James Madison and the Social Utility of Religion: Risks vs. Rewards
James Hutson, Library of Congress
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 belief.
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
According to Bishop Meade:
Brant also cites a Bostonian's account of an 1815 dinner table conversation with Madison:
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 pieties?
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:
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 about religion?
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 social influence.
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 of Virginia.
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 years.
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, "abstract opinion,"
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.
Other James Madison features: Madison's Treasures Exhibition - Today in History: March 16
Manuscript Reading Room - Library of Congress Home Page
Library of Congress
Contact Us ( September 19, 2017 )