wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Lance Banning

The Sacred Fire of Liberty

In a remarkable reversal of its previous position—'shameful,' Madison described it—the Presbytery dropped its customary opposition to religious taxes, providing that the act was fair to all denominations. With this important portion of the clergy 'as ready to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out,' with the overwhelming weight of an increasing number of petitions favoring a bill, and with the pro-assessment forces willing to revise the marriage law and the incorporation bill to satisfy the main objections of dissenters, the prospect for successful legislation was growing day by day.

While the assessment bill was on the table, the House directed its attention to the new incorporation act, which carried on December 22 by a vote of 47 to 38. Although he still considered it 'exceptionable' in several respects, Madison abandoned his objections and voted with the majority. Some such act was clearly necessary to permit the church to hold and manage property, he wrote, and this one seemed as harmless as the circumstances would permit. Moreover, its defeat, he reasoned, might have doubled its supporters' 'eagerness' for the 'much greater evil' of the general assessment, to which the House immediately proceeded.

To Madison's dismay, support for the assessment showed few signs of cooling. The bill completed its preliminary readings by a vote of 44 to 42, and there was nothing left to do except to argue that a measure so important should be printed for the public's consideration before its final passage. In support of this appeal for a delay, Madison prepared one of the most elaborate speeches of his career. Sometime during the debates, in fact, he drafted outlines for at least two major speeches.

If he followed the surviving outlines, the shorter speech observed that the assessment bill required the courts to determine what was 'Christian.' How, he asked, were they to do so? Which Bible would they use, 'Hebrew, Septuagint, or Vulgate?' Which translation? How were judges to decide which books were canonical and which apocryphal when Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestants disagreed? How should the courts interpret scripture? 'What clue' could guide them through the 'labyrinth' of Christian doctrine?

The longer speech placed state support in broader context. The tendency of the assessment bill, it opened, was to establish Christianity as a state religion, although religion was 'not within [the] purview of civil authority.' The fundamental issue, Madison insisted, was not whether religion was necessary, but whether an establishment was necessary for religion. Human beings were naturally religious, he maintained, but history showed that state establishments 'corrupted' the religious impulse. Contemporary Pennsylvania, other middle states, and early Christianity all showed that religion could thrive without state support, which would discourage immigration and might even lead Virginia's own dissenters to seek a freer climate. Patrick Henry, it was true, had warned that immorality had led to the collapse of several mighty states. But most such states had had established churches, Madison observed. So did most of the New England states, which were as troubled as Virginia. Rising immorality was not a product of the absence of a state-supported church; it was a consequence of wartime dislocations and 'bad laws.' The proper cures, accordingly, were peace, a better administration of justice, education, the personal example of leaders, laws that would 'cherish virtue,' and an end to the hope for a general assessment instead of voluntary support for religious bodies. The assessment bill, he finished, would 'dishonor Christianity.' The 'progress of religious liberty' was inconsistent with the resurrection of a state religion.

Madison was seldom a 'forensic' member of a legislative body (in his own disdainful phrase), but he could be uncommonly effective when he was. He was undoubtedly an able parliamentary tactician. On Christmas Eve, eight other delegates who had supported the incorporation act changed sides and voted with him to postpone the final reading of the assessment bill until November, 1785. The vote was 45 to 38, almost exactly a reversal of the numbers that had carried the Episcopal incorporation.

Madison's appeals and legislative strategy were not, of course, the only influence on this outcome. By itself, moreover, the postponement of the final reading of the bill did not assure defeat of the assessment. Yet Madison had plainly served as legislative leader of his side, and his defense of freedom left a memorable impression on his colleagues. Two of them, the brothers George and Wilson Cary Nicholas, immediately appealed for his continued leadership in a campaign to muster public opposition. They urged him to prepare a form for a petition, which could be circulated in the counties in the months before the next assembly as an instrument for shaping and expressing popular opinion. The product, his anonymous 'Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,' became a cornerstone in the American tradition of religious freedom. It also proved perhaps its author's clearest and most eloquent enunciation of a set of fundamental principles that guided him throughout his public life.