James Madison and the Future of Limited Government

By John Samples | Go to book overview
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8.
James Madison on Religion and
Politics
Walter Berns

Everyone who ought to know does know that James Madison is often described as the father of the Constitution. They ought also to know that he rightly deserves to be known as the father of the Bill of Rights, for, although he thought them unnecessary, it was he who succeeded in getting a reluctant First Congress to propose the 10 amendments that we know as the Bill of Rights.

The first (or what emerged as the first) of these amendments provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Less well known, although part of the public record, is that Madison proposed another amendment that, had it been adopted, would have imposed similar restrictions on the states. It read, in part, “No State shall infringe the equal rights of conscience, nor the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Madison called it “the most valuable amendment on the whole list,” 1 most valuable almost surely because he anticipated that what we have come to see as our most fundamental rights would more likely be abridged by the states than by the national government. He may have been thinking of something that had already happened in his own state of Virginia.

In 1784, Patrick Henry, with the initial support of George Washington and John Marshall, introduced a bill in the Virginia House of Delegates authorizing “a moderate tax or contribution annually for the support of the Christian religion.” Henry assured the House that his purpose was purely secular: “The general diffusion of Christian knowledge,” he said, has “a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society.” Under the bill, taxpayers would have been permitted to designate the church, or the seminary of learning, to which their tax dollars

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