Home » Uncategorized » Precursors of the First Amendment: the Fight for Disestablishment of the Episcopal Church in Colonial Virginia

Precursors of the First Amendment: the Fight for Disestablishment of the Episcopal Church in Colonial Virginia

© 2013
As citizens of the United States in the 21st Century, we are prone to take our freedom of religion for granted. To most of us, the fact that every American is free to adhere to whatever religious creed may appeal to his or her conscience — or to none — seems to us as natural as breathing. If Sheriff Harrison were to announce that no traveling evangelist could hold a revival meeting in Wake County without his approval, or a member of the North Carolina General Assembly were to introduce a bill to tax everyone in order to pay the salaries of Christian ministers, most citizens would find both proposals jarring and unthinkable, and judges would promptly declare them unconstitutional.

It was not always thus. Although our high school history books told us – truthfully – that the followers of many sects sought religious refuge in colonial America, and that some influential leaders, such as William Penn in Pennsylvania and Roger Williams in Rhode Island, promoted religious pluralism and tolerance, established churches were the rule in the English colonies. Massachusetts and Connecticut were “officially” Congregationalist, and the Church of England was established in all of the Southern colonies (although Samuel Eliot Morison says that it did not “enjoy great influence” in any of them). The story of how we moved from there to here — how official churches were “disestablished” in favor of the religious pluralism so familiar to us today — is both fascinating and complex.

With the advantage of two centuries of hindsight, we are inclined to see religious freedom as an important and inevitable by-product of the era of the American Revolution, which Lafayette, writing in his old age, called “the era of declarations of rights,” and which he regarded as “the beginning of a new social order for the entire world.” The decline of “official” churches also can be seen as an almost inevitable consequence of multi-cultural immigration, much of which was stimulated by religious persecution and discrimination. As early as 1763, “there were already enough Irish in New York to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, enough Jews to support a synagogue, enough Scots to support a Presbyterian church, and enough Germans to maintain four churches with services in their language.” (Morison 176) At the time of the Revolution, perhaps two-thirds of Virginia’s citizens were dissenters from the established Anglican Church. (Peterson 114) Disestablishment also appears in retrospect as a natural consequence of the Enlightenment, the optimistic eighteenth-century philosophy that proclaimed the perfectibility of man through reason and experience, as well as a thoroughly understandable intellectual reaction to the excesses of the British crown, which was linked by law and tradition to the Church of England.

Whatever its causes and sources, this manifestation of the new social order did not occur overnight. Like many cultural and social changes, disestablishment was a struggle in which the old order gradually gave way to the new. The story of how that struggle played out in Virginia between 1776 and 1785 is important to our understanding of how religious liberty eventually won the day because Virginia, the most populous colony, was a bellwether; the outcome of the disestablishment debate among the commonwealth’s most influential thinkers greatly influenced its resolution in the other colonies, and eventually in the new nation they would form. It also is a fascinating and dramatic story, because the key participants were four of the most brilliant and celebrated figures of the Revolutionary era — James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and Patrick Henry.
Before setting the scene, let us briefly summarize what history tells us about the religious beliefs and attitudes of these four famous Founders.

Thomas Jefferson was a religious skeptic who was often accused during his lifetime of being an atheist. Historians often characterize him as a Unitarian, but while his theology was very much Unitarian in spirit, he never joined a Unitarian church, possibly because there were none near his home in Virginia during his lifetime. Moreover, the Unitarians were not formally organized into a sect until 1825, the year before his death. However, Jefferson embraced the theology of Joseph Priestly, who is widely viewed as the founder of Unitarianism, and regularly attended Priestly’s church in Philadelphia when he was nearby. Jefferson remained a nominal member of the Episcopal Church, but removed himself from the list of those eligible to serve as godparents because he could not unreservedly espouse belief in the Trinity.

When Jefferson ran for President in 1800, many clergymen told their congregations that a vote for him was a vote against Christianity, and that if he were elected they would have to hide their Bibles in their wells. (Brodie 431.)  During his presidency he compiled a pamphlet entitled Syllabus of an Estimate on the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others, in which he characterized Jesus’ moral system as “the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man” but made it plain that he did not accept Jesus as divine. In later life he compiled a personal, expurgated New Testament from which he excluded all references to the supernatural, including the Virgin Birth, the miracles and the Resurrection, leaving in only “the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” The resulting pamphlet was published after his death as The Jefferson Bible.

