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Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" (1785)


This remonstrance is the best evidence of what james madison, the framer of the first amendment, meant by an establishment of religion. In 1784 the Virginia legislature had proposed a bill that benefited "Teachers of the Christian Religion" by assessing a small tax on property owners. Each taxpayer could designate the Christian church of his choice as the recipient of his tax money; the bill allowed non-church members to earmark their taxes for the support of local schools, and it upheld the "liberal principle" that all Christian sects and denominations were equal under the law, none preferred over others. The bill did not speak of the "established religion" of the state as had an aborted bill of 1779, and it purported to be based on only secular considerations, the promotion of the public peace and morality rather than Christ's kingdom on earth. Madison denounced the bill as an establishment of religion, no less dangerous to religious liberty than the proposal of 1779 and differing "only in degree" from the Inquisition.

In an elaborate argument of fifteen parts, Madison advocated a complete separation of church and state as the only guarantee of the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of religion, including the freedom of those "whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us." He regarded the right to support religion as an "unalienable" individual right to be exercised only on a voluntary basis. Religion, he contended, must be exempt from the power of society, the legislature, and the magistrate. In his trenchant assault on establishments including the one proposed by this mild bill—"it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties"—and in his eloquent defense of separation, Madison stressed the point that separation benefited not only personal freedom but also the free state and even religion itself. His remonstrance, which circulated throughout Virginia in the summer of 1785, actually redirected public opinion, resulting in the election of legislators who opposed the bill, which had previously passed a second reading. Madison then introduced thomas jefferson's proposal which was enacted into law as the virginia statute of religious freedom.

Leonard W. Levy


Brant, Irving 1948 James Madison, Nationalist 1780–1787. Pages 343–355. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

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