PART TWO. JAMES MADISON AND PATRICK HENRY, part 2.

 

 To Footnotes

THEORY OF THE STATE. Madison. Madison certainly viewed the minimal purpose of the state as the vehicle for keeping peace and order within the society. As strict a separationist as Madison was, he knew that the church was under this purpose of government. He wrote:

The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the government from interference in any what whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against trespass on its legal rights by others.59

Beyond this baseline of providing order, Madison believed in natural rights as pre-eminent to civil authority.60 Madison held that an individual's response to conscience "is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society."61 In the Memorial and Remonstrance he wrote that every man who becomes a member of a civil society "must always do it with a reservation...of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign."62 It is apparent from these quotes that Madison did not view the state as a positive state at least as regards it relations vis a vis the rights of its individual citizens. Those rights would be held as preeminent when compared on a comparative scale with state power.

THEORY OF THE STATE Henry. This was decidedly not be the view of Henry. Before being elected governor of Virginia, Henry proposed his multiple establishment assessment bill because he believed that virtue could flow to Virginian society by governmental attempts at encouraging religion. It was the conventional wisdom of his day to consider the inculcation of virtue one of the purposes of the state.63 Men oftentimes Henry's adversaries including Richard Henry Lee Men oftentimes Henry's adversaries including Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall, George Washington, Edmund Pendleton and George Mason favored the bill and its attempt at infusing the society with morality.

Many citizens of Virginia in 1783-84, like vast numbers of Americans in the new country Tocqueville examined fifty years later, believed that the kind of society now being formed--a republic, an experiment in self-government, a "democracy" as it would later be called--required a moral foundation in the citizenry, "public virtue," a phrase of the founding patriots to which modern American political thinkers sometimes look with a certain wistfulness. Most believed--as Tocqueville dicovered the Americans of a half century later overwhelmingly to believe--that public virtue required religion as its foundation and nurturing source...

Citizens of this now very liberated country may find it stuning and amusing that once upon a time some of their forebears thought of religion as a kind of public utility like the gas or water works, but they did.64

The Bill itself began this way: "Wheras the general diffusion of Christian knowledge hat a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society..." It would be fair to say that Henry and the other pro-assessment Virginians had a completely different conception of the new republic being formed--that is to say, the state--than Madison and his partner in the advancement of freedom, Jefferson.

"For Jefferson and Madison, of course, religious liberty as they understood it--not "toleration" merely but a completely voluntary arrangment--was a central feature of the reformed and republican government that was to them the whole purpose of the Revolution. [Henry], on the other hand, saw public virtue--and therefore the publicly supported nurturing of the institution, religion, that had always been assumed to nurture that virtue--as being still more important for a free republic, a self-governing society, than for the tyrannies and monarchies of old, because the shaping of the public was everything."65

By keeping religion, and by extension, statist notions of what shape "virtue" must take in a society, Madison was forging what Ted Lowi, in his latest work, considers one of the crucial characterisitcs of the liberal tradition which is at the core of American development: The refusal to have morality guide public discourse.66

"Although certain that every individual possesses a moral code and a conscience by which to determine moral obligations, liberalism is equally doubtful that one can ever know the absolutley true and only moral code. And since we cannot know which morality is exclusively the best, it is desirable to try to keep morality out of public life."67

INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE AND THE THEORY OF THE CHURCH. For Madison and Henry, the distinction about their interpretation of the Bible is not as plain or salient as that of Williams and Cotton. With the advance of the Enlightenment, the acceptable default mode of public reasoning was no longer the Bible text. It is plain that both Madison and Henry respected the Bible, and dwelt in a culture that respected and quoted from it, but not to the extent we find in Winthrop, Bradford, Williams and Cotton. Still a word about each man in this arena will be instructive. The lens of interpretation of the Bible is being combined with the theory of the church in examining Madison and Henry, since those two are related, and the evidence for Madison and Henry is more meager.

THEORY OF THE STATE Madison. While Madison is thought to have said little directly about the Bible and the Christian faith which was all around him, he at times "put his cards on the table" and sided with what he saw as the best elements of biblical Christianity.

In the "Memorial and Remonstrance" Madison puts on the garments of orthodox Christianity in goading his readers. He knows that "every page" of the Christian religion "disavows a dependence on the powers of this world."69 With this remark Madison recognizes the spiritual claims of authority that are part of orthodox Christian confession. In proper Christian discipleship, obedience to the state is exhorted70 , dependence on it is rejected.71 Madison also takes the position, contrary to Henry and the prevailing wisdom, that good government does not need religion to be good government.72 Madison adds that when religion has been closely linked with government it has never been "the guardian...of the liberties of the people."73

With Madison, then, one must choose between a government that would take on a religious identity and one which will stand in protecting of the people's liberties. Madison was sure that the United States was the "city built on a hill" testing for the first time if that proposition was so. Madison, in point 12 of his Remonstrance, takes the fundamental Baptist position that an assessment bill would discourage non-Christians from entering the state, but that true Christianity desires to diffuse the light of its "precious gift" to all mankind "under the domination of false Religions." The bill, writes Madison,

"countenances by example the nations who continue in its darkness, in shutting off those who might convey it to them. Instead of leveling as far as possible, every obstacle tothe victorious progress of Truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian timidity would circumscribe it with a wall of defence against the enchroachment of error."74

Madison biographer Robert Alley writes

"Madison's language in this section was cast in evangelical terms and there is no evidence that the narrow gauge religious exclusivism he painted had any relation to his own thoughts. He was making the Baptist case."

