The First Federal Congress: Madison, Religious Liberty, and the Meaning of the Establishment Clause (Abusing History, Part III)

This post is the third and final part in a series examining Vincent Phillip Muñoz’s argument that the Establishment Clause was meant to protect each state’s unique “church-state arrangement” (a federalism provision) rather than individual rights, and therefore it should never have been incorporated to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment in “The Original Meaning of the Establishment Clause and the Impossibility of its Incorporation.” (3) For second post in this series click here Abusing History (Part II).

Having survived Patrick Henry’s antics in Virginia, Madison now faced a Federalist-dominated Congress that was uninterested in his push to secure rights. Federalists thought the project was unnecessary and the hard-core Anti-Federalists thought the rights-protecting amendments proposed by Madison were “frothy and full of wind, formed only to please the palate.” (1) A sense of duty and the need to shore up support for the new government propelled Madison forward with what he called “the nauseous project of amendments.” (2) Madison’s dogged determination in the face of an indifferent Congress to see this project through to the end rightly earned him the designation “The Father of the Bill of Rights.” The Establishment Clause that came out of this struggle was, according to Muñoz, “unmistakably federal” and as such “made clear that Congress lacked power to legislate a national establishment or to pass legislation directly regarding state establishments (or the lack thereof).” (p. 630) Having failed to prove that the Anti-Federalists were clamoring for this kind of federalism proposal, Muñoz’s entire claim now rests on what happened in the First Federal Congress. To test his federal interpretation of the Establishment Clause, we will follow the progress of the amendment from Madison’s original proposal to the final version approved by a joint committee of both houses of Congress.

Madison’s Proposed Amendments

James Madison

Undaunted by a reluctant Congress, Madison pressed forward with his “nauseous project.” Prior to the ratification of the Constitution, Madison had been one of the staunchest opponents of bills of rights. Now that ratification had been secured, he became an ardent champion of amendments to secure rights. His first task was to draw up a list of amendments with which to achieve that goal, as demanded by Anti-Federalists. If Madison could satisfy these reasonable demands, he knew he could isolate the hard-core Anti-Federalists who would then be left stranded without the significant political support they would need to get the second convention they so desperately wanted. His strategy was obvious to all, especially the staunch Anti-Federalists who angrily denounced Madison’s efforts as “throwing a tub to a whale.” (3) In other words, they saw the rights-focused amendments as simply a distraction from the substantial structural changes they were seeking. If all involved saw Madison’s amendments project as an effort to secure rights, how would a structural establishment clause fit into it? Was it simply an exception? Were the descriptions inaccurate? Or, did the establishment clause actually serve a rights-protecting function?

In his famous June 8 speech to the House of Representatives, Madison explained that his purpose was to satisfy “the great mass of the people who opposed” the Constitution. Therefore, he argued, Congress should “conform to their wishes, and expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.” (4) He admitted that some desired structural changes were needed, but he informed his colleagues that he was “unwilling to see a door opened for a re-consideration of the whole structure of the government.”

Madison’s notes for his speech more clearly illustrate his objectives and thus the function of his establishment clause. After listing the three types of objections to the Constitution (structure, substance of power, and “rights & libertys”), he noted that the last of these was “most urged & easiest obviated.” (5) This was followed by a prompt to “Read the amendments,” which indicates that he understood those amendments as rights-securing ones. His notes also include a list for the “Contents of Bills of Rhts,” which clearly structured his own amendments. The first item (“assertion of primitive equality &c.”) he omitted from his proposal since, as he explained in his speech, “to be sure [this] is an absolute truth, yet it is not absolutely necessary to be inserted at the head of a constitution.” (speech) Next, he indicated that rights associated with forming governments should be declared. The third item was labeled: “natural rights, retained—as Speech, Con[science].” (5) (italics in original) This is where his amendment for religious liberty fell, which he designated with the shorthand label “Con.” His “Con” amendment, as stated in his speech, included a “no establishment” clause: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or pretext infringed.” If the issue of religious establishments is unrelated to individual rights, why would Madison have imbedded it in a rights-protecting proposal?

In addition, Muñoz insists that Madison abandoned his principle of “noncognizance” (i.e. government has nothing to do with religion). (p. 625) Madison’s struggles in Virginia to disestablish religion show that he was a strong proponent of the separation of religion and government, as reflected in his Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments where he insisted that religion should be “exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body.” For Muñoz’s federalism argument to work he must explain why Madison abandoned this cherished principle. His answer: Madison “specifically addressed the Anti-Federalists’ concern over a uniform national religion by prohibiting Congress from establishing one.” (p. 625) Yes, Madison directly targeted Anti-Federalist complaints, but these complaints, as already shown, were misconstrued by Muñoz (see Part II). In reality, Madison’s principle was compatible with Anti-Federalist cries to protect their religious liberty. Even those that saw some role for religion in the state governments wanted to ban the federal government from having any power over religious matters. In Madison’s view his entire amendment was consistent with his “noncognizanze” principle, as well as with Anti-Federalist demands. It also reaffirms what he always insisted when defending the Constitution: “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation.” (6)

Madison’s proposed amendment would now go to a committee for review. Did the changes that followed alter the purpose and meaning of the establishment clause?

