release the nation from
the grip of hydra-headed social pathologies inconceivable to the founders
of this nation. If, on the other hand, we believe that the United States
is not exempt from the laws of human nature and there is no reason why
the fearful religious persecutions that afflict many parts of the world
today can not cross the ocean and alight here, we should give Madison's
apprehensions and his remedies the closest attention. In Madison's own
day good and wise men differed passionately over whether the rewards of
public assistance to religion outweighed its risks. Patrick Henry and
his supporters were sure that they did. Madison and his followers were
equally certain that they did not. The question is on the table again,
as we speak.
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