In the roster of famous last words—from Goethe’s “More light!” to Nathan Hale’s “I regret I have but one life to give for my country” to John Maynard Keynes’s debonair “I should have drunk more champagne”—surely the final utterance of James Madison deserves an honored place. Bedridden with rheumatism at 85, the fourth president had spent 19 years in retirement at Montpelier, the columned brick Virginia plantation house where he had grown up since age nine or ten; where, as a young legislator, he had pored over history and political philosophy to help frame his plan for the United States Constitution; and where, as a 46-year-old ex-congressman, he had brought his wife of three years to live with his parents on their 5,000 rich Piedmont acres. That final morning in 1836, Sukey, his wife’s longtime maid, had brought him his breakfast, as usual; another slave, his valet Paul Jennings, got ready to shave him, as he had done every second day for 16 years; his favorite niece, the widowed Nelly Willis, sat by him to keep him company, as the June sun filtered through the twin poplars in the backyard and warmed the book-filled sickroom. The old man, his intellect as sharp as his body was worn, tried to eat but could not swallow.
“What is the matter, Uncle James?” his niece asked.
“Nothing more than a change of mind , my dear,” the president replied. And then, writes Jennings in a memoir of Madison published just after the Civil War, “his head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”
A change of mind ! How utterly fitting a farewell for the most cerebral of the Founders, the nation’s great political theorist, whose biography is, more than any other president’s, the record of his thought. How fitting, too, for a man whose intellectual journey has sparked debate for two centuries. Was the Father of the Constitution consistent? Did he shift his views—and if so, why?
And thereby hangs a most interesting, and most human, tale.
The liberty that Madison, a true Enlightenment intellectual, most hotly defended as the Revolution loomed was freedom of thought, man’s God-given birthright and the engine of human progress.
At Princeton, he had wholly embraced the Scottish Enlightenment ethic of President John Witherspoon, an Edinburgh-educated iconoclast (like Madison’s beloved schoolmaster Donald Robertson) who strove to “cherish a spirit of liberty, and free enquiry” in his scholars “and not only to permit, but even to encourage their right of private judgment.” With teenage bravado, Madison upped the free-enquiry stakes: he persuaded Witherspoon to let him try to do two years of work in one, “an indiscreet experiment of the minimum of sleep and the maximum of application, which the constitution would bear,” an older and wiser Madison ruefully judged. Though he graduated in two years rather than the usual three, he stayed on for another because the effort had left him too ill to travel home. Finally back at Montpelier in 1772, he wrote his college friend William Bradford that he couldn’t settle down to choose a career. His illness, recurring with epilepsy-like seizures at times of stress, “intimated to me not to expect a long or healthy life,” he said, so it seemed silly to learn skills “difficult in acquiring and useless in possessing after one has exchanged Time for Eternity.”
But his lassitude had vanished when he wrote Bradford with sharply focused indignation in early 1774, shortly after the Boston Tea Party. A handful of Baptist preachers languished in jail in the next county “for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox,” he wrote his Philadelphia friend. Locked up for their opinions ! “I have squabbled and scolded[,] abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us.” After all, he asked, echoing Doctor Witherspoon’s thunderous denunciations of “lordly domination and sacredotal tyranny,” what can you expect when you have an established church that tells everyone to believe and pray alike? Had the Church of England been established in the northern as well as the southern colonies, “slavery and Subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us,” since, without a clash of opinions, “Union of Religious Sentiments begets a surprizing confidence” that breeds “mischievous Projects.”
Two months later, with the dissenting ministers still locked up, he was still fuming, and he expanded his criticism in another letter to Bradford, later George Washington’s attorney general. His fellow Virginians were harming themselves as well as the ministers. They should imitate Pennsylvanians, who have “long felt the good effects of their religious as well as Civil Liberty. Foreigners have been encouraged to settle amg. you. Industry and Virtue have been promoted by mutual emulation and mutual Inspection, Commerce and the Arts have flourished and I can not help attributing those continual exertions of Genius which appear among you to the inspiration of Liberty and that love of Fame and Knowledge which always accompany it.” Freedom of thought and belief, of unbounded, even iconoclastic speculation, of invention and innovation, make up an indivisible whole. “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize[,] every expanded prospect.” There is no progress without intellectual freedom.
