As the author of the First Amendment, James Madison's views on religious freedom and church/state separation are as important as those of Thomas Jefferson. Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance was his most decisive and important explanation of his views about religious freedom. Aimed directly at the collecting of taxes for the purposes of underwriting teachers of "Christian education," Madison was against even one cent being collected for such purposes.
The debates over religious liberty in colonial Virginia are vital to understanding the nature of our tradition of religious freedom in America. Both the specific issues as well as the arguments offered on both sides are frequently the same as those today. Madison's life and ideas can help us learn more about why religious liberty was important at the time and why it is important today.
James Madison was born March 16, 1751, the first of ten children in a slave-owning family in Orange County, Virginia. Montpelier, the family estate on which Madison was raised, was about 30 miles (a day's travel at the time) from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate.
With George Mason, Madison changed the religious clause in Virginia's Declaration of Rights of 1776 from a mere statement of the principle of tolerance to the first official legislative pronouncement that freedom of conscience and religion are inherent rights of the individual. Madison also tried to have the Declaration of Independence condemn the existing Virginia establishment alongside other injustices which the colonies suffered, but defenders of religious establishment were too powerful.
In 1779 as a member of the General Assembly, Madison supported Jefferson's historic Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom; after Jefferson left for diplomatic duties in Europe in 1784, Madison became its prime sponsor. Enactment failed every year it was introduced, from June 1779 until its adoption in January, 1786. During this time his work for religious freedom continued in other ways, one of the most prominent being his battles with Patrick Henry.
James Madison vs. Patrick Henry
The climax of the conflict between James Madison and Patrick Henry was the 1784-1785 struggle over Henry's Assessment Bill. This tax for the support of religion at first singled out a one sect for preferential treatment, but was later broadened to include all Christian sects. In its final form, the bill allowed each taxpayer to designate which church should receive his share of the tax. In the absence of such a choice, the legislature was authorized to apply it to "pious uses."
Henry's speeches supporting his bill have been lost, but Madison's notes from legislative sessions record that Henry felt the measure was necessary to forestall an alleged decay of civility, morality and piety in the state, and he described a bleak future if the measure failed. Because support for the bill was so strong, Madison got the vote deferred; before the Assembly reconvened, he had written and distributed his historic Memorial and Remonstrance. First, though, he got Henry elected governor where he could no longer work in support of his bill.
James Madison's Memorial & Remonstrance
James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance is an attack on all forms of establishment of religion, whether they are selective or general and 'nondiscriminatory.' This is also the most concise and the articulate statement of the views of the First Amendment's author concerning what is an establishment of religion. Here most of all we can see that he had in mind much more than simply a national church.
Helping create a storm of popular protest, the Remonstrance played a key role in killing the Assessment Bill. Support for the bill varied among different religious groups. Quakers and Mennonites were immediately skeptical, not surprising since Virginia had recently considered a special tax on them because they were exempt from serving in the militia. Presbyterian ministers and leaders initially supported the bill, but the laity came out strongly against it — especially after the publication of the Remonstrance. Baptists came out immediately against the bill, supporting a full separation of church and state.
Madison's was not the only effort to kill the bill: there was also a popular uprising against it, with numerous petitions and over 10,000 signatures submitted to the legislature before the vote. Some were based on religious principles while others were explicit in their secularism, even going so far as to reject the idea that religion is at all necessary for public morality.
Religious Freedom in Virginia & America
The defeat of the Assessment Bill cleared the way for Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Madison drove it through in January of 1786, seven years after it was first introduced. The next year, Madison became a member of the Constitutional Convention where he could work to secure religious liberty for the entire nation.
Madison believed that, under the Constitution, "there is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion" and that "this subject is, for the honor of America, perfectly free and unshackled. The Government has no jurisdiction over it...." Despite this, he promised he would get a Bill of Rights added to the Constitution to specifically guarantee religious freedom. Virginia and other states ratified the Constitution partially on the strength of such promises.
At no point is Madison more unrelenting than in his opposition to state support or aid for religion. Not even 'three pence' contribution was to be taken from any citizen for such a purpose. "If it were lawful to impose a small tax for religion the admission would pave the way for oppressive levies." Not the amount but "the principle of assessment" itself was wrong. For Madison, his struggle was as much to prevent "the interference of law in religion" as to restrain religious intervention in political matters. He recognized that these were two sides of the same coin.