Both Jefferson’s personal attitude toward religion and his formulation of the proper relationship between religion and government were grounded in the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, especially the views of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke. The dominant spirit of the Enlightenment was skepticism toward all orthodoxy, unbridled enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge, and optimism that free inquiry would lead men to discern the truths inherent in the nature of the universe. Jefferson believed that an alliance between government and religion was unnatural, because religion is a private matter wholly dependent upon internal persuasions and personal conscience. Men and women, Jefferson said, are answerable for their religious beliefs only to God. In his Notes on Virginia he summed up his views in pithy language: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.”

Jefferson’s avowed disinterest in the religious views of his fellow men did not prevent his holding a lifelong, deep-seated antipathy toward the clergy — especially the Anglican clergy. His biographer Fawn Brodie attributes Jefferson’s hostility to preachers to his experiences at ages 14 and 15, when his tutor was James Maury, a self-righteous and bigoted Anglican priest who deprecated Presbyterians and Baptists as “dupes and deceivers,” and who considered Indians to be heathen barbarians. Whatever its source, Jefferson’s hatred for the clergy put destruction of the power of the Anglican Church at the top of his personal priorities. As Ms. Brodie says, “No other statesman of his time would match Jefferson in his hatred of the established faith.” (Brodie 50) During the election of 1800, he refused to curry favor with the clergy, pointing out to Benjamin Rush that both the Congregationalist and Episcopal churches still entertained hopes of being named the established church of the United States. Each knew that his election “threatens abortion to their hopes,” he wrote, “and they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (Brodie 432) (The personal oath that Jefferson described to Rush is now inscribed in the rotunda of his memorial in Washington, D.C.) In 1816, when he was 73, Jefferson wrote to a friend, “I am not afraid of the priests. They have tried upon me all their various batteries, of pious whining, hypocritical canting, lying and slandering, without being able to give me one moment of pain.” (Brodie 499)

James Madison was much less forthcoming about his religious beliefs than his close friend Jefferson. He was reared as an Anglican, and his early childhood teachers, like Jefferson’s, were Anglican clergymen, who often supplemented their meager salaries in colonial times by tutoring the children of influential parishioners. Indeed, “[d]own through his graduation from college every one of Madison’s teachers, as far as we know, was either a clergyman or a devoutly orthodox Christian layman.” (Ketcham 46) From ages 11 to 16 Madison attended a boarding school run by Donald Robertson, a Scottish-born minister and schoolmaster. Then he studied for two years at home under the Revered Thomas Martin, an Anglican rector who lived in the Madison household as a “family teacher.” Martin, whose brother Alexander later served as governor and United States Senator in North Carolina, was from a Scots-Irish family and had graduated from the Presbyterian-dominated College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1762. His influence presumably was critical to Madison’s decision to attend Princeton, although Madison later wrote that he avoided William and Mary, the expected choice of the Virginia gentry, because “the climate at [Williamsburg] is regarded as unfavorable to the health of persons from the mountainous region.” (Ketcham 23) Although Williamsburg was known then (and now) for its “noisome vapors,” the unsuitable climate at William and Mary also may have included the college’s reputation as a party school with lax academic standards.

Madison wrote far less about his religious views than his close friend Jefferson, perhaps because he was reserved and less inclined than Jefferson to pronounce judgments, or perhaps because his scholarly, analytical mind never settled firmly on a personal creed.  Ralph Ketcham characterizes Madison as “a rather passive believer” who accepted many of the basic tenets of Christian thought, such as the infinite worth of the human soul and the idea that each person was responsible for cultivating a proper relationship with God. It is hardly surprising that the framework of Madison’s personal philosophy would rest on Christian bedrock, given that virtually all of his teachers were clergymen. Yet Ketcham says that shortly after graduating from Princeton “Madison seems simply to have dropped his interest in doctrinal questions, troubling, so far as we know, neither to reject nor to reaffirm his religious tenets thereafter.”• (Ketcham 56) “Though not inclined to religious speculations,” Ketcham says, “Madison adhered to a calm faith in a moral, orderly universe presided over by a God beyond the limited capacity of man to conceive or understand.” (Ketchum 667) “It seems clear,” Ketcham writes, “that he never embraced fervently nor rejected utterly the Christian base of his education. He accepted its tenets generally and formed his outlook on life within its world view.” (Ketcham 47) Whatever he believed, Madison neither disparaged the beliefs of others nor sought to impose his own on anyone else.

