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In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a general tax on Virginians to support teachers of Christianity for the benefit of the common good. In response, James Madison wrote the Memorial and Remonstrance in 1785. In the document, Madison argued against the tax proclaiming it was a “dangerous abuse of power” because it violated a man’s individual unalienable rights. Further, he proposed a subordination of the secular to the divine and argued that religious freedom was not given up upon entering Civil Society. In other words, people were first subjects to God and then to Civil Society, and since Civil Society could not regulate a person’s religious views, neither could the government. Therefore, any attempt to do so was a usurpation of liberties by the legislature. Madison began the document by addressing the General Assembly and titling the piece. Immediately, it was obvious Madison planned to do two things; memorial and remonstrance. The remonstrance was the protest against the tax bill and the memorial was the reasons backing it up. In this way, the document appeared like the Declaration of Independence in the sense that both documents laid out a logical progression of arguments to support an overarching conclusion. As a result, Madison’s claim was already effectively structured to prove its own validity.
Next, Madison prefaced his Remonstrance with a short preamble referencing the postponement of the bill. After which, Virginians arrived at the conclusion contained in the document. Madison purposefully used the term “We the subscribers”, instead of “I”. This indicated he was speaking on behalf of the entire Virginian population rather than just himself and as a result, strengthened his statements because it showed popular opinion supported Madison’s own beliefs. Furthermore, it emphasized he was writing as a representative of the people, which was an important element of self-government that was valued at the time. In the preamble, Madison stated his overarching claim that if the bill became a law, it would be “a dangerous abuse of power.” As such, he proclaimed all “faithful members of a free state” were “bound” to protest it. Even while he made an argument for the disestablishment of religion, he called on the “faithful” of Virginia to do it. Therefore, he assumed the audience were both Christian and devoted citizens. While he might have done this to play to his skeptical audience in order to gain political advantage, he also established the dual character of American life which was made relevant in his later arguments about where religion fit among the duties of Civil Society.
Madison then defended his claim. First, he reminded the legislature of its own laws by restating a quote from the Virginia Declaration of Rights proclaiming it was a “fundamental and undeniable truth” that religion “can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Second, he implied a link between Virginia’s laws and the “truths” of the Declaration of Independence by using language such as ”fundamental” and ”undeniable truth.” Thus, his argument that “every man” had the right to exercise religious freedom was convincing because he had already established common principles most Americans at that time would agree with. Madison also stated the free exercise of religion was not only a right, but “this right is in its nature an unalienable right” as well. This was because man was born in a natural state of freedom. If man was truly created free, his freedom included the mind too. Therefore, no man dictated the reason of another man and since conscience was directed by reason, no man could determine another man’s freedom of conscience either. Furthermore, stated Madison, it was unalienable because there exists a divine “duty towards the Creator” and every man decided for himself what was acceptable to him in discharging that duty. In effect, Madison implied people should only pay homage based on what they saw fit. Therefore, if a tax was required but did not match a man’s own individual convictions, it violated his unalienable rights. Furthermore, it undermined religion because when a person was forced to do something, instead of choosing it, belief was devalued.
Madison then declared man’s duties to God came above Civil Society, “both in order of time and in degree of obligation.” In other words, he argued that man believed in God before he pledged allegiance to a society and as a result, his duties to God came first and his rights as a citizen came second. “In order to time” might have also referenced a time period prior to organized civilization altogether. Meanwhile, “degree of obligation” could be understood in two ways. First, if it referenced the amount of involvement of an individual in their own church, it tied back to Madison’s earlier argument that man had the right to practice religion as his conscience dictated. Thus, the tax was unacceptable because it interfered in a man’s ability to choose and practice religion. “Degree of obligation” could also be read as a reference to levels of importance of religion in a man’s life. Meaning, a man’s moral responsibility outweighed those of Civil Society because religion took precedence over citizenship. Either way, the tax was an abuse of power because it might require a man to put his duties as a citizen above his duties toward the Creator. Madison also stated if a man chose to enter “into any subordinate Association,” it was done knowing that God came first. Therefore, man did not give up religious liberty or freedom of conscience to become a citizen and man’s religious rights remained wholly intact upon entering society. Consequently, the realm of religion was beyond the power of legislation and forcing a man to give money for religious purposes, even if it was for the common good, was an abuse of power. “Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment” were viewed by Madison as “tyrants.”
Finally, Madison acknowledged the will of the majority and the possibility of abuse of power and infringement on the rights of the minority. He built on this argument in later points of the document by stating it was more difficult to limit a power after precedents were set than to prevent a power from being usurped in the first place. For example, a future government might go further than just the tax bill and if so, there was nothing to prevent it from excluding other sects of Christianity or forcing citizens to “conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.” Consequently, even though the majority made the decision on this issue, they needed to be aware of the minority’s rights. Here, he implied the tax bill was not only a dangerous abuse of religious liberty but might have even worse consequences in the future if it passed. In addition to logical statements, Madison’s claim was strengthened by his purposeful use of rhetoric. He consistently used the term “every man” to implicitly draw out the individualistic nature of religion. Similarly, he utilized terms such as fundamental, undeniable, and unalienable in such a way to make them appear interchangeable, knowing it would increase public support. He also emphasized the relationships between the terms “right”, “unalienable”, “Creator”, “duty”, and “Civil Society” by including them in simultaneous sentences throughout the arguments. As a result, the ideas were mutually bonded as if it were impossible to have one without the other.
If a weakness existed, it was Madison’s assumption that Americans had faith in a Creator who endowed them with rights. If, for example, an individual was an atheist or agnostic and did not believe in transcendent ideals such as unalienable rights, would the claim remain true? The answer was no. Hence, the fact that most Americans at the time were “faithful” made a big difference. However, in Madison’s time, that assumption would not have been questioned and as a result, he presented a sound argument. Consequently, Madison’s claim that the assessment bill was a “dangerous abuse of power” was valid because it was logically structured and supported. His argument proved that religion was an unalienable right in the republican form of government and that man had a duty first to his Creator and then to Civil Society. Therefore, if society could not dictate a man’s conscience, neither could the government. Additionally, Madison demonstrated the future dangers that existed if the majority failed to consider the rights of the minority and as a result, showed that any tax that forced a man to give money for religious purposes was a usurpation of power by the legislature. Meanwhile, the effective use of rhetoric strengthened his argument because it appealed to the public at the time. True, a modern audience might question his assumption of American faithfulness in a Creator, but since that was the prevailing belief in Madison’s time, the criticism is unfair. As a result, he not only defeated the tax assessment bill, but his ideas remained guiding principles for the nation, appearing again in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights where Madison promoted religious liberty once again.
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