In response to widespread sentiment that to survive the United States needed a stronger federal government, a convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and on September 17 adopted the Constitution of the United States. Aside from Article VI, which stated that "no religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification" for federal office holders, the Constitution said little about religion. Its reserve troubled two groups of Americans--those who wanted the new instrument of government to give faith a larger role and those who feared that it would do so. This latter group, worried that the Constitution did not prohibit the kind of state-supported religion that had flourished in some colonies, exerted pressure on the members of the First Federal Congress. In September 1789 the Congress adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution, which, when ratified by the required number of states in December 1791, forbade Congress to make any law "respecting an establishment of religion."
The first two Presidents of the United States were patrons of religion--George Washington was an Episcopal vestryman, and John Adams described himself as "a church going animal." Both offered strong rhetorical support for religion. In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington called religion, as the source of morality, "a necessary spring of popular government," while Adams claimed that statesmen "may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand." Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth Presidents, are generally considered less hospitable to religion than their predecessors, but evidence presented in this section shows that, while in office, both offered religion powerful symbolic support.
Religion and the Constitution
When the Constitution was submitted to the American public, "many pious people" complained that the document had slighted God, for it contained "no recognition of his mercies to us . . . or even of his existence." The Constitution was reticent about religion for two reasons: first, many delegates were committed federalists, who believed that the power to legislate on religion, if it existed at all, lay within the domain of the state, not the national, governments; second, the delegates believed that it would be a tactical mistake to introduce such a politically controversial issue as religion into the Constitution. The only "religious clause" in the document--the proscription of religious tests as qualifications for federal office in Article Six--was intended to defuse controversy by disarming potential critics who might claim religious discrimination in eligibility for public office.
That religion was not otherwise addressed in the Constitution did not make it an "irreligious" document any more than the Articles of Confederation was an "irreligious" document. The Constitution dealt with the church precisely as the Articles had, thereby maintaining, at the national level, the religious status quo. In neither document did the people yield any explicit power to act in the field of religion. But the absence of expressed powers did not prevent either the Continental-Confederation Congress or the Congress under the Constitution from sponsoring a program to support general, nonsectarian religion.
Franklin Requests Prayers in the Constitutional Convention
Benjamin Franklin delivered this famous speech, asking that the Convention begin each day's session with prayers, at a particularly contentious period, when it appeared that the Convention might break up over its failure to resolve the dispute between the large and small states over representation in the new government. The eighty one year old Franklin asserted that "the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth--that God governs in the Affairs of Men." "I also believe," Franklin continued, that "without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel." Franklin's motion failed, ostensibly because the Convention had no funds to pay local clergymen to act as chaplains.
Speech to the Constitutional Convention, June 28, 1787. Benjamin Franklin, Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (145)
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Prohibition of Religious Tests
The language prohibiting religious tests as a qualification for federal office holders, ultimately incorporated into Article Six of the Constitution, was proposed by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina on August 20, 1787, and adopted by the full Convention on August 30. Here we see the language as it was added to the first working draft of the Constitution, the so-called Committee of Detail report of August 6, 1787, by the Convention secretary, William Jackson.
Constitution of the United States (William Jackson Copy), Committee of Detail report. Broadside, August 6, 1787. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (146)
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Religion and the Bill of Rights
Many Americans were disappointed that the Constitution did not contain a bill of rights that would explicitly enumerate the rights of American citizens and enable courts and public opinion to protect these rights from an oppressive government. Supporters of a bill of rights permitted the Constitution to be adopted with the understanding that the first Congress under the new government would attempt to add a bill of rights.
James Madison took the lead in steering such a bill through the First Federal Congress, which convened in the spring of 1789. The Virginia Ratifying Convention and Madison's constituents, among whom were large numbers of Baptists who wanted freedom of religion secured, expected him to push for a bill of rights. On September 28, 1789, both houses of Congress voted to send twelve amendments to the states. In December 1791, those ratified by the requisite three fourths of the states became the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Religion was addressed in the First Amendment in the following familiar words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In notes for his June 8, 1789, speech introducing the Bill of Rights, Madison indicated his opposition to a "national" religion. Most Americans agreed that the federal government must not pick out one religion and give it exclusive financial and legal support.
Proposed Constitutional Amendments
The Virginia Ratifying Convention approved the Constitution with the understanding that the state's representatives in the First Federal Congress would try to procure amendments that the Convention recommended. The twentieth proposed amendment deals with religion; it is an adaptation of the final article in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 with this additional phrase: "that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by Law in preference to others."
Proposed amendments to the Constitution of the United States. [page one] - [page two] - [page three] - [page four] Virginia Ratifying Convention, Broadside, June 25, 1788. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (147)
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Baptist Preacher's Objections to the Constitution
The influential Baptist preacher, John Leland, wrote a letter, containing ten objections to the Federal Constitution, and sent it to Colonel Thomas Barbour, an opponent of the Constitution in James Madison's Orange County district. Leland's objections were copied by Captain Joseph Spencer, one of Madison's Baptist friends, and sent to Madison so that he could refute the arguments. Leland's final objection was that the new constitution did not sufficiently secure "What is dearest of all---Religious Liberty." His chief worry was "if a Majority of Congress with the President favour one System more than another, they may oblige all others to pay to the support of their System as much as they please."