Although Madison was reticent about his own religious views, he was vocal, and even vociferous, in the cause of religious freedom from early adulthood to the end of his life. In a letter to his Princeton classmate William Bradford dated January, 1774, when Madison was 23, Madison lamented the prosecution of Baptist ministers in nearby Culpeper County: “That diabolical Hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some,” he wrote, “and to their eternal infamy the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business. This vexes me the most of anything whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent county not less than 5 or 6 well-meaning men in [jail] for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear talk or think of anything relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us . . .”

Madison’s ardor can be traced directly to his experience at Princeton. Of Madison’s many Christian teachers, the most influential clearly was John Witherspoon, the Scottish-born Presbyterian minister who was president of the college. Although orthodox in his own beliefs, Witherspoon encouraged intellectual inquiry and defended every person’s “right to private judgment in matters of opinion.” (Ketcham 43)  Madison so admired Witherspoon that he stayed on in Princeton for six months after his graduation in order to study under him.

Patrick Henry not only came from much more modest circumstances than Jefferson, Madison or Mason; his religious training was both more and less traditional than any of theirs. His father, John Henry, was a pillar of the Anglican Church and “a staunch defender of every aspect of the church establishment, including the character of the parish rector, his brother Patrick,” for whom his son was named. (Mayer 34) His mother, on the other hand, was caught up in “the Great Awakening” — the evangelical fervor that raced through the colonies around the time of Patrick Henry’s birth in 1736. She became an abstemious Presbyterian who “set herself against the drinking, gambling, and dancing that comprised her husband’s chief diversions and the stuff of gentry political life.” (Mayer 39) She dragged young Patrick to revivalist “New Light” services conducted by the Revered Samuel Davies, a renowned preacher whose flowing, emotional sermons contrasted sharply with the dull, sanctimonious homilies read by the Anglican clergy “in velvet tones perfectly suited to the gentry’s own complacency.” (Mayer 34) Patrick’s mother not only made him listen to Davies’ sermons: on the way home in the family carriage she would make him repeat their substance back to her.

The effects of young Patrick’s dual religious upbringing can be seen throughout his life. On the one hand, he never left the Episcopal Church, and he emulated his father’s genteel social behavior; as a lawyer, however, he developed a powerful and decidedly non-traditional style of courtroom oratory that clearly reflected Davies’ influence, and which eventually made him the most riveting political speaker of his extraordinary political era. He also adopted his mother’s disdain for fashionable dress, fine furnishings and liquor. Throughout his life he spoke openly of his religious faith, and late in life he became a dedicated student of the Bible.

Of the four men at the vortex of colonial Virginia’s attempt to come to grips with the issue of religious liberty, George Mason held the most orthodox and traditional religious views. A wealthy planter and life-long Anglican who attended services faithfully, served for many years as a member of his parish vestry, and never by word or action exhibited any doubt concerning the tenets of his church, he seems an unlikely progenitor of the disestablishment movement. Yet, as we shall see, his authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the First Amendment.

The personal relationships among and between these four famous men also are worth mentioning. Jefferson and Madison, who apparently met in 1776 as fellow members of the Virginia House of Delegates (Koch 3), were warm and lifelong friends thereafter, and neither can be understood apart from their regular and “gravely formal” written correspondence, much of which was conducted in their private code, and their frequent visits back and forth between Jefferson’s home at Monticello and Madison’s family seat 23 miles away at Montpelier, in Orange County.

