“Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” James Madison considered conscience an inalienable right given by the Almighty, whereas all other rights depended on positive law, i.e., human laws. At a time when property rights ranked supreme in the panoply of rights, Madison elevated conscience as the first among property rights, as uniquely bestowed by God.
Madison was singularly responsible for creating American constitutional principles protecting conscience, and in his view, disestablishing the church was the key to the entire enterprise of protecting conscience.
After studying the principles of civil and religious freedom at Princeton, Madison returned home to Virginia to find dissenting Baptist preachers in jail. As itinerant preachers, they lacked a license to preach, and were subject not only to fines, but frequent beatings by mobs. In 1776, Madison was a delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses when George Mason drafted a declaration of rights stating: “All men should enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion.” The twenty-five year old Madison fumed that mere “toleration” was inadequate. He fought to change “toleration” to “free exercise.” What emerged was the clearest statement of the rights of conscience ever penned at the time:
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.
In 1778, Thomas Jefferson drafted a religious freedom statute that languished for nearly a decade. In 1785, Patrick Henry introduced a measure to continue tax funding for churches. Madison led the opposition, first
succeeding in delaying a vote on Henry’s bill until the next term. During the break, Madison organized a major lobby effort to oppose the bill. He circulated a petition known as the “Memorial and Remonstrance” which opposed religious establishments in all its forms. Madison’s opposition succeeded in dismantling the Anglican religious establishment and securing passage of Jefferson’s Religious Freedom Bill. Madison directed the full force of his considerable eloquence to attack the entire premise of religious establishments:
Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
Madison’s advocacy for the complete separation of church and state led directly to passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which remains Virginia law to this very day. Madison asserted a similar influence on the drafting of the First Amendment, rejecting compromises that would only partly limit the authority of the state in matters of religion, insisting that all forms of religious establishments be prohibited. Thus, the First Amendment states unequivocally that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
To Madison, “religion [is] wholly exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body.”
Nothing less would protect “conscience” as “the most sacred of all property.”
Tragically, the modern Supreme Court that professes adherence to “the intent of the framers” has repudiated Madison and Jefferson’s conceptions of religious freedom as requiring the complete separation of church and state. The liberty of conscience our founding fathers held so precious has been devalued. But in these pages, and in subsequent blogs, we will contend that “conscience matters!”