Madison’s Remonstrance (1785)

The ‘‘Memorial and Remonstrance’’ was essentially a petition to gather signatures indicating popular opposition to a bill that would have provided state tax monies for clergy salaries, and its success led directly to the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

From the time he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1776, James Madison (1751–1836) opposed the idea of an established church and was part of the assembly that disestablished the Anglican Church that same year. While the Assembly debated George Mason’s proposal for a state Declaration of Rights, Madison argued that Mason’s call for religious toleration did not go far enough; religious liberty constituted a natural and inalienable right, immune to any governmental constraints. While he was able to change the wording of part of Mason’s proposal, Madison failed to win over the assembly to his views of prohibiting religious establishments and deleting specific references to Christianity, in order to protect non-Christians. He backed Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom when it was first proposed in 1779 and continued to believe that only a complete break between church and state would secure a true liberty of conscience.

In 1784, Madison’s rival, Patrick Henry, proposed a tax to support the clergy, who were impoverished because of the Revolution. The bill would provide support to ministers of all Christian faiths, and individual Virginians could declare themselves as non- Christians in order to be exempt from the tax. Groups that had previously opposed establishment—such as the Quakers, Baptists, Mennonites, and Presbyterians— now faltered as it seemed that they too would benefit from Henry’s proposed tax. Madison brilliantly fought the tax scheme. First, he supported Henry for governor, thus removing his powerful oratory from the legislative debate. More importantly, in May 1785, at the suggestion of George Mason and others, he wrote and anonymously circulated a ‘‘Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment.’’ The ‘‘Memorial’’ gathered thousands of signatures and led to other groups backing similar petitions to the Assembly.

Madison offered fifteen objections to the Henry tax, starting with the assertion that it violated the freedom of conscience guaranteed under Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. Madison anticipated arguments he would later explicate more fully in Federalist No. 10 regarding minority rights. Such a tax, he declared, would ‘‘overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people,’’ and even if a majority of the state supported establishment (which Madison defined as any governmental support of organized religion), the legislature lacked the authority to enact such a measure.

The petition recalled to the citizens the recent history of such taxes: when they were a colony, the government, at the behest of the Anglican Church, had treated Protestant dissenters, Catholics, and non- Christians harshly. The Henry bill posed the danger that what had been detested under George III might arise again: ‘‘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?’’

The ‘‘Memorial’’ attacked establishment on other grounds, not least of which was Madison’s contention that establishment threatened the prospects of the new, republican society then being built in the independent United States. Establishment had been a product of the Old World, where it had bred centuries of religious bigotry, persecution, and even warfare. Roger Williams had supported separation in order to keep religion free from the taint of the secular; Madison and his allies, especially Jefferson, wanted a wall of separation to keep the secular state free from the biases of religion. Establishing religion— even supporting multiple establishments, as Henry proposed—would ‘‘enervate the laws in general, and slacken the bands of Society.’’

In appealing to those dissenting sects that had at one time opposed the Anglican establishment, he warned that a coercive tax would not be to the advantage of Christianity. He pointed out the history of religious warfare in Europe, in which the intrusion of the state to enforce the views of one group had inevitably sapped the moral force of all religion. Instead of men being governed by true moral and religious values, they fell prey to ‘‘superstition, bigotry, and persecution.’’ Interestingly, Madison also made a very practical argument in noting that religious tolerance in the New World had been one of the magnets that drew people across the Atlantic. Do away with it, he warned, and Virginia would neither attract new settlers nor retard the emigration from the state that was at the time a great concern of the Assembly.

By the fall of 1785, the ‘‘Memorial’’ and its related petitions had amassed over ten thousand signatures in opposition to Henry’s proposed assessment bill. When the Assembly next met, Henry had gone to the governor’s mansion, and a narrow majority of the Assembly, aware of the strong opposition to his bill, defeated it when it came up for a vote. Buoyed by the victory, Madison reintroduced Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, guided it through both houses of the Assembly, and defeated efforts to exclude non- Christians from its protections. The statute, passed in 1786, would serve as a model when Madison, then a member of Congress, drafted the religion clauses of the First Amendment in 1789.

The ‘‘Memorial and Remonstrance’’ reflected not only Madison’s political skill. By delaying Henry’s popular assessment proposal until he could take the issue to the people (as he would three years later as the chief coauthor of the Federalist), he showed how public sentiment could be used to affect policymaking in a republican society. But the ‘‘Memorial’’ also spoke for Madison’s deeply held convictions about religious liberty. Throughout his adult life he opposed establishment and use of the state in any way to further religion. He fought for the Statute of Religious Freedom and the First Amendment in order to secure ‘‘the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude’’ and, as president from 1809 to 1817, consistently opposed even the smallest efforts to use the resources of government in aid of religion.

MELVIN I. UROFSKY

References and Further Reading

  • Alley, Robert S., ed. James Madison on Religious Liberty. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1985.
  • Curry, Thomas J. The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Rutland, Robert Allen. James Madison, the Founding Father. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

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