The Debate in the House of Representatives

For unknown reasons the House committee scrapped Madison’s amendment and replaced it with “no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.” This version of the amendment came up for debate in the Committee of the Whole House on August 15. The debate was brief and only a handful of Representatives chose to participate. Rather than indicating a passionate debate over a highly contested matter the record reveals the apathy with which Congress approached the amendments. This halfhearted effort led the esteemed scholar Leonard W. Levy to conclude: “That the House understood the debate, cared deeply about its outcome, or shared a common understanding of the finished amendment seems doubtful.” (7) Caution is also warranted by the fact that the record is marred by the shoddy work of the journalists who wrote the summaries of the speeches in the House. (8) Frustrated, the participants in the debates, including Madison, denounced the record as “defective, and desultory.” Nevertheless, Madison noted that “for the most part” the “ideas of the speakers” can be “collected from them.” (9) Therefore, the focus should be on the ideas not specific words or phrasing.

To frame this short House debate, Muñoz rejects the Supreme Court’s characterization as a debate “between those who favored non-preferential aid on the one hand and those who opposed any government aid on the other.” Instead, he argues that the debate was about finding language “that would not alter Congress’s power yet would satisfy the Constitution’s critics,” which he had inaccurately characterized as seeking to protect state establishments. (p. 626) In other words, in Muñoz’s telling, it was about structure not principle. The outcome, according to Muñoz, was a federalism proposal that prevented the federal government from intervening in state establishments or setting up a national establishment. He comes to this conclusion via a creative reconstruction of the debate that ignores the statements of some of the participants as well as the general flow of the debate.

His first move is to note the similar concerns of Peter Silvester and Samuel Huntington, who both feared that the clause could be “hurtful to the cause of religion.” This observation is accurate but skips over the other participants who spoke in between these two participants. Interestingly, Muñoz ignores Huntington’s larger point which could have been useful to his argument. We will examine Huntington’s concerns in more detail below. For now, we need to understand Muñoz’s analysis of the House debate. From this initial description of the debate Muñoz turns to Madison’s response, which he summarizes as a statement “meant to assure Sylvester and Huntington that the amendment would not abolish state establishments, which seems to have been their fear.” (p. 627) So, Muñoz goes from a concern about the potential of harm to religion to the characterization of their complaint as one about state establishments. It is possible to interpret Huntington’s statement in this way, but Muñoz ignores that part of his speech which supports this view. Even more problematic is Sylvester’s brief statement that cannot in anyway be construed as a concern about state establishments. He simply objected to “the mode of expression” since he thought it “might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.” Madison’s statement is more cryptic but is better understood when seen as part of the larger conversation which Muñoz ignores. We will examine both of Madison’s contributions to the debate below, especially as Muñoz only briefly addressed them since the debate took “a decisive turn away from his proposed language.” (p. 627) Muñoz does briefly mention the participation of Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry, but brushes them aside as they do nothing to add to his rendering of the debate.

The “decisive turn” occurred when Samuel Livermore proposed to solve the problem by suggesting they use the language submitted by his state of New Hampshire: “congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.” According to Muñoz this “language more clearly acknowledged Congress’s lack of power to make a national establishment or to violate the rights of conscience and to recognize state sovereignty over establishments.” (p. 627)  This was the version that went forward and sets up the rest of the debate over the Establishment Clause as one about the relationship between the federal and state governments, thus Muñoz ignores Madison’s final statement.

A closer examination of the entire debate calls into question the plausibility of Muñoz’s interpretation. The first to speak was Peter Silvester, who, as explained above, feared that the amendment could be interpreted in such a way as “to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.” (10) In response, John Vining suggested that they transpose “the two members of the sentence.” This would have put the “equal rights of conscience” before the no establishment clause. It is hard to see how this would have solved Silvester’s complaint, but it would have made the relationship between the two clauses clearer by emphasizing “the equal rights of conscience” since a ban on religious establishments would have necessarily followed from this equal right. But for unknown reasons Vining’s suggestion was ignored.

The Anti-Federalist Elbridge Gerry then chimed in, declaring that “it would read better if it was, that no religious doctrine shall be established by law.” This would have potentially left the door open to financial support, but it is hard to imagine Gerry approving a measure that added power to the federal government even as he supported the system of religious assessments in his own state of Massachusetts. It is no surprise that his suggestion was ignored. Roger Sherman then repeated his Federalist refrain that Congress had no power “to make religious establishments,” and therefore he “move[d] to have it struck out.” (10)

In response, Daniel Carroll came to the defense of the amendment. He reminded his colleagues that many agreed that the rights of conscience were “not well secured under the present constitution,” and, therefore, he “was much in favor of adopting the words.” The exact “phraseology” was not of that much concern to him as long as it “secure[d] the substance in such a manner as to satisfy the wishes of the honest part of the community.” (10) As a Catholic Carroll had good reason to rally in support of this amendment, but his nonchalant attitude to the exact wording reveals an unjustified apathy for someone who was a spokesman for the frequently reviled Catholic community.