When Jefferson was 16, he encountered Patrick Henry, who was seven years older, playing the fiddle, dancing and charming the guests at a Christmas party in Hanover County. Although Jefferson thought Henry somewhat coarse, he initially admired both Henry’s gregariousness and his eloquence, writing of one of Henry’s speeches, “He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.” (Brodie 24) Eventually, however, the two became bitter enemies after Henry instigated a legislative inquiry into Jefferson’s performance as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War.

Madison’s relationship with Henry included family ties; one of his second cousins married Henry’s sister Susannah, and Dolley Madison’s mother was Henry’s cousin. (Ketcham 5, 376-77) Although Madison did not evince open hatred of Henry, as Jefferson did (Jefferson once sent a coded letter to Madison urging him to “devoutly pray” for Henry’s death), Madison and Henry parted political company shortly after the Revolution and disagreed vehemently about ratification of the Constitution and almost every important public issue thereafter.

Mason, the eldest and most patrician of the four statesmen, was prone to be gruff and to brook no nonsense, but his brilliance, industry and pragmatic acumen earned the profound respect of Jefferson, Madison and Henry, despite his tendency to shift his alliances among them depending on the particular controversy at hand.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

In May, 1776 delegates to the Virginia Convention gathered in Williamsburg to formulate a replacement for the defunct British colonial government. Henry, Madison and Mason were present; Jefferson was not, although he and other delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia sent proposals and suggestions. Both Henry and Madison were appointed to the large committee named to draft the convention documents, but Mason, who was already viewed as the rebellious colony’s most knowledgeable citizen with respect to governmental affairs, dominated the proceedings. His draft Declaration of Rights became the centerpiece of the convention’s discussions.

Mason’s draft included an article on religious beliefs stating that because religion “can be directed only by reason and conviction . . . all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience , unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate unless, under color of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness , or safety of society.”

Mason’s language, which undoubtedly reflected the influence of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, did not satisfy Madison; in his view, “tolerance” implied the dispensation of a privilege that was susceptible to being withheld. Interlining his copy of the proposal, Madison struck out Mason’s “toleration” language and rewrote it to read that “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of religion according to the dictates of Conscience; and therefore that no man or class of man ought, on account of religion, to be invested with peculiar emoluments or privileges.”

Presumably because he was one of the youngest and least known of the delegates, and perhaps because he possessed “a shy, retiring manner and a weak voice” (Mayer 303), Madison persuaded Henry to introduce his proposed amendment. Even so, it was defeated, because many delegates interpreted his second clause as tantamount to disestablishing the Anglican Church. Madison thereupon proposed another amendment declaring that “All men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless the preservation of equal liberty and the existence of the state are manifestly endangered.”

As eventually adopted by the convention, Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights includes Madison’s language recognizing freedom of religion as a right and omits the clause referring to government authority:

“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other.”

Historians note that although Madison’s wording change apparently did not seem momentous to the convention (Banning 86-87; Ketcham 73), it had enormous implications. Professor Lance Banning says that while the failure of Madison’s first proposal left the establishment issue unresolved, “the logic of his second still demanded equal treatment for competing faiths. . . In its final phrasing Article 16 erected an ideal that no society had every written into law and spurred the commonwealth at once toward its achievement.” (Banning 86) Ketcham agrees. By converting religious nonconformity from something merely to be “tolerated” into a right exercisable according to one’s own conscience, “Madison had made possible complete liberty of belief or unbelief, and the utter separation of church and state.” (Ketcham 73)

After the Virginia convention adjourned on July 5, dissenters quickly seized on Article 16 to call for formal disestablishment of the Anglican Church. By the time the Virginia Assembly convened in October, Baptists and Presbyterians had submitted petitions (one of which contained almost 10,000 names) asking the Assembly to free them from “a long night of Ecclesiastical bondage.” They requested that “all Church establishments be pulled down, and every tax upon conscience and private judgment be abolished” in order that Virginia might become “an asylum for free inquiry, knowledge, and the virtuous of every denomination.”

Madison apparently met Thomas Jefferson for the first time when both arrived in Williamsburg as members of the House of Delegates in the autumn of 1776. Jefferson, who had been busy with the Continental Congress in the spring, promptly took up the fight for formal disestablishment and Madison, who served on the Committee on Religion, became his ally.