Objections to the Federal Constitution, [February 1788]. [page one] - [page two] John Leland. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (148)
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Madison's Notes for the Bill of Rights
Madison used this outline to guide him in delivering his speech introducing the Bill of Rights into the First Congress on June 8, 1789. Madison proposed an amendment to assuage the anxieties of those who feared that religious freedom would be endangered by the unamended Constitution. According to The Congressional Register Madison, on June 8, moved that "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed."
Notes for a speech introducing the Bill of Rights, [June 8, 1789]. [page one] - [page two] James Madison, Holograph notes. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (149)
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The Bill of Rights
The necessary two thirds majority in each house of Congress ratified the Bill of Rights on September 28, 1789. As sent to the states for approval, the Bill of Rights contained twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution. Amendments One and Two did not receive the required approval of three fourths of the states. As a result, Article Three in the original Bill of Rights became the First Amendment to the Constitution. This copy on vellum was signed by Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg, Vice President John Adams, and Secretary of State Samuel Otis.
The Bill of Rights (the John Beckley copy) September 28, 1789. Holograph manuscript on vellum. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (150)
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The Rhetorical Support of Religion: Washington and Adams
The country's first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were firm believers in the importance of religion for republican government. As citizens of Virginia and Massachusetts, both were sympathetic to general religious taxes being paid by the citizens of their respective states to the churches of their choice. However both statesmen would have discouraged such a measure at the national level because of its divisiveness. They confined themselves to promoting religion rhetorically, offering frequent testimonials to its importance in building the moral character of American citizens, that, they believed, undergirded public order and successful popular government.
George Washington, Episcopal Vestryman
Washington was for many years a vestryman at Truro Parish, his local Episcopal Church. The entry of June 5, 1772, shows Washington and his neighbor, George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, engaged in parish business, including making arrangements for replacing the front steps of the church, painting its roof and selling church pews to the members as a means of obtaining revenue. The minutes of the meeting also reveal that Washington and George William Fairfax presented the parish with gold leaf to be used to gild letters on "Carved Ornaments" on the altar.
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The Vestry Book of Truro Parish, Virginia, 1732-1802. Manuscript volume. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (152)
George Washington. Chalk drawing on paper, ca. 1800, by St. Memin. Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress (151)
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The draft of the circular letter is in the hand of a secretary, although the signature is Washington's. Some have called this concluding paragraph "Washington's Prayer." In it, he asked God to: "dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation."
Circular to the chief executives of the states, June 11, 1783. George Washington, Manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (153)
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"To Bigotry no Sanction"
President George Washington and a group of public officials, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, left New York City, the temporary capital of the United States, on August 15, 1790, for a brief tour of Rhode Island. At Newport, Washington received an address of congratulations from the congregation of the Touro Synagogue. His famous answer, assuring his fellow citizens "of the Stock of Abraham" that the new American republic would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution not assistance," is seen here in the copy from Washington's letterbook.
George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in New Port, Rhode Island. [page one] - [page two] Manuscript copy, Letterbook 1790-1794. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (154)
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Washington's Farewell Address
George Washington's Farewell Address is one of the most important documents in American history. Recommendations made in it by the first president, particularly in the field of foreign affairs, have exerted a strong and continuing influence on American statesmen and politicians. The address, in which Washington informed the American people that he would not seek a third term and offered advice on the country's future policies, was published on September 19, 1796, in David Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser. It was immediately reprinted in newspapers and as a pamphlet throughout the United States. The address was drafted in July 1796 by Alexander Hamilton and revised for publication by the president himself. Washington also had at his disposal an earlier draft by James Madison.
The "religion section" of the address was for many years as familiar to Americans as was Washington's warning that the United States should avoid entangling alliances with foreign nations. Washington's observations on the relation of religion to government were commonplace, and similar statements abound in documents from the founding period. Washington's prestige, however, gave his views a special authority with his fellow citizens and caused them to be repeated in political discourse well into the nineteenth century.
Hamilton's Draft of Washington's Farewell Address
George Washington's Farewell Address was drafted by Alexander Hamilton who made a stronger case for the necessity of religious faith as a prop for popular government than Washington was willing to accept. Washington incorporated Hamilton's assertion that it was unreasonable to suppose that "national morality can be maintained in exclusion of religious principle," but declined to add Hamilton's next sentence, written in the left margin of this page: "does it [national morality] not require the aid of a generally received and divinely authoritative Religion?"
Draft of Washington's Farewell Address, [July] 1796. Alexander Hamilton. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (155)
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The Farewell Address
In his Farewell Address, the first president advised his fellow citizens that "Religion and morality" were the "great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens." "National morality," he added, could not exist "in exclusion of religious principle." "Virtue or morality," he concluded, as the products of religion, were "a necessary spring of popular government." The "religion section" is located in the lower right portion of page one and continues to the upper right portion of page two.
The Farewell Address. [page one] - [page two] - [page three] George Washington, Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (156)
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Adams on Religion
John Adams, a self-confessed "church going animal," grew up in the Congregational Church in Braintree, Massachusetts. By the time he wrote this letter his theological position can best be described as Unitarian. In this letter Adams tells Jefferson that "Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell."
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817. [page one] - [page two] - [page three] - [page four] Holograph letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (157)
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Adams's Fast Day Proclamation
John Adams continued the practice, begun in 1775 and adopted under the new federal government by Washington, of issuing fast and thanksgiving day proclamations. In this proclamation, issued at a time when the nation appeared to be on the brink of a war with France, Adams urged the citizens to "acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation; beseeching him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offences, and to incline us, by His Holy Spirit, to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction."
Fast Day Proclamation, March 23, 1798. John Adams. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (158)
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