Madison then spoke up for the first time in defense of his proposal. He obviously felt compelled to explain its meaning and purpose. Given its significance it is quoted in full:

he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience; whether the words were necessary or not he did not mean to say, but they had been required by some of the state conventions, who seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause of the constitution, which gave power to congress to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the constitution, and the laws made under it, enabled them to make laws of such a nature as might infringe the rights of conscience, or establish a national religion, to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended, and he thought it as well expressed as the nature of the language would admit. (10)

Much ado has been made about his “establish a religion” statement, but this is most likely the consequence of the unprofessional way in which these speeches were created. Madison would never have accepted any kind of establishment of religion, much less a non-preferential one. It bears repeating, Madison was not seeking to add power of any kind to the federal government on the subject of religion, and as he repeatedly insisted, “There is not a shadow of right in the General Government to intermeddle with religion – Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation.” (11)

Notably, there is no indication here that Madison understood the Anti-Federalist position as a plea for the protection of state establishments. On the other hand, the wording in the second half of his statement appears to give support to Muñoz’s contention that the establishment issue was distinct from the desire to protect “the rights of conscience,” but to accept this we would have to reject everything we know about Madison before and after this debate.

It is at this point that Huntington shared his concern about potential harm to religion. While agreeing with Madison’s interpretation of the amendment he worried that “others might find it convenient to put another construction upon it.” Speculating, he wondered what would happen “[i]f an action was brought before a federal court on any of these cases, the person who had neglected to perform his engagements [pay tax in support of religion] could not be compelled to do it; for a support of ministers, or building of places of worship might be construed into a religious establishment.” (10) Huntington was most certainly aware that most Americans, even in conservative New England, considered financial support for religion “a religious establishment.” When Massachusetts’s defenders of their system of religious establishments several years earlier, the popular Baptist preacher Isaac Backus scolded those who began denying that it was an establishment by pointing out that the “legislature have constantly called those laws an establishment, for these eighty-seven years.” (12) (italics mine) Was Huntington just playing dumb? Doubtful, but his example does show that he was concerned about his own state’s establishment. While his concerns would have been shared by many of his fellow New Englanders, his views were increasing not shared by the majority of Americans, and they most certainly were not the ones expressed by the Anti-Federalists that Madison was trying to win over.

What Huntington’s statement indicates within this context is the need to express clearly which level of government is being restrained. Madison then tried to solve this problem by offering to insert the word “national” before religion. He “thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.” (10) This would ensure that the state of Massachusetts would not be bound by this amendment, even as Madison’s “most valuable” amendment binding states to honor the rights of conscience would have. (13) Huntington did not weigh in on this amendment when it came up for a vote. Luckily for Huntington it did not pass the Senate.

This attempt to make clear which government was bound by the directive did not change the goal of the amendment (to protect rights); it simply clarified the party which would be bound by this rights-protecting measure. Samuel Livermore now jumped into the debate with a proposal that he thought would better solve the problem: “that congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.” (10) This is almost identical to the one proposed by his state of New Hampshire. The main version of the debate in the Annals of Congress includes no explanation with the proposal, but in another, usually less helpful version of these debates published in The Daily Advertiser there is a helpful note indicating Livermore’s intentions. Here it indicates that “tho’ the sense of both provisions was the same, yet the former might seem to wear an ill face and was subject to misconstruction.” (14) The addition of the word “Congress” solved the problem of which government (state or federal) was the target of the limit, without the implications that the term “national” implied, a complaint lodged by Elbridge Gerry who now joined the conversation.

As a staunch Anti-Federalist, Gerry disapproved of “the term national” because it implied a “form of government [that] consolidated the union.” Madison quipped in response “that the words ‘no national religion shall be established by law’ did not imply that the government was a national one,” but acquiesced in the change anyway. (10) Livermore’s motion passed 31 to 20.

The brief discussion indicates that the focus of the debate was to come up with language that made clear that it was the federal government which was banned from establishing religion, but to do so in a way that did not imply a consolidated government. The word “Congress” fit the bill. While this discussion was about the relationship between the federal and state government, it did not follow that it was a “federalism” clause meant to prevent the federal government from intervening in state establishments of religion. By targeting the federal governments, the amendment left the remaining state establishments intact, but protecting state establishments was not the goal of the amendment. The language, which would become that of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no laws…”), solved this problem and not just for the Establishment Clause but for all of the other individual rights clauses (free exercise, speech, press, and assembly). All the clauses of the First Amendment were federal in this way, but they all remained substantive statements meant to protect individual rights at the federal level.

On August 20 Fisher Ames of Massachusetts moved to change the amendment to “Congress shall make no laws establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.” The main change was the addition of a free exercise clause, but it was replacement of the word “touching” for “establishing” that represents a significant change to the meaning of the establishment clause according to Muñoz. He argues that the change “more clearly focused attention on establishments,” and thus “recognized Congress’s lack of power over religious establishments.” (p. 628) This conclusion is hard to square with the evidence. There is nothing in the language or in the record to support this counter-intuitive interpretation. It simply banned Congress from making laws that fixed (i.e. established) religion.

The term “establish” was used broadly in the eighteenth century. It was a term that was not used exclusively to indicate a formal establishment (traditional or nonpreferential).  A widely used dictionary in America, Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1786), defined “Establishment” as

  1. A settlement; fixed state.
  2. Confirmation of something already done; ratification.
  3. Settled regulation; form; model.
  4. Foundation; fundamental principle.
  5. Allowance income; salary. (15)

The term simply meant that something was “fixed” via law. There is no specific reference to a legally supported or binding religion. While Anglicanism was considered “established by law” in England, this did not bring with it any specific, or exclusive, meaning. There was no requirement that “an establishment” be a single state-supported religion, or any specific features such as financial support. South Carolina officially established the “Christian Protestant religion,” but they did so without government funding. (16) For many, any law dealing with the subject of religion was an “establishment of religion.” The Baptists at a meeting in Virginia, expressed a common sentiment shared by religious dissenters when they declared that it was “repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the Legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion; that no human laws ought to be established for this purpose, but that every person ought to be left entirely free in respect to matters of religion.” (17) (italics mine)

They even used it in reference to cherished concepts such as religious freedom and toleration. Most famously it was enshrined in Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.” In their fight against all forms of religious establishments, Virginia Baptists repeatedly requested that a “perfect and equal religious freedom may be established.” (18) Even some state constitutions used the word in this way. Article I, Section 3 of Connecticut’s constitution stated that the free exercise of religion was “hereby declared and established.” (19) (for more examples, see footnote 20 below) They were using the word “establish” in all these situations in its basic sense of “[t]o settle firmly; to fix unalterably.” By bringing something into law, it became fixed or “established.”

