First Amendment Folly (Part IV, a): James Madison Clashes with Patrick Henry Over Religious Assessments

This is the fifth post in a six part series evaluating Carl H. Esbeck’s “Protestant Dissent and the Virginia Disestablishment 1776-1786.” For previous posts in the series go to “Abusing History and the First Amendment.” 

As the Revolutionary War wound down the issue of religious establishments returned to Virginia when conservatives, believing that society was awash in immorality and licentiousness, began petitioning the legislature to pass a law providing provisions for religion. The House of Delegates signaled its support for such a measure by declaring one of these petitions “reasonable” during the spring session of 1784. (1) However, the provision was postponed until the fall session, possibly with the assistance of Madison, who was now a seasoned statesman after serving in the Continental Congress. With Jefferson serving in France, Madison stepped up as the primary leader of the religious liberty coalition in the House of Delegates. Due to the growth of the dissenting communities, and the waning power of the conservative Episcopalian establishment there was finally an opportunity to break the stalemate over the issue of religious establishments.

James Madison

To be successful, however, Madison needed the enthusiasm and support of the dissenting community. Unfortunately, an unexpected volte-face by the Hanover Presbytery during the fall session threatened to undermine Madison’s efforts to deal a death blow to the conservative effort to establish a religious assessment. In a petition submitted earlier that year (their first since 1777) there was no mention of assessments, and no indication that their stance on religious establishments had changed in any meaningful way. It echoed the complaints of earlier petitions about the unjust advantages retained by the Episcopal Church and expressed “a desire of perfect liberty and political equality.” (2) No one expected what was to come next.

The Presbytery then sent shockwaves through the legislature during the fall session when they submitted another memorial which unexpectedly expressed support for a general assessment. Incensed by the change of heart, Madison wrote to his friend James Monroe that he did “not know a more shameful contrast than might be formed between their Memorials on the latter & former occasion.” (3) On the other hand, the conservatives warmly greeted the new position; their enthusiasm, however, was dampened by the particulars of the Hanover request. The members of the Presbytery opposed the exclusively Christian and Protestant schemes favored by conservatives. They were willing to support only an assessment that encompassed all religions. They also demanded more limits be placed on government involvement with matters of religion. Despite these exacting qualifications of support, the Presbytery’s new position was a dramatic reversal of their previous principled stance against all religious establishments. What had happened?

Some have argued that this particular petition was actually an expression of the true sentiments of the Presbyterian community. (4) However, this position is unconvincing since this was the only petition of all the other Presbyterian (lay and Hanover Presbytery) petitions that expressed any kind of support for religious assessments, and even this one was hardly an enthusiastic endorsement of assessments. The more likely explanation is that it was taken up as a strategy in the face of what they saw as a fiat accompli. It seems that the Presbytery was convinced that an assessment was going to take place, and they, therefore, believed that their best strategy was to limit the damage. According to Moses Hoge, a member of the Presbytery, he had suggested a petition “against all assessments whatever” but was dissuaded by “an individual possessed of information,” who insisted that there was going to be an assessment, and that it would be better to have some say in the inevitable outcome. (5) The “individual possessed of information” was most likely John Blair Smith, author of the petition and neighbor of Patrick Henry, the famous revolutionary and charismatic leader of the general assessment movement. The Presbytery strategy seemed reasonable, but, in the end, it would fail. As the bill was being set in its final form in 1785, a proposal to replace the word “Christian” with “Religious” failed by seven or eight votes according to Madison, who blamed the “discrimination” on “the pathetic zeal of the late governor Harrison.” (6) The previous year, Madison had hoped to kill the bill before it ever got to this stage, but in this effort, he had found himself up against the formidable Patrick Henry.

A Clash of Titans: James Madison vs. Patrick Henry

As the plan for a general assessment moved forward in the House of Delegates during the 1784 fall session, the debate intensified. In a clash of titans, the brainy Madison squared off against the master orator Patrick Henry. Unfortunately, all that remains of this remarkable debate is a brief outline Madison drew up in preparation for the debate. (7) These notes, along with Madison’s Memorial & Remonstrance, are the primary sources used by Esbeck to construct his interpretation of Madison’s views. In these sources, Esbeck finds a proponent of his voluntaryism principle. Having Madison on his side on this issue would add credibility to his “originalist” claim. In defense of this alignment between his own views and his interpretation of Madison, Esbeck would claim that his own views were derived from those of the founders, and not the other way around. As an originalist, he is, after all, simply the messenger of Madison’s (and the dissenters’) views.

