James Madison’s Defense of Conscience

American Minute with Bill Federer

James Madison was born MARCH 16, 1751.

He recalled standing with his father outside the jail in the village of Orange and heard Baptists preaching from their cell windows — their crime was preaching without a license.

A Virginia historical marker reads:

“John Weatherford’s Grave … Baptist Preacher … jailed for five months … for unlicensed preaching. His release was secured by Patrick Henry.”

Another marker stated:

“Crooked Run Baptist Church … Thomas Ammon became a minister and was imprisoned in the Culpeper jail for preaching.”

James Madison wrote to William Bradford, JANUARY 24, 1774, about the fate of Baptist ministers:

“That diabolical hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business.

This vexes me the most of any thing whatever.

There are at this time in the adjacent Culpeper County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in jail for publishing their religious sentiments which in the main are very orthodox….

So I (leave you) to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us,”

When Baptists had their church services disrupted, Madison introduced legislation in Virginia’s Assembly, October 31, 1785, titled “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship,” which passed in 1789.

Madison attended St. Thomas Episcopal Church, built on land given by Madison’s great-grandfather, Colonel James Taylor II.

A minister who preached there was Presbyterian Rev. James Waddell, a founding trustee of Liberty Hall (Washington and Lee University).

Years earlier, Waddell had tutored Madison, as well as Meriwether Lewis and future Virginia Governor James Barbour.

George Washington was visited by Rev. James Waddell, whom Patrick Henry described, along with Rev. Samuel Davies, as the two greatest orators he had ever heard.

After hearing Rev. Waddell sermons, Madison remarked:

“He has spoiled me for all other preaching.”

Rev. Waddell’s preaching was described by U.S. Attorney General William Wirt, who wrote in 1795:

“Every heart in the assembly trembled in unison. His peculiar phrases that force of description that the original scene appeared to be, at that moment, acting before our eyes …

The effect was inconceivable. The whole house resounded with the mingled groans, and sobs, and shrieks of the congregation.”

Madison invited other Presbyterian preachers to speak at his Montpelier estate, such as Samuel Stanhope Smith and Nathaniel Irwin, of whom he wrote:

“Praise is in every man’s mouth here for an excellent discourse he this day preached to us.”

In 1776, a year prior to Jefferson drafting his Statute for Religious Freedom, another Virginian, George Mason, drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Madison helped revise Article 16 of Virginia Declaration of Rights (Papers of Madison, I, 171-75) to read:

“That Religion, or the duty we owe to our CREATOR, and manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence;

and, therefore, that 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 practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other.”

Madison wrote in Religious Freedom–A Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785:

“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.

This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men:

It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator …”

Madison continued:

“It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him …

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe …

We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of civil society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”

In 1787, Madison attended the Constitutional Convention, where his prominent role resulted him being referred to by some as the Father or Chief Architect of the Constitution.

He argued for an immediate end to the importation of slaves, though the Convention settled on 1808. He proposed limiting the power of slave-holding states with the three-fifths compromise.

To help convince the states to ratify the Constitution, Madison wrote 29 of the 85 articles which made up The Federalist Papers, along with Alexander Hamilton, who wrote 51, and John Jay, who wrote 5.

Madison wrote in 1829 (Writings 9:351–57):

“The happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution — a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world. Woe to the ambition that would meditate the destruction of either!”

James Madison made a journal entry, June 12, 1788:

“There is not a shadow of right in the general government to inter-meddle with religion … The subject is, for the honor of America, perfectly free and unshackled. The government has no jurisdiction over it.”

After the Constitution was ratified, the popular Baptist preacher Rev. John Leland was considering running for Congress from Virginia.

He reportedly met with James Madison in Orange County and after Madison’s promise to introduce an Amendment protecting religious liberty, Leland convinced Baptists to support Madison.

In the first session of Congress, June 7, 1789, Madison introduced:

“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship.”

This would eventually become the First Amendment.

In 1793, a Yellow Fever epidemic hit Philadelphia, killing 10 percent of the city’s population. Among the dead was Todd Payne, survived by a widow, Dolley Payne, and a son, John Payne Todd.

The following year, 25-year-old Dolley Payne married 43-year-old James Madison.

James and Dolley Madison often visited with Jefferson. An account circulated that Dolley Madison heard of Jefferson visiting with Baptist Preacher Andrew Tribble (The Christian Watchman, Boston, MA, July 4, 1826):

“Mr. Tribble asked Mr. Jefferson how he was pleased with their church government?

Jefferson replied, that it had struck him with great force, and had interested him much; that he considered it the only form of pure democracy that then existed in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of Government for the American Colonies.”

Thomas F. Curtis wrote in The Progress of Baptist Principles in the Last Hundred Years (Charleston, S.C.: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1856):

“A gentleman … in North Carolina … knowing that the venerable Mrs. (Dolley) Madison had some recollections on the subject, asked her in regard to them.

She expressed a distinct remembrance of Mr. Jefferson speaking on the subject, and always declaring that it was a Baptist church from which these views were gathered.”

President Coolidge stated at the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, July 4, 1926:

“This preaching reached the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged that his ‘best ideas of democracy’ had been secured at church meetings.”

James Madison was elected the fourth President of the United States. In his First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1809. he stated:

“My confidence will under every difficulty be best placed … in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic,

and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future.”

In 1789, Europe descended into war, which had repercussions in America.

The French Revolution was followed by Napoleon’s military conquests.

In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt and defeated its Muslim mamluk slave army in just a few weeks.

He attempted to introduce the concepts of equality, freedom and democracy, but found there were no words in the Arabic language to convey such concepts.

Returning to Paris in 1799, Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1804.

