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People & Ideas: James Madison

James Madison

Source: Library of Congress

Born into a prosperous slave-owning family in Virginia in 1751, James Madison was baptized in the Anglican Church. Short, shy and prone to stomach troubles that left him weak and exhausted, Madison possessed a keen and inquiring mind coupled with a voracious intellectual appetite. As a young man, he studied under a Presbyterian schoolmaster before enrolling at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), known for its orthodox teachings and as a training ground for Presbyterian clergy. He stayed on in Princeton after graduation to study with the president of the college, John Witherspoon, who combined Presbyterian orthodoxy with a belief in the power of human reason, and was later the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Upon his return to Virginia, Madison witnessed the growing tensions between the established church, his Anglican Church, and the members of dissenting faiths arriving in the colony. Virginia had a long history of state support for the Church of England, but as immigrants from other faiths -- Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians -- poured into the colony, they chafed under the privileges granted to the Anglican Church and the restrictions imposed on other denominations.

Madison was outraged to discover that a number of Baptist ministers had been thrown into a Virginia jail for preaching without licenses. He committed himself to fighting for liberty of conscience, which he equated with religious liberty: "That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business. This vexes me the worst of anything whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent country not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter; for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about it to little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all."

At age 25, Madison became a delegate to the Virginia Convention, which gathered in May 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain and to write a Constitution for Virginia. George Mason was appointed to draft Virginia's new Declaration of Rights. Madison objected to Mason's use of the phrase "fullest toleration," because he believed that toleration of religious dissidents was more limited than a guarantee of full and complete religious freedom. Madison urged the Legislature to amend the declaration to recognize "free exercise" of religion rather than toleration. Madison also pushed the Legislature to end the policy of support for the Anglican Church. He lost the battle for disestablishment, but his suggested phrase, "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion," was eventually adopted and became part of Virginia's Constitution.

Madison shared his passion for religious liberty with Thomas Jefferson, a rising political star and fellow delegate to the House of Delegates. The men had two very different temperaments. Jefferson was a radical utopian; Madison was a rigorous thinker who lacked Jefferson's gift for rhetoric but was able to translate complex political ideas into practical political principles. He also possessed the ability to work for compromise among men who held widely divergent points of view.

In 1777, Jefferson drafted a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which sought to guarantee freedom of conscience and to separate the exercise of religious freedom from the power of the state. For the next 10 years, Virginia struggled to define the relationship of church and state. Madison led the fight, making his case in a brilliant argument for liberty titled "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." Madison circulated "Memorial and Remonstrance" anonymously throughout the colony in 1785 as he prepared to reintroduce Jefferson's bill. In 1786, Jefferson's bill finally passed.

Madison and Jefferson's leadership was key, but they could not have prevailed without the support of religious dissenters, particularly Baptists, who opposed any relationship between church and state. These everyday people -- farmers, shopkeepers, tavern owners and blacksmiths -- flooded the Virginia Legislature with petitions against state support of religion and in support of religious freedom.

The so-called Virginia experiment served as a model for the nation. When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison served as the architect of the Constitution. Following Virginia, the Constitution gave the federal government no authority over religion, creating a free marketplace for religion.

The original draft of the Constitution did not contain any written guarantee of religious liberty; Madison thought it was unnecessary and unwise. Any attempt to list certain rights risked leaving other rights unprotected. In addition, there were so many sects and denominations competing for allegiance, it seemed improbable that any one of them could dominate the rest. In his defense of the Constitution, Madison wrote in Federalist 51 "the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."

But Jefferson disagreed, and he encouraged Madison to change his mind. Unwilling to let the anti-Federalists undo the Constitution and eager to get himself elected to Congress, Madison supported an amendment.

Madison's talent for negotiation helped to secure the passage of the Bill of Rights, including the guarantees of religious liberty contained in the First Amendment.

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Published October 11, 2010

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