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James Madison

Murphy’s Law: James Madison


James Madison (1751-1836), the Father of our Constitution and our fourth president went to Princeton at 18 with the idea of becoming an Anglican minister, and came back to Virginia a freethinker. At age 22, he wrote, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded project.” He then fought for religious liberty for all, believer and disbeliever, which was no easy task-then or now.

In his day, the notorious “Dade Code” was a part of the Virginia statutes, and he could have been executed for his efforts. The code was written in London by Anglican bishops who laid out a tidy list of prohibitions and punishments which were meant to keep people from thinking and speaking their honest thoughts. It meant to mold the citizens into conformity and piety. The code provided the death penalty for anyone who “spoke impiously of the Trinity or one of the divine persons, or against the known articles of Christian faith.”  The same went for “blaspheming God’s holy name.” If you were new in town you had to report to the nearest Anglican priest who would put questions to you to see if you were holy enough to stay. Arguing with a clergyman could get you jail time. If you missed church without good reason on three occasions, the death penalty could be imposed. It excluded all other religions from the colony. Every person over 16 had to supply the ministers with an annual donation of ten pounds of tobacco and one bushel of corn. When the price of tobacco waned, an additional assessment was imposed: the “20th calfe, the 20th kidd of goates, and the 20th pigge.”

These laws were fought by Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and freethinkers who banded together in common cause. They sought to disestablish the Church of England from the colony, which meant it would have to be supported only by its supporters, not everyone, and allow all other Christian religions equality. Patrick Henry joined with George Washington, John Marshall, and other prominent leaders in a proposed compromise – each could pay the annual duty to the Christian church of one’s choice, or a like amount to the school fund. This alarmed James Madison and caused him to write his famous A Memorial and Remonstrance. He looked at the history of the western world from Constantine to the Reformation and summed up what had occurred – “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”

He argued that Pennsylvania, New York, and Rhode Island had no church tax whatsoever and their citizens seemed moral enough. He stated that our courts should not be deciding which churches were Christian and which were not. The 1785 legislature of the State of Virginia removed the church tax completely and in its stead enacted the law that Thomas Jefferson had proposed a decade earlier, the Religious Freedom Act, which in turn was incorporated into our Bill of Rights.

James Madison succeeded Thomas Jefferson as president and continued to champion separation of state from church and church from state. As president he vetoed a bill to provide free lands in Mississippi to a Baptist church, and he spiked a bill to establish the Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia. He could not understand why our country should pay for a chaplain to pray before Congress.

Madison had no trouble at home being a man without religion. His beautiful buxom wife Dolly was a wilted Quaker herself, and loved to party. She and James pursued happiness together in this life and found that to be fulfilling enough. James Madison is another of the Founding Fathers the religious right seldom mention when they tell us how good it was when we were a “Christian nation.”

“James Madison” is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.

The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of John Patrick Michael Murphy.

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