He combined the French and Spanish navies with the intention of invading England in 1805, but his forces were defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar, leaving Britain with the most powerful navy in the world.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with nearly 500,000 men. Six months later, he retreated from Russia with less than 50,000 troops.

As Napoleon’s threat to Europe diminished, Britain refocused ambitions on America with the War of 1812.

President James Madison proclaimed a Day of Prayer, July 9, 1812, stating:

“I do therefore recommend … rendering the Sovereign of the Universe and the Benefactor of mankind the public homage due to His holy attributes;

of acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness; …

that in the present season of calamity and war He would take the American people under His peculiar care; …

that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice and of concord, and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them.”

British ships sailed into Lake Eire, and invaded New York, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Madison encouraged the nation in his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1813:

“The war with a powerful nation, which forms so prominent a feature in our situation, is stamped with that justice which invites the smiles of Heaven on the means of conducting it to a successful termination.”

The next year, on July 23, 1813, Madison issued another Day of Prayer:

“If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy of the favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to whom it is addressed, it must be … guided only by their free choice, by the impulse of their hearts and the dictates of their consciences … proving that religion, that gift of Heaven for the good of man, is freed from all coercive edicts.”

On September 10, 1813, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry had an astonishing victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Eire.

Napoleon abdicated the throne on April 6, 1814, and was exiled to the Island of Elba.

On August 24, 1814, a force of 4,500 British soldiers marched toward Washington, D.C. In a panic, citizens hastily evacuated.

Dolley Madison is credited with having the White House staff save the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington by having it cut out of its frame.

With the help of their servant, Paul Jennings, her carriage was able to make it safely out of the city as British Admiral George Cockburn was riding in.

Cockburn entered the White House, ate dinner, then set the house on fire.

He had British soldiers enter the U.S. Capitol Building and sit in the Congressmen’s chairs, holding a mock Congress.

He asked, who was in favor of burning the U.S. Capitol, and the soldiers yelled, “aye,” after which they proceeded to torch the Capitol, the Treasury, the Library of Congress, and attack the Navy Yard.

The Patent Office was the only government office not burned by the British.

Suddenly, dark clouds rolled in, wind and thunder grew into a “frightening roar,” and lightning began striking. A tornado touched down sending debris flying, blowing off roofs, knocking down chimneys and walls on British troops.

Two cannons were lifted off the ground and dropped yards away. Violent winds slammed both horse and rider to the ground.

The book, Washington Weather, recorded British Admiral George Cockburn exclaiming to a lady:

“Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?”

To which the lady replied:

“No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.”

A British historian wrote:

“More British soldiers were killed by this stroke of nature than from all the firearms the American troops had mustered in the feeble defense of their city.”

As British forces fled, torrential rains fell for two hours, extinguishing the fires.

After marching back to their ships over roads covered with downed trees, they found two of their ships blown ashore and others with damaged riggings.

On September 1, 1814, Madison wrote:

“The enemy by a sudden incursion has succeeded in invading the capitol of the nation … During their possession … though for a single day only, they wantonly destroyed the public edifices …

An occasion which appeals so forcibly to the … patriotic devotion of the American people, none will forget … Independence … is now to be maintained … with the strength and resources which … Heaven has blessed.”

Less than 3 months later, Madison proclaimed a National Day of Public Humiliation, Fasting & Prayer to Almighty God on November 16, 1814, stating:

“The two Houses of the National Legislature having by a joint resolution expressed their desire that in the present time of public calamity and war, a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States

as a day of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace … of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance …

that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses … I have deemed it proper … to recommend … a day of … humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe.”

General Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans, providentially defeating a larger British force on January 18, 1815.

After the War, Madison proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving & Devout Acknowledgment to Almighty God, March 4, 1815:

“No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States …

To the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land …

I now recommend … a day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of thanksgiving and of their songs of praise.”

In the 1830s, Madison served a term as president of the American Colonization Society which helped free blacks found the country of Liberia.

The Madison’s had family problems. Dolley Madison’s son, John Payne Todd, became an alcoholic, repeatedly jailed, and ran up enormous gambling debts.

James Madison bailed him out, even mortgaging the family’s ancestral Montpelier plantation. After his death, bankrupt Dolley had to sell it.

Dolley lived as a pauper in Washington, DC, till she sold her husband’s memoirs to Congress.

During these impoverished years, Dolley was cared for by none other than Paul Jennings, the Madison’s former servant, who made sure she had enough food, and even gave her money out of his own pocket.

Paul Jennings was freed with the help of Senator Daniel Webster, by whose recommendation he got a job at the Department of the Interior’s Pension Bureau.

In 1863, Paul Jennings’ story was published as “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.”

In it, he recalled Madison:

“One day riding home from court with old Tom Barbour (father of Governor Barbour), they met a colored man, who took off his hat. Mr. Madison raised his, to the surprise of old Tom; to whom Mr. Madison replied, “I never allow a negro to excel me in politeness.”

Jennings continued:

“Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.

Whenever any slaves were reported to him as stealing or ‘cutting up’ badly, he would send for them and admonish them privately, and never mortify them by doing it before others. They generally served him very faithfully.”

Jennings described Madison further:

“He was temperate in his habits. I don’t think he drank a quart of brandy in his whole life …

When he had hard drinkers at his table, who had put away his choice Madeira pretty freely, in response to their numerous toasts, he would just touch the glass to his lips, or dilute it with water, as they pushed about the decanters. For the last fifteen years of his life he drank no wine at all.”

As a young man, James Madison wrote to a college friend William Bradford, November 9, 1772:

“A watchful eye must be kept on ourselves lest while we are building ideal monuments of renown and bliss here we neglect to have our names enrolled in the Annals of Heaven.”

As an old man, Madison wrote to Frederick Beasley, November 20, 1825:

“The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources.”

Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.