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JAMES MADISON AND
PATRICK HENRY

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The seminal influence of John Locke in the thought of America's founders is well known.46 Locke promoted "toleration" in matters of religion, but favored a national church. As Locke scholar A.C. Fraser observed,

'He had no objection to a national establishment of religion, provided that it was comprehensive enough, and was really the nation organized to promote goodness; not to protect the metaphysical subtleties of sectarian theologians. The recall of the national religion to the simplicity of the gospels would, he hoped, make toleration of nonconformists unnecessary, as few would, he hoped, remain.' Locked refused any idea of toleration for atheists because 'the taking away of God dissolves all.'"47

The colonists in America, who formed state churches in nine of the original thirteen colonies, would have been thoroughly comfortable with Locke's formulation. Patrick Henry could have championed it. It would be for James Madison to move America and ultimately the modern world beyond Locke's "toleration" and his conception of a national church. A retired and reflective Madison could point to his home country as the cutting edge of the progressive arrangement which rejected what had been the world's norm of state churches:

Until Holland ventured on the experiment of combining a liberal toleration with the establishment of a particular creed, it was taken for granted, that an exclusive & intolerant establishment was essential, and notwithstanding the light thrown on the subject by that experiment, the prevailing opinion in Europe, England not excepted, has been that Religion could not be preserved without the support of Government nor Government be supported without an established religion, that there must be at least an alliance of some sort between them. It remained for North America to bring the great and interesting subject to a fair, and finally to a decisive test.48 In the colonial state of the Country, there were four examples, R.I. N.J. Penna. and Delaware, and the greater part of N.Y. where there were no religious Establishments; the support of Religion being left to the voluntary associations & contributions of individuals; and certainly the religious condition of those Colonies, will well bear a comparison with that where establishment existed.49

Madison could agree with Tom Paine that tolerance was despotism. Madison scholar Robert Alley writes that "toleration presumed a state perogative that, for Madison, did not exist."50 Madison wrote that "the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it."51 Instead Madison argued for a more expansive principle, that of "liberty of conscience." He wrote in 1832 about Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia:

"Here the separation between the authority of human laws, and the natural rights of Man excepted from the grant on which all political authority is founded, is traced as distinctly as words can admit, and the limits to this authority established with as much solemnity as the forms of legislation can express."52

The "natural rights of man," centering in the concept of "liberty of conscience," stand, without question for Madison, above and before any legitimate authority which can derive from the work of men.

In May 1776 Madison was elected to the Revolutionary Convention in Virginia. He was elected to serve on a committee to compose a declaration of rights for the new government. George Mason proposed an article about religion that read, "All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion." Madison proposed replacing the word "toleration" with the substitute, "All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion ." Historian George Bancroft would describe that phrase as "the first achievement of the wisest civilian in Virginia."53 The Virginia legislature did address the subject of religious establishment in 1778.

Jefferson found himself resisting efforts to perpetuate the traditional tie between state and church, and attempts to create a general assessment to support Protestant churches. These conflicts meant he was unable to have his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, written in 1777, passed at this time in the legislature. When Madison took his place in the Virginia legislature after the War, there was a General Assessment bill, sponsored by Patrick Henry, that would assign tax monies to support religious education in all denominations, a project justified by Henry as a means of curtailing the sin and immorality of the young people. Alley writes, "The bill's rationale sounded the same sentiments set forth by Locke in the previous century."54

There was also an effort to establish the Episcopal Church in the state as the natural successor to the Angiclan establishment.. In the fall of 1784 Madison knew that he could not deflect both of these pieces of legislation. Politicians in Virginia at that time were not likely to cast two votes "against God" in the same session. Though he was opposed to the establishment of the Church of England, the dilemma for him was quickly resolved. He voted for the Episcopalian establishment, and it passed. He then convinced his colleagues to postpone a vote on assessment until the next session in 1785.

The legislature had been on the verge of passing the bill.55 Madison wrote his father about this matter saying that the Episcopal establishment bill, though it dissatisfied him, was useful for having parried the legislature from the General Assessment bill "which would otherwise have certainly been saddled upon us."56 The General Assessment bill would have created the monstrosity Madison feared most: a "tyranny of the majority." If the ministers from all the major Protestant denominations were paid from the state treasury, a coalition of Protestant groups would relegate minority views to a "tolerated" status or worse. Having postponed the General Assessment bill to the next legislative session, Madison knew he must now enlist public opposition against it.

A major obstacle was the silver-tongue oratory of Patrick Henry, the bill's chief sponsor.57 Before the General Assembly adjourned in 1784 it authorized the distribution of the General Assessment bill to the voters. Madison's response was to write a critique which he caused to be distributed statewide as a broadside, the "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" which has become the classic statement for religious freedom in North America.58 With this introduction of Madison and Henry over the issue of the General Assessment Bill in Virginia, it will now be our task to look at the two men through the five lenses through which we viewed Cotton and Williams. Though separated by over a century of time there is a remarkable similarity in the thought of these two pairs of juxtaposed giants.

Madison and Henry compared CONTINUED    To Footnotes

Back to Part I, Roger Williams and John Cotton