That year, Madison found his vocation when he joined the Orange County Committee of Safety, which enforced the Continental Association’s ban on British trade. Two years later, elected to the Virginia convention that pushed Congress to declare American independence, the 25-year-old revolutionary politician made his first public splash on the question, not surprisingly, of religious freedom, the intellectual freedom that civil authorities most often have tried to crush. When the convention, which turned into Virginia’s official legislative assembly, drew up a Declaration of Rights, Madison objected to the article declaring that “all men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience.” Toleration, he pointed out, implied that government had the authority to withhold or to grant freedom of conscience, whereas freedom of thought was “a natural and absolute right” not subject to any government control whatever. His suggested amendment, which would have disestablished the Anglican Church completely, proved too radical for the convention, but its members accepted his second draft, which expansively declared that religious belief and practice “can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, that all men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate.”
Almost a decade later in June 1785—when, because of the Articles of Confederation’s term limits, he had left the Continental Congress after four years of grueling toil and had rejoined the Virginia Assembly—Madison made clear that his musings on freedom of conscience had matured into a fully formed political theory. Patrick Henry and other legislators had proposed a tax to support teachers of the Christian religion; Madison responded with a ringing defense of intellectual freedom, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” that swept the state—and swept their bill into oblivion.
“All men are by nature equally free and independent,” he wrote, quoting the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which in turn paraphrased Locke. They voluntarily give up their liberty of aggression upon entering society, to ensure mutual safety and to secure from invasion the rights and freedoms they have retained. These rights and freedoms—which belong to us not because society or government bestows them but because they are the “gift of nature”—are “unalienable,” none more so than freedom of thought, “because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.” Since on entering society, no man surrenders more rights than any other man, we who glory in our freedom “to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin . . . cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us”—even, Madison implies, if they believe in no religion.
Even under free, popularly elected governments, man’s God-given rights remain off-limits to state interference. Yes, the “will of the majority” ultimately rules, “but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority,” and such a trespass on fundamental rights is as illegitimate as the arbitrary will of an absolute monarch. Any rulers who “overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people”—even popularly elected rulers carrying out the will of the majority—“exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants,” differing from “the Inquisition . . . only in degree.” A democratic tyranny may seem a contradiction in terms, but it can be all too real.
Lovers of freedom must crush such despotism before it has “strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents.” So the assembly’s bill allowing the state to meddle in matters of conscience and to tax citizens, whatever their beliefs, to pay state-approved teachers of Christianity puts the most basic choice before us. “Either then, we must say that the Will of the Legislature is the only measure of their authority; and . . . they may sweep away all our fundamental rights; or that they are bound to leave this particular right untouched and sacred.” If we let the legislature overturn a single natural, fundamental right—as if individuals exist for the state rather than the state for individuals and the protection of their rights; as if government rather than God or nature is the source of our rights—then our popularly elected rulers “may controul the freedom of the press, may abolish Trial by Jury, may swallow up the Executive and Judiciary powers of the State,” and even “despoil us of our right of suffrage, and erect themselves into an independent and hereditary Assembly.” Virginia’s growing numbers of Baptists, Methodists, and other Dissenters, who painfully remembered having to support the established Anglican clergy before its tacit disestablishment in 1776 and wanted no further government interference in religion, devoured Madison’s “Remonstrance,” flooded the assembly with passionate petitions, and killed the bill.
As a practical matter, Madison’s view that government should never dream of “making laws for the human mind,” because there are areas of human freedom where government may not tread, made him a firmer believer in the separation of church and state even than Jefferson. He rejected as “an old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. and Religion neither can be duly supported.” On the contrary, “a due distinction . . . between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God best promotes the discharge of both obligations,” he wrote. “A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.” When church and state collude, history shows, the result is “pride and indolence in the Clergy” and “superstition, bigotry, and persecution” in the society.
He came to think it wrong for Congress and the military to appoint tax-funded chaplains; it smacked too much of a religious establishment and discriminated against Catholics or Quakers, who, he thought, would never be appointed to such posts. Congressmen so inclined could hire their own clergymen out of their own pockets. As president, though he had planned to follow Jefferson in never proclaiming days of thanksgiving or fasting, when Congress pushed him to change course, “I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory,” he recalled, simply designating “a day on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith and forms.”
Beyond showing him that majority rule could turn tyrannical, Madison’s early political career proved an education in popular government’s shortcomings at all levels: individual, state, and national. In his bid for reelection to the assembly in 1777, he wouldn’t lay out the usual free drinks and food that voters expected, thinking the custom “inconsistent with the purity of moral and republican principles” that he was “anxious to promote by his example,” he later wrote. The voters, short on the requisite republican purity, viewed his behavior “as the effect of pride or parsimony” and voted him down as a prig. Both as a professional politician and as the framer of a government, he never again made the mistake of expecting ordinary people to be prodigies of virtue.
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