It is this meaning that makes more sense in this context. While there is no record to explain the change, the more commonly used term “establishing” was less vague than “touching.” It would have had the added benefit of permitting the Congress to pass laws protecting religious rights, which do not “establish” (or fix) religion in law. The proposal means exactly what it says it means, Congress is forbidden from making laws that fix religion, whether religious doctrines or practices. And it is religion in general that is banned, not a particular religion or a particular denomination. This would have reinforced that Federalist position that Congress had no power on the subject of religion. And since the ban is aimed at the federal government, the states would have been free to make their own rules concerning religion. The amendment now went to the Senate for debate.

The Senate

The Senate took up the issue on September 3. With reporters barred from the Senate we are left with only the official record of votes on motions and bills. This record indicates that the Senate considered various versions, which according to Muñoz were versions “of Patrick Henry’s Virginia submission” that would have “augmented congressional power” by “implicitly allowing Congress to legislate on religious matters so long as it did so in a non-preferential manner.” (pp. 628-9) All of these “no-preference” proposals were rejected. In the end, they sent to the House a version that could have been interpreted as barring only laws that “establish[ed] articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion,” thus potentially opening the door to financial support for religion. The House apparently greeted the Senate version with alarm; no doubt Madison in particular was horrified. When the House pressed the Senate to alter its version, they refused. They did give in, however, to reconciling the issue in a Joint Committee.

The Joint Committee

Three members from each chamber were assigned to the committee. Madison naturally managed to land on the committee, where he was no doubt was a powerful presence. After what must have been tense negotiations the Senate version was rejected, and a slightly altered House version was agreed to: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The committee dropped the “rights of conscience” clause, which they probably saw as redundant.

Following his earlier framing, Muñoz insists that the choice before the committee as one between “the House-proposed, New Hampshire inspired federalism text and the Senate-proposed, Virginia-inspired regulation language.” (p. 629) This framing sets up the debate in favor of Muñoz’s conclusion, but what he sees as the “key to unlocking the meaning of the Establishment Clause” is the addition of the word “respecting.” It is this change, he insists, makes it an “unmistakably federal” statement. (p. 629) In support of this interpretation, Muñoz relies on two pieces of evidence. First, he relies on his interpretation of Anti-Federalist concerns about state establishments. As already shown this interpretation is without merit (see Part II).

Second, Muñoz argues that the words “respecting an” indicate an absolute prohibition in contrast to the “regulatory power implied by the other participles” of the First Amendment. The “participles ‘prohibiting’ and ‘abridging,’” Muñoz contends, “regulate but do not categorically deny Congress power.” Whereas “‘respecting’ indicates Congress’s lack of jurisdictional authority over an entire subject matter.” The subject matter, according to Muñoz, was “establishments.” Therefore, he concludes, “The Establishment Clause thus made clear that Congress lack power to legislate a national establishment or to pass legislation directly regarding state establishment (or the lack thereof).” (p. 630)

The distinction between “respecting” and the other participles is dubious on its face, but we have powerful evidence that there is no distinction. After the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1799, Madison, incensed, went into overdrive to have these measures repealed. The Sedition Act was a blatant violation of the Constitution because it allowed for the regulation of the press. He adamantly denied that there was any distinction between the words “respecting” and “abridging,” the free press participle. In a report to the committee dealing with the issue in the Virginia House of Delegates, Madison forcefully challenged the claim made by those supporting the act that the press could be regulated as long as they did not abridge it since it did not say “they shall make no law respecting it.” This would mean, Madison argued, that by analogy the free exercise of religion could be regulated as long as they do not prohibit it. As a key player in the creation of the amendment, Madison denied that such a distinction was intended: “Words could not well express, in a fuller or more forcible manner, the understanding of the convention, that the liberty of conscience and the freedom of the press, were equally and completely exempted from all authority whatever of the United States.” (21) The liberty of conscience was not actually explicitly banned, but he meant that all things that infringed upon the liberty of conscience, which for Madison included establishments, were “exempted.”

While Muñoz was wrong about the distinction between the clauses, he is right to claim that the Establishment Clause imposes an absolute ban. But the ban comes from the language that all the clauses of the First Amendment share: “Congress shall make no laws…” Notice above that Madison did not use the word “respecting” (or “respecting an”) to indicate the absolute ban, he used the phrase “they shall make no law respecting it.” What is Congress forbidden to legislate on? Things “respecting an establishment of religion.” While somewhat vague, there is no indication that the focus of the ban was “establishments” as Muñoz conceives them.