To evaluate Esbeck’s interpretation is it will be necessary to evaluate his description of Madison’s outline in some detail. For the sake of simplicity, I will follow Esbeck’s point by point approach to evaluating Madison’s outline. In addition, I will include Madison’s notes for each point, as well as Esbeck’s summaries in full, so that the reader can determine whose interpretation is more in line with Madison’s views.

Point # 1:

Madison’s notes:

 I. Rel: not within purview of Civil Authority,
tendency of Estabg. Christianity

  1. to project of Uniformity
  2. to penal laws for supportg. it.

—–
Progres[s] of Gen: Assest. proves this tendency
—–
Difference between estabg. & tolerating errour– (8)

 Esbeck’s summary: Madison’s “first point was that religion was not within the ‘purview’ of civil authority.” (p. 77)

Response: Esbeck accurately describes the first line of Madison’s point, but by ignoring everything else he fails to give his readers a fuller understanding of Madison’s thinking on church/state matters. The content below his main claim about civil authority is important because it helps explain why Madison believed that religion was “not within purview of Civil Authority.” This content enumerates some of the consequences of establishing Christianity, mainly the coercive nature of laws imposing religious uniformity. Coercion in matters of religion was obviously abhorrent to Madison because it violated the rights of conscience. For this reason, he insisted that “Rel” (not religious societies) was “not within the purview of Civil Authority.” This important link (rights) between Madison’s conclusion and the remaining remarks is implicit here, but it will appear fully developed in his soon to be written Memorial & Remonstrance. This line of reasoning is at the heart of Madison’s opposition to all establishments, including the proposed general assessment.

Whether intentionally, or not, Esbeck misrepresents Madison’s understanding of religious liberty. It is curious, though, that the content ignored by Esbeck poses a significant challenge to his claim that rights were not the basis for claims against establishments.

Point # 2:

 Madison’s notes:

II. True question not—Is Rel: necesy.?
Are Religs. Estabs. necessy. for Religion? no.

  1. propensity of man to Religion.
  2. Experience shews Relig: corrupted by Estabt.
  3. downfal of States, mentioned by Mr. H[enry]. Happened where there was Estabts.
  4. Experience gives no model of Gel. Asst?
  5. Case of Pa. explained—not solitary. N.J.

See Const: of it. R.I.N.Y.D.
Factions greater in S.C.

  1. Case of primitive Christianity.

of Reformation
of Dissenters formerly.
 

Esbeck’s summary: “His second point was to properly rephrase the issue as not whether religion was necessary to support a republic (he believed it was), but whether an establishment of religion is necessary for religion to flourish (and thereby be of support to government). Madison cited evidence of government’s historical tendency to corrupt any religion it supports.” (p. 87)

Response: Esbeck has framed Madison’s position as one in which Madison wants religion free from government so that religion can flourish and thereby be of support to the government. There are several issues with this understanding of Madison’s statements. Esbeck begins by claiming that Madison believed that “religion was necessary to support a republic.” Notice that there is nothing in the above excerpt to support this claim. Madison was simply pointing out that the “True” question was not “Is Rel: necesy.?” Madison may have believed this since it was a common assumption at the time, but he never says this and it never played a significant role, if any at all, in his thinking about church/state relations. This may seem like a minor point, but it primes the reader to see Madison as a proponent of voluntaryism, which proposes to limit government intervention in religious societies but not the other way around. Even if Madison believed that a pious population boded well for the health of the state, it does not follow that he would have agreed with Esbeck’s conclusion that “moral values based on religion were welcomed in the marketplace of ideas and in the formation of public policy and law.” (9) In fact, Madison insisted in his Memorial & Remonstrance that the state should not “employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy.” To overcome this obstacle Esbeck will, later in his analysis, impose a distinction between things “specifically religious” and those that are not.

In his second point Madison was focusing on whether or not religious establishments were necessary for religion. This addresses one of the main arguments of his opponents, who complained that without state support religion would wither away. In response, Madison claims that this was not a threat to the flourishing of religion because man had a “propensity” to religion. Besides, he insisted, establishments corrupted religion.