In a November speech to the House of Delegates, Jefferson outlined his views concerning the proper relationship between government and religion. According to his notes, he began with an historical overview of the evils of religious establishments. He noted that in Virginia church attendance was compulsory and that heresy was punishable by death and denial of the Trinity by three years’ imprisonment. The fact that these laws were not enforced, he said, did not remove their stigma. He also decried the ongoing persecution of Baptist ministers, and the fact that dissenters were taxed to support the Anglican Church. Jefferson also argued for change on political, as well as philosophical, grounds. How, he asked, could nonconformists be expected to support a government that discriminated against them on behalf of a church associated with the oppressive British government?

Jefferson’s and Madison’s efforts on behalf of disestablishment met with limited success. The issue was so controversial that it engendered 10 days of fractious debate by the entire Assembly. Eventually a series of compromises — proposed by George Mason — were adopted. The Assembly revoked all parliamentary statutes concerning religion, exempted dissenters from religious taxes, and suspended government payments to the clergy for a year. At the same time, the government retained the power to license ministers, Anglican clergy alone were authorized to perform legal marriage ceremonies, and the parishes of the established church continued to perform several civil functions.

Between 1776 and 1784 — a period in which Madison did not serve in the Assembly — religious issues were not prominent in Virginia. Although Jefferson served in the Assembly until his election as governor in 1779, the year he introduced his famous Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, the colony was preoccupied with the war against Britain. Except for repeal of the suspended law providing salaries for the Episcopal clergy, the legislature passed no major bills relating to religion during the period.

Freedom of religion returned to the Assembly’s agenda in 1784, the year that Madison, who had been serving as a member of the Continental Congress, returned as a member. Mason and Henry also were present, but Jefferson had embarked for Paris as Minister to France; accordingly, he participated vicariously in the remarkable events that unfolded, primarily through regular but painfully slow correspondence with Madison.

Two controversial and interrelated religious issues confronted the 1784 Virginia Assembly. Supporters of the Anglican Church, which had been renamed as the Protestant Episcopal Church, recognized that tax support for religion, which they favored, was becoming increasingly problematical, but they put greater hope in having the church incorporated by the Assembly, a move that would confirm its title to enormous tracts of land assigned to the church during the colonial period. The Baptists and Presbyterians found this idea abhorrent, arguing that it would invest the Episcopal Church with property that conceptually belonged to everyone, but they had different opinions about what the Assembly should do. The Baptists wanted government to eschew all involvement with religion, but many Presbyterians preferred a plural establishment whereby religious taxes would be distributed proportionately among the various Protestant denominations. Madison thought both proposals “obnoxious.”

Patrick Henry, who like most of his contemporaries believed that virtue could not exist without religion, supported the Presbyterian position as being in the best interests of the state. With the assistance of John Blair Smith, a Presbyterian clergyman who had founded Hampden-Sydney College (and who, like Madison, had studied at Princeton under John Witherspoon), Henry drafted a resolution that called for both “the inalienable rights of conscience” and “an equal share of the protection and favor of government to all denominations of Christians.” (Mayer 360) He proposed that the Assembly draft legislation imposing “a moderate tax or contribution, annually, for the support of the Christian religion . . .”   The motion passed, and Henry himself was appointed to head the drafting committee, which produced a bill imposing a “general assessment,” the proceeds of which would be distributed among all “teachers of the Christian religion.”   In an effort to disarm Madison, Mason and other opponents, Henry’s draft permitted citizens who did not want to register their affiliation with a particular denomination to allocate their taxes to secular institutions of learning. Meanwhile, the House passed the Episcopal incorporation act; Madison reversed his earlier opposition and voted for it in the hope that its passage would cool the Episcopalians’ ardor for Henry’s general assessment.

While Henry’s religious assessments bill was pending, Madison and his supporters helped to maneuver him out of the Assembly and into the governorship. On November 17, Henry accepted and went home to Southside Virginia to prepare his family for the move to Richmond.  On Christmas Eve, eight delegates who had supported the incorporation bill changed sides and voted with Madison to postpone final consideration of the assessment bill until November, 1785 so that the measure could be circulated for public consideration, ”that the sense of the people might be better called forth.”(Madison to George Mason, July 14, 1826.)