This claim rests heavily on Muñoz’s problematic interpretation of Anti-Federalist concerns for state establishments. And it is hard to see how this would make sense given the fourteenth amendment passed by the House and sent to the Senate that explicitly banned the states from “infringing…the rights of conscience.” This would make no sense if the Establishment Clause was intended to ban federal intervention in a state’s church/state arrangement. Without any other concrete evidence indicating that it was specifically a federalism proposal Muñoz’s argument falls apart. In fact, evidence from Madison’s career during and after his tenure in the First Federal Congress cannot be squared with Muñoz’s interpretation.

Madison’s Views on the Establishment Clause

In addition to Madison’s copious writings about religious liberty, we have sufficient evidence indicating how he understood the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses. As a member of Congress and as President, Madison had several opportunities to put into practice his understanding of the Establishment Clause. During his tenure as a member of the House of Representatives, Madison encountered a couple of issues that clashed with the principles of the First Amendment which he had helped to create.

The first test of his resolve came during the same session in which the amendments were passed. The issue of chaplains proved especially troubling for Madison as his ideals clashed with colleagues wedded to the tradition. Madison’s record on the subject of legislative chaplains during his tenure in the House of Representatives is somewhat murky, but even a generous reading of the available evidence contradicts Muñoz’s thesis. Madison had to confront two different aspects of this issue: 1) his role in creating the rules for the appointment of chaplains; and 2) whether or not they should be paid with public funds.

As Congress was just getting off the ground, the Senate initiated the move to establish a chaplaincy.

To this end they created a five-member committee to establish rules governing the appointment and conduct of chaplains. They also recommended that the House do the same, and apparently with little pushback, the House complied. Most likely by choice, Madison landed on this committee, but not because he supported the chaplaincy. If he could not prevent the establishment of this institution, he could at least try to limit the damage. He obviously failed in that task. With no records from these committees we have no way of determining who and why the majority of the members voted in support of chaplains. As a tradition established by the Continental Congress, but not followed by the Constitutional Convention, many members probably gave little thought to the compatibility of this practice with the Federalist mantra that the federal government had no power on matters concerning religion.

He also failed to prevent the funding of these legislative chaplains. Early in the session a different committee had been set up to provide compensation for the President, Vice-President, and members of Congress. The addition of chaplains seems to have originated in the Senate late in the life of the bill. (22) This occurred after the House debates of the religious liberty amendment, but before the Senate took up debate on the House proposal on September 3. By this point Madison and his colleagues were desperate to pass the bill compensating members of the government. The bill was signed into law by President Washington on September 23, 1789.

While Madison voted in support of this bill, it was not a vote in support of this institution. As Andy G. Olree explains, “Perhaps the most important reason for Madison’s vote in favor of the omnibus bill of 1789, however, was the fact that it was omnibus. Madison was trying to get the new government up and running; he could not afford to delay or possibly derail an already much-delayed compensation plan for the new national legislature in order to contest one line item.” (23) In fact, Madison later insisted that the establishment of the chaplaincy happened without his approval. In a letter to Edward Livingston, Madison wrote that “it was not with [his] approbation, that the deviation from it [“the immunity of Religion from Civil Jurisprudence”] took place in Congs. when they appointed Chaplains, to be paid from the Natl. Treasury.” (24) Besides denying that he approved this practice, he explained that it was in violation of the principle of “the immunity of Religion from Civil Jurisprudence,” which he undoubtedly understood to be part of the national compact.

A more detailed examination of this topic is found in what is known as the Detached Memoranda, a collection of musings on topics Madison thought were of some importance. In this collection, he devoted considerable attention to the issue of church-state relations, which had always been something of an obsession for Madison. He opened this section by announcing that the “danger of silent accumulations & encroachments by Ecclesiastical Bodies have not sufficiently engaged attention in the U.S.” After a brief defense of the merits of “unshackling the conscience from persecuting laws” and the example of Virginia, he declares, “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt. in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precidents [sic] already furnished in their short history.” (25) (italics in original) Here he notes, but does not explain, some examples that will be addressed below. But here we see an explicit statement of Madison’s understanding of the First Amendment, and it reveals that he saw it as establishing a principle (separation), and as we’ll see it was a principle in the service of protecting individual rights.

Turning to the issue of chaplains, Madison set out to answer the question: “Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?” (italics in original) Unsurprisingly, he ruled in the negative on both counts. It violated the Constitution, he asserted, because it “forbids every thing like an establishment of a national religion.” (italics in original) So, it doesn’t just forbid the establishment of a national religion; it forbids “every thing like” one. In this case, the use of chaplains in the legislature. He explains,

The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation. (25)

While not strictly a national establishment of religion it promotes practices that mimic those of traditional establishments, and therefore was unconstitutional, according to Madison.

Madison went further. He insisted that it violated the “pure principle of religious freedom,” which the First Amendment was meant to protect. In contrast to mere toleration, religious freedom rests on the assumption of equality, thus Madison charged that “[t]he establishment of the chaplainship to Congs. is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.” It violates equal rights because it “shut[s] the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority.” (25) To those who would insist that the majority should have its way in these matters, Madison retorted: “To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.” (25) This is the very essence of religious tyranny; the very thing that the Constitution was meant to banish.

It is also for this reason that he would have rejected any officially sanctioned prayer, whether by public funding or not. He certainly would have found it acceptable for individuals and/or groups to engage in prayer before the session began as long as participation was voluntary, the prayer was not officially endorsed, nor paid for with public funds. Which is why he insisted that religious practices must be carried out as “voluntary acts of individuals, singly, or voluntarily associated.” (25) Thus, in Madison’s understanding legislative chaplains violated the Constitution and the rights of conscience protected therein.