Next, Madison turned to the harm done to states by religious establishments, a fact conveniently ignored by Esbeck. Madison was apparently responding to a point made by Patrick Henry about the “downfal of States.” Madison pointed out that it was states with establishments that had failed, therefore, establishments could not be bulwarks against state collapse. To cast doubt upon the efficacy of general assessments to achieve the goals promised by Henry, Madison drew attention to the fact that there were no examples of states with general assessments (assessments in support of all denominations, rather than a single denomination). Rather than pursuing such an experiment, Madison advocated following the success of several states that were thriving without any establishments (Pennsylvania, N.J., etc.). Interestingly, he sets South Carolina apart from the others as exhibiting greater factionalism. South Carolina was an interesting case, because it had established the Protestant religion, but had done so without providing any financial support for this establishment. (10) The factionalism noted by Madison would have originated in the privileging of Protestants over and above all other citizens. Here we can clearly see that it was not simply the financial support of religion that vexed Madison. The source of the problem was much broader. It was the unjust privileging of a particular religion, in violation of the equal rights of all citizens, that undergirded Madison’s critique of establishments. Finally, Madison indicated that he wanted to compare the first 300 years of Christianity with the violence and instability of its establishment as exemplified by the Reformation and the treatment of religious dissenters.

Point # 3:

Madison’s notes (# 3):

III. Decl: Rig[hts]. 7. Progress of Religious Liberty

Response: This point is completely ignored by Esbeck and in its place he uses Madison’s fourth point. It is possible that this is simply a mistake, but if it is, it is a very convenient mistake for his own argument. Madison’s third point explicitly highlights the link between rights and “the proposed establishment,” (11) as Madison frequently called the assessment bill. And if the link isn’t explicit enough here, in a letter to Richard Henry Lee written around the same time, Madison wrote that the assessment bill “was opposed not only on the general principle that no Religious Estabts. was within purview of Civil authority, but on the […] ground on which it was placed; and the infraction […] the last article of the Decl: of Rights.” (12) This link will become even more explicit in his Memorial & Remonstrance. This line of reasoning may be inconvenient for Esbeck’s central claim that the debates over religious establishments were about how two centers of authority (organized religion and the state) would relate to each other rather than protecting rights, but it is undeniable.

Point # 4:

Madison’s notes (# 4):

IV. Policy.

  1. promote emigrations from State

  2. prevent [immigration] into it as asylum

Esbeck’s summary (Madison’s fourth point): “Point three argued that an establishment would make Virginia inhospitable to dissenters, causing reduced immigration into Virginia as well as people leaving due to religious oppression.” (p. 78)

Response: This is a fair summary of Madison’s notes.

Madison’s notes (his point # 5):

V. Necessity of Estabts. inferred from State of Conty.
—-
True causes of disease

  1. War common to other States &
  2. bad laws produce same complts. In N.E.
  3. pretext from taxes
  4. State of Administration of Justice.
  5. transition from old to new plan.
  6. policy & hopes of friends to G. Asst.

——
true remedies not Estabt. but being out war

  1. laws cherish virtue
  2. Administ: justice
  3. personal example—Association for R.
  4. By present vote cut off hope of G. Asst.
  5. Education of youth

—–
Probable defects of Bill
dishonor Christianity
—–
panegyric on it on our side
—–
Decl: Rights.

Esbeck’s summary (Madison’s point 5): “Madison’s fourth point sought to demonstrate that the social decay the assessment was intended to cure could in fact be remedied by social activity and personal example.” (p. 78)

Response: As a general description, this is a fair summary of Madison’s point, but I there are a few items worth examining briefly. The first is listed under “the true causes of disease [discord and disorder],” where Madison lists the following: “policy & hopes of friends to G. Asst.” The debate over the general assessment created such a storm of controversy and animosity that George Washington, who would have supported the bill if it was inclusive of all religions, hoped to see the bill fail since it would “be productive of more quiet the State.” (13) For Madison, this discord was not unexpected, it was an inherent feature of establishments. As an attempt to dictate religion (no matter how inclusive) via civil law, the assessment necessarily sowed dissention and discord as the religious views of some were privileged over the views of others. Accordingly, a solution to the malady was to “cut off hope of G. Asst.” This idea will be further developed in his Memorial, where he will recommend “equal and compleat [sic] liberty” for all citizens as an answer to the troubles brought about when governments “intermeddle with Religion.”

It is also important to note the inclusion, for the second time, of a reference to the “Decl: Rights.” Adherence to the DOR, or “the great Barrier that defends the rights of the people” as he calls it in the Memorial, was an essential feature of a just and stable government. And for Madison this would do more to cure the “disease” than any establishment of religion ever could.

Point # 5:

Madison’s notes (Outline A) (14):

Debate on Bill for Relig. Estabt proposed by Mr. Henry

  1. limited

  2. in particular

  3. What is Christianity? Courts of law to Judge

  4. What edition, Hebrew, Septuagint, or vulgate? What copy—what translation?

  5. What books canonical, what aprochryphal? the papists holding to be the former what protestants the latter, the Lutherans the latter what other protestants & papists the former

  6. In What light are they to be viewed, as dictated every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only? or the matter in general not the words?