As a practical matter, the delay engineered by Madison probably would have caused Henry’s religious assessment bill to die in any event, but Madison insured its defeat — and added immeasurably to the philosophical underpinnings of religious liberty — by taking advantage of the hiatus to draft one of the most remarkable and influential documents in American history: his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.”

Madison drafted the Memorial and Remonstrance because George Mason and other opponents of Henry’s assessment bill thought a petition outlining the arguments against the bill should be drawn up and circulated for public signatures, and that Madison was the best person to draft such a document. Mason apparently paid to have Madison’s draft printed and distributed. The tactic was entirely successful: over the next twelve months Madison’s petition and others garnered thousands of signatures, and when the Assembly convened in 1785 Henry’s bill was easily defeated. A few months later Madison completed the rout of the establishment forces by successfully arguing for the passage of Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom. We can only imagine Madison’s pleasure in writing the good news to Jefferson in Paris, exulting that its passage meant that Virginia had “extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” (Koch 30) Jefferson’s own delight also must have been extreme, because he later decreed that his grave marker at Monticello would memorialize him only as “Author of the Declaration of Independence, Founder of the University of Virginia, and Author of the Virginia Bill of Religious Liberty.”

Madison’s Remonstrance systematically posits fifteen numbered and rather eclectic points in opposition to the clergy tax. If Madison’s arguments were rendered in the “bullets” typical of a Power Point™ presentation, they might read as follows:

1. As an “unalienable” and fundamental natural right, religion is a matter between man and God, and therefore is not subject to civil authority.
2. Since religion is not subservient to government, it cannot be subservient to the legislature, which is a government institution.
3. A clergy tax may seem innocuous, but it is the first step on a slippery slope that ends in the loss of liberty.
4. If all men are truly equal, a religious tax discriminates against non-believers.
5. Anyone who thinks that government officials are competent to judge matters of religious truth is arrogant or stupid, or both.
6. Religion does not need the support of human laws; to the contrary, it has flourished despite opposition from them; God will take care of religion without our help.
7. Government involvement actually injures religion because it leads to “pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, and in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”•
8. A just government can exist without a religious establishment.
9. A religious tax is unfaithful to America’s heritage as a place of religious asylum and refuge.
10. Citizens offended by the clergy tax may elect to leave Virginia.
11. The tax will encourage sectarian strife and discord.
12. A religious tax will discourage non-believers from coming to Virginia, where they might hear and receive the message of Christian salvation.
13. Like other unpopular measures, the tax will promote disrespect for the law.
14. There is no evidence that the people want this tax.
15. The concept of the tax is inimical to the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

These cryptic renderings of Madison’s arguments border on rhetorical insult, because the persuasiveness and longevity of the Remonstrance rests on its eloquence as well as its substance. Although most Americans have never heard of it, it deserves to be read, re-read, and studied by anyone who seriously undertakes to understand what the Founders intended by the First Amendment’s decree that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

Fortunately, many judges appreciate that the study and application of Constitutional Law requires, in the words of the North Carolina Constitution, “a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles,” including the principles laid out by Madison in his remarkable document.  In furtherance of this maxim, courts often look to Madison’s Remonstrance: it has been cited in dozens of state and federal cases involving the relationship between church and state, and Justice Hugo Black’s opinion for the Supreme Court of the United States in Engel v. Vitale — the case that prohibits government officials from prescribing prayers to be said in public schools — cites it no fewer than five times. Perhaps the most lasting and significant effect of the Remonstrance, however, is that it established Madison as the Founder whose views concerning religious freedom were the most respected and set him on the road that led eventually to his authorship of the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.

But that is another story.


        James Madison: A Biography, by Ralph Ketcham. The University Press of Virginia, 1990.

        Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration, by Adrienne Koch. Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.

Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, by Fawn M. Brodie.  W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1974

The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, by Lance   Banning.  Cornell University Press, 1995.

A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic, by Henry Mayer.  University of Virginia Press, 1992.

The Oxford History of the American People, by Samuel Eliot Morison.  Oxford University
Press, 1965.

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