The same principles were violated by the “Chaplainships for the army and navy.” He admitted that the “object of this establishment is seducing; the motive to it is laudable.” (italics in original) “But is it not safer to adhere to a right principle, & trust to its consequences, than confide in the reasoning however specious in favor of a wrong one,” Madison asked rhetorically. Notice that Madison explicitly called the military chaplaincies an “establishment.” It wasn’t like an establishment, it was an establishment.

While Madison lamented the establishment of these dangerous precedents, he also realized that they were unlikely to be reversed. So, “[r]ather let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the aphorism de minimis non curat lex [‘The law does not concern itself with trifles’] or to class it ‘cum maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura” [‘I shall not take offence at a few blots which a careless hand has let drop, or human frailty has failed to avert.’] (26) Madison is not claiming here that the matter is trivial, as some have claimed, but rather that it is best to minimize the importance of this precedent that give it power as “a legitimate precedent.”

The following year, as the amendments were still going through the process of ratification, Madison made a revealing statement about dealing with clergy in the census. He reminded his colleagues in the House “that in such a character they can never be objects of legislative attention or cognizance. As to those who are employed in teaching and inculcating the duties of religion there may be some indelicacy in singling them out, as the General Government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who, and who are not ministers of the Gospel.” (27) Once again Madison confirms that it is religion in general that is banned from the cognizance of the federal government. So, much for the idea that Madison abandoned his beloved principle of noncognizance to satisfy the Anti-Federalists.

Another revealing incident came after he left Congress. In 1798 President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law. The Sedition Act included measures allowing government regulation of the press. Alarmed by the flagrant violation of the Constitution, as he understood it, Madison engaged in a determined campaign to have the laws repealed. As part of this effort, Madison drew up a report for the Virginia Assembly in which he responded to the defenders of the Sedition Act who argued that it was constitutional because the First Amendment “prohibits them only from abridging the freedom allowed to it by the common law,” Madison insisted that the clause “was meant as a positive denial to Congress, of any power whatever on the subject.” (28) As a noteworthy participant in drawing up the First Amendment, Madison took his opponents to task for misconstruing the meaning and purpose of its Free Press Clause. “It is painful to remark,” he informed his colleagues, “how much the arguments now employed in behalf of the sedition act, are at variance with the reasoning which then justified the constitution, and invited its ratification.” What was the “reasoning”? “[T]hat no powers were given beyond those enumerated in the constitution, and such as were fairly incident to them; that the power over the rights in question, and particularly over the press, was neither among the enumerated power, nor incident to any of them.” So, as far as the press went, the clause was meant to put in writing what the Federalists had insisted all along: the Constitution had no power on the subject. Did this reasoning extend to the Religion Clauses?

To bring home his point, Madison turned to those important clauses. By way of analogy Madison hoped to show the folly in the precedent being set by the faulty reasoning of the architects of the law. “Words could not well express,” he asserted, “in a fuller or more forcible manner, the understanding of the convention, that the liberty of conscience and the freedom of the press, were equally and completely exempted from all authority whatever of the United States.” (italics in original) As was common, he used the designation “liberty of conscience” as a shorthand stand-in for all the clauses protecting religious freedom in bills of rights. He didn’t literally mean that those rights were “equally and completely exempted” but that those things that violated those rights were exempted, which is why the subjects of religion and the press were not delegated powers given in the Constitution. Madison’s arguments against the Sedition Act show that he believed that the clauses of the First Amendment were consistent with his original refrain that the federal government had no power over the subject of religion, and to deny this was to endanger the rights of conscience:

They are both equally secured by the supplement to the constitution [the First Amendment]; being both included in the same amendment, made at the same time, and by the same authority. Any construction or argument then which would turn the amendment into a grant or acknowledgement of power with respect to the press, might be equally applied to the freedom of religion… (28)

Madison lost this battle in the short run, but the incident provided him with the opportunity to express his understanding of the First Amendment publicly.

Madison’s presidency provides another opportunity to understand his views on the First Amendment. As president he vetoed several laws on the subject of religion that provoked his ire because they were flagrant violations of the Constitution as far as he was concerned. In 1811, a law incorporating “the Protestant Episcopal Church in the town of Alexander, in the District of Columbia” landed on his desk. This merited a veto according to Madison because it “exceed[ed] the rightful authority to which Governments are limited by the essential distinction between Civil and religious functions, and violates in particular the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a Religious establishment.’” (29) Note that Madison misquoted the Establishment Clause; though the mistake has no implications for Madison’s understanding of the clause. Madison’s veto message indicates that the Establishment Clause is a restatement of his longstanding belief that governments has no jurisdiction in matters of religion. His fellow framers of the clause may not have understood it in the same way, but it is undeniable that this is how Madison understood what he was doing.