  7. What sense the true one, for if some doctrines be essential to Christianity, those who reject these, whatever name they take are no Christian Society?

  8. Is it Trinitarianism, arianism, Socinisnism? Is it salvation by faith or works also—by free grace, or free will–&c &c &c [etc etc etc]—

  9. What clue is to guide Judge thro’ this labyrinth? When the question comes before them whether any particular Society is a Christian Society?

  10. Ends in what is orthodoxy, what heresy?

Esbeck’s summary: “His fifth point addressed the practical problems of a multiple establishment, most significantly the difficulty of adjudicating religious questions in a court of law. Such questions were inevitable if only orthodox Christian churches were to be eligible to receive tax payments.” (p. 78)

Response: Esbeck’s oversimplified characterization misses the significance of Madison’s point. Madison is not simply pointing out “the difficulty of adjudicating religious questions in a court of law.” It was the consequences of such exercises in division (determining who was orthodox) that had, as Madison claimed in the Memorial, drowned Europe in “[t]orrents of blood” for over 200 years. Madison realized that if the state was going to support Christianity, as they proposed in the assessment bill, at some point they would have to decide, who was and who was not, eligible to receive state funds. This exercise would inevitably relegate some citizens to second class status, and as a result would be accompanied by the animosities and jealousies that sow discord.

Interestingly, Esbeck adds his own opinion as part of his summary making it appear as if it was part of Madison’s argument. He opines that the “difficulty” could be avoided “if only orthodox Christian churches” were eligible. This so-called solution would not have actually solved the problem. The question of determining who was and who was not eligible could not be avoided, and, as Madison was well aware, the inevitable determination would in and of itself create an orthodoxy.

Conclusion

Esbeck’s takeaway on Madison’s purposes and goals: “It is clear from Madison’s outline that his aim was to protect and liberate religion, not to control or curtail it, as well as to avoid the inevitable civic division that follows when government involves itself in specifically religious doctrine and observance.” (p. 78)

Response: As should be clear from the above review of Madison’s notes, Esbeck’s interpretation of Madison’s argument is problematic in its details. As a result, Esbeck’s general conclusions about Madison’s goals are also problematic. From the notes, Esbeck gleans two primary reasons for Madison’s opposition to the general assessment bill. First, Esbeck, claims that Madison wanted “to protect and liberate religion, not to control or curtail it.” This characterization of Madison’s goal implies that he wanted to “liberate religion” from state control without prohibiting its influence on government policy; a goal that is coincidentally in line with Esbeck’s own preferences. (15) While Madison did want to free religion from state control (as well as free the state from religious control), his goal was to free the people from tyranny, not to protect religion, as the above review of Madison’s notes indicate. And, as with all enlightened rationalists, it was establishments of religion that protected religion. To free religion was to open it up to criticism. One of the benefits of untethering religion from state protection was the progress of truth that would come from the freedom to debate and criticize religious dogma. As Madison insisted in his Memorial: “Instead of Levelling as far as possible, every obstacle to the victorious progress of Truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian timidity would circumscribe it with a wall of defence against the encroachments of error.” (16) By freeing religion from the protection of government truth would win, and religion would become purer in the process. In other words, the critique of religion, not the protection of religious dogma, would be better for religion, the state, and freedom.

As far as not wanting to “control or curtail” religion, Esbeck is implying that Madison only wanted to prevent the state from intervening in religion, while at the same time allowing religion (or religious societies) to shape public policy. There is no evidence that Madison saw it this way. In fact, he stated clearly in the Memorial that the “Civil Magistrate” is not a “competent Judge of Religious Truth,” and may not “employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy.” To bring religion into law is to establish religion; something Madison was adamantly opposed to.

The second purpose divined by Esbeck from Madison’s notes is that he opposed the general assessment “to avoid the inevitable civic division that follows when government involves itself in specifically religious doctrine and observance.” (p. 78) Here Esbeck cleverly creates a distinction between things “specifically religious” and those that are not. This rendering of Madison’s intentions implies that Madison would allow government support for things not “specifically religious,” which, if true, would support Esbeck’s position that government can, and should, provide funds to religious organizations so long as they are for things not “specifically religious.” This would also justify his desire to have religious morality shape policy.

Esbeck is correct to note that Madison wanted to avoid “civic division,” but he misleads his readers by characterizing the source of the problem as resulting from government involvement “in specifically religious doctrine and observance.” (italics mine) Esbeck wants to present the problem as one of government intervention in church affairs, rather than as one of violating individual rights. However, this depiction of Madison’s understanding of the problem is not justified by the evidence. Based on what he wrote (here and elsewhere), it was state-imposed religion (the “project of uniformity”) which violated the equal rights of citizens, rather than the meddling in religious doctrine, that was the focus of Madison’s concern (see above discussion of “Outline A”). This is why the Declaration of Rights was the foundation upon which he constructed his arguments against the assessment bill in the Memorial. It was the privileging of some citizens over others which was contrary to the equal rights proclaimed by the DOR, and that created the animosities which led to “civic division.”

