Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance: Leading the Way for Religious Freedom

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The Constitution

James Madison established his credentials as a champion of religious freedom with his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.

In 1785, James Madison wrote the Memorial and Remonstrance which was a successful argument against an effort by Patrick Henry to introduce a measure that would address an alleged decay of civility, morality and piety in the state. Henry saw, and he described a bleak future if the measure failed. It is the same arguement used today by people seeking government support for religious organizations.

What is Establishment?

The work is the definitive attack on all forms of “establishment of religion”. This is also the most concise and the most articulate statement of the views of the First Amendment’s author concerning what is ‘an establishment of religion. We can clearly see that he had in mind something much more than simply creating national churches, a claim which some ideologies of the Religious Right have tried to re-interpret as the meaning of the first Amendments religious clause.

With the defeat of the measure, the way was cleared for the passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Madison wasted no time in driving it through in January of 1786, seven years after it was first introduced. This dual victory substantially ended the fight over establishments, settling the issue against them. It was in the very next year that Madison became a member of the Constitutional Convention, working to secure religious liberty for the entire nation.

The Memorial and Remonstrance puts forth an argument in 15 parts that leaves no room for any doubt as to his position on matters of the intermingling of religion and government. The battles and debates on religious freedom in Virginia are a clear example of what was to become the model for that concept throughout the constitutional process that would set the tone for religious freedom in the United States. This is essential to understanding the nature of religious freedom.

Madison wrote; ” 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? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to confrom to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

In section eight of the work he states; “What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another. ”

Madison’s position on religious freedom is clear. It would take hold in the first Amendment of the US Constitution under his own guidance.

Sources:

  1. Madison – Writings. The Library of America
  2. The University of Oklahoma College of Law
  3. The Founders Constitution. Volume V Amendment I. University of Chicago Press