Madison’s explanation also includes a reference to another one of his long-standing themes. He thought it set a bad “precedent for giving to religious Societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty” because it gave the church “authority to provide for the support of the poor and the education of poor children of the same.” (29) He had earlier denounced using “Religion as an engine of Civil policy” in his Memorial & Remonstrance. (30) His reading of his had taught him that these kinds of connections “leave crevices at least, thro’ which bigotry may introduce persecution; a monster, that feeding & thriving on its own venom, gradually swells to a size & strength overwhelming all laws divine & human.” Thus, he beseeched “Ye States of America” to revise their “systems” in accordance with proper divisions between those things that relate “to the freedom of the mind and its allegiance to its maker” and “legitimate objects of political & civil institutions.” (31) He obviously thought this had already been done at the national level since he followed this with the assertion, “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Govt in the Constitution of the United States…”

A week later Madison issued a second veto striking down a law that would have reserved land for use by a Baptist Church. Here Madison’s statement was short and straight to the point. He informed the House that the bill “comprizes a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States, for the use and support of Religious Societies; contrary to the Article of the Constitution which declares that Congress shall make no law respecting a Religious Establishment.” (32) In a letter to the Baptist churches in North Carolina, which applauded Madison’s decision, he explained further: “Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself.” (34) (italics mine) Once again Madison states clearly that the principle behind the Establishment Clause is the separation between religion and government, which he saw as necessary for the protection of religious liberty. There is no hint here or anywhere else that Madison saw it in any other way.

There is a blight on Madison’s principled stance. During his presidency, he issued his two religious proclamations, one for a day of thanksgiving and the other for a “Day of Public Humiliation and Fasting and of Prayer to Almighty God,” during some of the darkest days of his presidency. (34) The grim situation that the new nation faced during the War of 1812 prompted Congress to call for two proclamations of thanksgiving and prayer. For Madison to have refused Congress’s request under such circumstances would have been foolish, as he himself admitted. He felt that it would not have been “proper to refuse a compliance altogether.” (35) Even the normally resolute Madison could not ignore the demands of the moment.

Nevertheless, he tried to mitigate the damage by making his proclamations voluntary and as broadly inclusive as possible. He thus crafted it “to deaden as much as possible any claim of political right to enjoin religious observances by resting these expressly on the voluntary compliance of individuals, and even by limiting the recommendation to such as wished simultaneous as well as voluntary performance of a religious act on the occasion.” And, like Washington, he spoke in the most broad and inclusive terms (“the Great Sovereign of the Universe” and “the Beneficent Parent of the Human Race”), rather than in exclusive Christian language. Despite these efforts, Madison regretted his decision to set such a dangerous precedent.

During his retirement years he set out to explain why this practice was dangerous and in violation of the principles established in the Constitution. “Altho’ recommendations only,” he asserted, “they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.” The Constitution did not give the representatives of the federal government any power on the subject of religion, and by engaging in this practice they were overstepping the boundaries of their authority.

From there Madison went on to list his objections. First, he rejected the idea of “an advisory government,” especially in regards to religion. (bold in original) In their official capacities as “members of a Govt.” the president cannot “be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities.” Next, he complained that these acts “see<m> <to> imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.” (bold in original) If people want to “unite in a universal act of religion” they should do so through their “religious not of their political representatives.” It is the mere fact that these proclamations “imply” the existence “of a national religion” that makes them problematic. To explain why, Madison turns to history once again. Christianity, according to Madison, had “improperly a<d>opted” the theocratic model of “the Jewish nation.” This practice runs contrary to “reason and the principles of the Xn religion,” which require that “all the individuals composing a nation were of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religio<n> at the same time,” and action “ought to be effected thro’ the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives.” This obviously is not possible in a nation as diverse as the U.S., and therefore to engage in such a practice here “is doubly wrong.” The underlying assumption of individual equality and its opposition to privileging some religious beliefs above others, animated his next objection as well.

Madison denounced “the tendency of the practice, to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect.” Thus it tends to “terminate[] in a conformity to the creed of the major<ity> and of a single sect, if amounting to a majority.” Finally, though “not the least Objection” was the propensity of the practice to serve “political views; to the scandal of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities.” For such an example, Madison could turn to very recent history when President Washington’s proclamation followed on the heels of the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania and was largely seen as political. Therefore, he praised Jefferson’s refusal to engage in the practice. (36) So the practice was fundamentally unconstitutional, it undermined religious liberty, and was harmful to religion, politics, and the nation as a whole.

In his letter to Livingston Madison made similar points, but closed with a general discussion on the subject of church-state relations that provides a good summary of his general thinking on the subject. He rejected “the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion.” This “error” had a “corrupting influence on both parties,” Madison warned. Therefore, “the danger can not be too carefully guard against.” (italics mine) To abolish this “error” he thought “[e]very new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical & Civil matters is of importance.” Rather than the unfortunate precedents that had already been provided, he advocated creating precedents in the opposite direction. “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance.” (37) In his view separation was more compatible with “the full establishment” of “liberty.” (italics mine)

Madison’s writings after the creation of the First Amendment are inconsistent with Muñoz’s federalism interpretation of the Establishment Clause. Madison unequivocally saw it as a substantive principle (separation) meant to protect individual rights. His whole exercise in pointing out “the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies” in the Detached Memoranda was premised upon the fact that he believed firmly that “the separation between Religion & Govt.” was “[s]tongly guarded” in the Constitution.