More problematic for Esbeck’s characterization is the fact that it rests on an incomplete accounting of Madison’s arguments. By ignoring so much of what Madison said, particularly concerning rights, Esbeck has created an ally of accommodation. The real test of this position will be Madison’s magnum opus of religious liberty: Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

 

The dramatic debate between Madison and Henry, the two titans of politics changed few minds. According to Beverly Randolph, the future governor of Virginia, Madison’s speech was unsuccessful because “a majority of 17 [were] against him” despite his demonstration of “great Learning & Ingenuity, with all the Powers of a close reasoned.” On Henry’s performance, Randolph reported, that he “advocated with his usual art.” (17) No amount of reason, logic, or evidence had a chance against Henry’s soaring rhetoric and appeals to emotion. As long as Henry was there to defend the assessment bill, Madison knew that he would have little chance of stopping its passage. Fortuitously, Henry was elected governor on November 17. It is widely believed that Madison had a hand in this affair, although there is no conclusive evidence to support this charge. (18) If he did, Madison never indicated anywhere that he had aided in this bit of political maneuvering. Whatever, Madison’s role in this affair, it was a bit of good fortune for him and his allies. In a letter to his friend James Monroe, Madison happily reported that the supporters of the assessment “are much disheartened at the loss of Mr. Henry. Its fate is I think very uncertain.” (19) But for now, the legislation moved forward and the drama was about to shift from the legislature to the populace.

Notes:

(1) H.J. Eckenrode, Separation of Church and State in Virginia: A Study in the Development of the Revolution (Richmond: Davis Bottom, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1910), 79-80.

(2) Petition of the Hanover Presbytery (May 26, 1784) at Library of Virginia: Digital Collection (hereafter LOVD).

(3) Madison to James Monroe (April 12, 1785) Founders Online.

(4) See Fred J. Hood, “Revolution and Religious Liberty: The Conservation of the Theocratic Concept in Virginia,” Church History, vol. 40, no. 2 (June 1971).

(5) See Eckenrode, Separation of Church and State, 89-90; Charles Grier Seller, Jr., “John Blair Smith,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 34 (December 1956), 212; and William Henry Foote, Sketches of Virginia: Historical and Biographical (2 series, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1856), 2:557.

(6) Madison to Jefferson (January 9, 1785) Founders Online.

(7) The main debates over assessment came later in the session (December 22-24) but a letter to James Monroe from Beverly Randolph indicates that Madison and Henry debated each other on this subject. Henry was elected governor on November 17 and so would not have been present for the later debates. Eckenrode believes that this is the most likely date for Madison’s speech. (Eckenrode, Separation of Church and State, 85)

(8) Madison’s Notes For Debates on the General Assessment Bill, [Outline B], [23-24 December 1784], Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2016-03-20]). Source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 8, 10 March 1784 – 28 March 1786, ed. Robert A. Rutland and William M. E. Rachal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 197.

(9) Carl H. Esbeck, “Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic,” Brigham Young University Law Review (2004): 1580.

(10) The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Laws of the United States, Part II. Second edition. compiled by Ben: Perley Poore. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1878), 1626-27. This establishment was short-lived and was dismantled by a new constitution in 1790 that almost completely severed the ties between religion and government (Ibid., 1632).

(11) Madison, Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Founders Online.

(12) Madison to Richard Henry Lee (November 14, 1784) Founders Online.

(13) George Washington to George Mason (October 3, 1785) Founders Online.

(14) “Madison’s Notes for Debates on the General Assessment Bill, [Outline B], [23-24 December 1784],” Founders Online. The editors of The Papers of James Madison (the source used by Founders Online) list this as a separate document because they claim there is nothing to support Hunt’s claim (editor of Madison, Writings) that the two segments were from a single debate. Instead, they believe that Madison “spoke on this subject several times, but the outline he used initially is uncertain.” (see footnote 1) Esbeck is following the work of others who have followed Hunt’s view on these notes.

(15) Esbeck, “Dissent and Disestablishment,” 1579-80.

(16) Madison, Memorial & Remonstrance, Founders Online.

(17) Eckenrode, Separation of Church and State, 85.

(18) Buckley, Church and State, 100-1.

(19) James Madison to James Monroe (December 4, 1784) Founders Online.

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