Alley wants to make Madison a 20th century liberal pluralist with these remarks. For myself I think the language can be taken at face value. 75 Roger Williams was able to combine an orthodox Christian profession with a powerful defense of the rights of all people, even of those who were similarly persuaded. While Alley finds no evidence that Madison's words here could be his "own thoughts" I find no evidence here, or in his life, that they are not.

THEORY OF THE STATE Henry. Patrick Henry held the conventional wisdom of his day, that the orthodox denominational branches of Christianity were the repositories of true religion. A current leader of the Religious Right assures us that "it is reliable documented history that Patrick Henry was a great Christian."76 He was certainly a supporter of orthodox churches, but no an evangelist promoting the concept of the spiritual union of all Christians. If he believed that it did not come out in his public statements. His famous assessment bill was an attempt to pay all legitimate Christian denominations, recognized by the state--a process that could only be done by formal, political means--from the state treasury. His purpose for this was likely to placate church groups to support the tax which would be assessed for this purpose. Henry no doubt recognized that the Anglican establishment was waning in support. A multiple establishment would still serve the purpose of placing the virtues of religion in Virginia society, while not offending the growing numbers of religionists upset with Anglican establishment. The point here is that his concern with churches was not so much their spiritual make-up as their political quotient.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE. Madison. Here, of course, is Madison's great contribution not only to America, but the world community. His insistence, with Jefferson, that civil liberties and state health could be favorably and, indeed, most effectively maintained by separating the spheres of the church and the state was favored with legislative acumen and persistence. The religious clauses at the beginning of America's fabled Bill of Rights are to a large extent the bequest of Madison's vision and labors.

Contrary to the charges of the modern Religious Right, that a prejudice against religion is somehow built into the Jeffersonian summary of the Madisonian establishment clause--a "wall of separation" between church and state--is the trailing clause promising that "free exercise" of religion is prohibited. This is a massive oversight, a selective amnesia on the part of the Right, apparently triggered by some pyschological aversion to Madison's separatist formulation. Free speech grants us the right to say what we like about our neighbor's politics (short of libel), but not the right to walk into our neighbor's house and say it (without permission.)

Similarly, the free exercise clause gives the members and churches of the Right--and all other Americans--the right to say whatever they want to about God or the government (short of inciting physical violence), but not while wearing the robes bestowed by legitimate governmental authority; that is the protection of the establishment clause. With Williams, Madison would recognize and encourage the widest possible range of religious dialogue within the society, as long as it is not policed by the state magisterial power, except for the keeping physical peace and safety. Henry. As stated above, Henry was working within the realm of the conventional wisdom of his time. The state would gain virtue for its citizenry through the cultivation of religious activity. If this at times required state funding, as with his assessment bill, or the exercise of the state police powers as when citizens did not pay their tobacco tithe to the established Anglican, and then Episcopal church, so be it. Public virtue would be the reward of state involvement with religion.

LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE. Madison. The divide between Henry and Madison on the crucial issue of liberty of conscience follows from what has been stated so far. For Madion, the issue is of liberty of conscience is foundational, a "square one" natural right which exists before the existing government takes its first breath. It seems certain that Tocqueville would have seen less proliferation of religion in the next generation when he toured America if the Madisonian vision, fresh to America and new to the world, had not gained strong taproots under his philosophic and legislative efforts on the part of protecting and promoting "liberty of conscience." It may fairly be said to be the grand work of his labors.77

LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE Henry. While liberty of conscience was bedrock for Madison, it was periphery for Henry. By favoring establishment and multiple establishment Henry was willing to countenance the restriction of religious conscience in dissenting and minority sects. He was willing, with many of his contemporaries, to place organized and orthodox groups under the protection and benificence of government, while Jews. Quakers, and Catholics would have to take their chances.78 He believed there was civic virtue in religion, to be sure, but to believe that liberty of conscience was a natural right circummscribing the authority of the state was beyond the ken of his 18th Century worldview. He was not removing his bill for religious assessments from the purvey of the legislators from Virginia, nor was he buying into the radical sounds of Jemmy Madison from Orange County. He would take his stand, like all good men of his time, on state authority, societal order, civic and religious virtue, and if there was room left over for religious toleration, then he would countenance that. His words about preferring liberty to death, no doubt heartfelt when he dramatically uttered them, were spoken long before he was the governor of Virginia.

 To Footnotes

  Crisis?  Home.