Thus, from the Anti-Federalists to Madison’s views Muñoz’s argument has crumbled under the weight of the evidence. His reproach against the Supreme Court for their “alarming misuse of history” more aptly applies to himself. (p. 637)


  • Claim: The committee that created the final versions of the Establishment Clause “adopted language that was unmistakably federal,” thus creating an amendment that protected state establishments and prevented the establishment of a national religion.
  • False: The conclusion rests heavily on Muñoz’s problematic interpretation of Anti-Federalist concerns. Beyond this erroneous claim there is no evidence that the ban imposed by the Establishment Clause was against “establishments” rather than religion in general. As Madison insisted before, during, and after the First Federal Congress that created the clause: “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion.” Thus, contrary to Muñoz’s originalism claim that the clause was federal in intent and thus wrongly applied to the states, the Establishment Clause represents a substantive principle that can “be applied to modern day incorporated ‘no-establishment’ jurisprudence.” (p. 588)


1) Aedanus Burke during Committee of the Whole debate June 13 to 18 in Kenneth R. Bowling, “’A Tub to the Whale’: The Founding Fathers and Adoption of the Federal Bill of Rights, Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 8, no. 3 (Autumn, 1988), 241.

2) James Madison letter to Richard Peters (August 19, 1789) Founders Online.

3) For more examples see Bowling “A Tub to the Whale.”

4) James Madison, Speech on June 8, 1789.” Founders Online

5) Madison, “Notes for Speech in Congress, [ca. 8 June] 1789,” Founders Online

6) Madison, General Defense of the Constitution, Virginia Ratification Convention (June 12, 1788). Founders Online

7) Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment, 2nd ed. (The University of North Carolina State University, 1994), 99.

8) James H. Hutson, “The Creation of the Constitution: The Integrity of the Documentary Record,” Texas Law Review vol. 65, no. 1 (November 1986), 36.

9) James Madison to Edward Everett (January 7, 1832). Founders Online

10) Helen E. Veit, et al., eds. Creating the Bill of Rights: The Documentary Record from the First Federal Congress (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991). The full debate can be found on pp. 157-159.

11) Madison, General Defense of the Constitution, Virginia Ratification Convention (June 12, 1788). Founders Online

12) Isaac Backus, Policy, as well as Honesty, Forbids the use of Secular Force in Religious Affairs. Boston: Draper and Folsom, 1779.

13) Veit, Creating the Bill of Rights, 188.

14) Ibid., 150-151.

15) Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, eighth edition (London: J.F. and C. Rivington, et al., 1786).

16) 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.

17) Baptist Meeting (August, 1784) in Semple, Robert B. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia (Richmond: John O’Lynch, Printer, 1810), 71.

18) A Memorial of the Baptist Association (May 26, 1784) in Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (Lynchburg, Virginia: J.P. Bell Company, 1900), 123.

19) The Public Statute Laws of the State of Connecticut, as Revised and Enacted by the General Assembly, in May, 1821, with the Acts of the Three Subsequent Sessions Incorporated… (Hartford: H. Huntington, Jr., 1824), 20.

20) Madison, Autobiography: “Happily it was not long before the fruits of Independence and of the spirit & principles which led to it, included a complete establishment of the Rights of Conscience, without any distinction of the sects or individuals.” Founders Online (italics mine)

Isaack Backus: “I am so far from thinking, with him, that these restraints would be broken down, if equal religious liberty was established….” Backus, Isaac. Government and Liberty Described, And Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed (Boston: Powars & Willis and Freeman, 1778), 12-13.

Quaker petition (Nov. 14, 1785): They claimed the proposed religious assessment was “an Infringement of Religious and Civil Liberty Established by the Bill of Rights” in Thomas E. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia 1776-187. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1977), 148.

Baptist Memorial (Nov. 6, 1783): In opposing the privileges of the Episcopal Church (vestry and marriage laws) they called for “religious freedom established” (James, Documentary History, 120)

21) Madison, Report to Committee of Virginia’s House of Delegates on the Alien and Sedition Acts (late 1799-January 7, 1800) Founder Online

22) Journal of Senate (August 28, 1789), 67. The Senate journal can be found here:

The House debates of the First Congress can be found here:

23) Andy G. Olree, “James Madison and Legislative Chaplains,” Northwestern University Law Review 102, no. 1 (2008), 205.

24) Madison to Edward Livingston (July 10, 1822) Founders Online.

25) Detached Memoranda. Founders Online

26) Detached Memoranda. The English translations from the Latin are found in footnotes 56 & 57. Founders Online

27) Madison on the Census (February 2, 1790) in House (Annals of Congress, 1145-6). The House debates of the First Congress can be found here:

28) The Report of 1800 (January 7, 1800) to the Virginia Assembly. Founders Online Founder Online

29) Madison, Veto Message to the House of Representatives of the United States (February 21, 1811). Founders Online

30) Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (June 29, 1785) Founders Online

31) Detached Memoranda. Founders Online

32) Madison, veto message to House of Representatives (February 28, 1811) Founders Online

33) Madison to the Baptist Churches in Neal’s Creek and on the Black Creek, NC (June 3, 1811). Founders Online

34) Madison, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving (July 23, 1813), and a Proclamation of a Day of Public Humiliation and Fasting and of Prayer to Almighty God (November 16, 1814).

35) Madison, Detached Memoranda, 562. Founders Online

36) Madison, Detached Memoranda, 562. Founders Online

37) Madison to Edward Livingston (July 10, 1822) Founders Online



One thought on “The First Federal Congress: Madison, Religious Liberty, and the Meaning of the Establishment Clause (Abusing History, Part III)

  1. Pingback: Ratifying the Constitution: Anti-Federalists Demand Protections for State Establishments of Religion? (Abusing History, Part II) | History Chick in AZ

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