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Profile: Patrick Henry

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Patrick Henry was a participant or observer in the following events:

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. [Source: ecollision (.com)]Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the creators of the as-yet-unwritten US Constitution, writes in his book Notes on the State of Virginia: “[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The passage follows Jefferson’s introduction of a bill in the Virginia legislature that guarantees legal equality for citizens of all religions, or no religion, in the state. The bill stalls until 1784, when Virginia legislator Patrick Henry introduces a bill mandating state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.” Fellow legislator James Madison, another author of the Constitution, presents an essay titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” that explains why the state has no business supporting Christian instruction. Madison garners some 2,000 signatures of support, and his essay becomes a linchpin of American political philosophy, endorsing the concept of a strictly secular state that later gives the Constitution the concept of “the separation of church and state.” In the essay, Madison declares “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every… man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.” He also writes that government sanction of a religion is in essence a threat to the idea of religion: “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?” Madison, a Baptist mindful of the persecution of Baptist ministers being arrested in Virginia, notes that Christianity had spread in the face of persecution from worldly powers, not with their help. Christianity, he contends, “disavows a dependence on the powers of this world… for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them.” Henry’s proposal directly challenges the idea of America as a refuge for the protester or rebel, he writes; instead, it is “a departure from that generous policy, which offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our country.” Henry’s bill is roundly defeated, and Virginia establishes a law following Jefferson’s lead in mandating the separation between church and governmental affairs. After that law passes, Jefferson writes that the law “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” The same mandate becomes part of Article VI of the US Constitution, which states that federal elective and appointed officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In 2010, scholar Kenneth C. Davis will write, “This passage—along with the facts that the Constitution does not mention God or a deity (except for a pro forma ‘year of our Lord’ date) and that its very first amendment forbids Congress from making laws that would infringe of the free exercise of religion—attests to the founders’ resolve that America be a secular republic.” Towards the end of his life, Madison will write a letter summarizing his views: “And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” [Thomas Jefferson, 1782; James Madison, 1784; Smithsonian Magazine, 10/2010]

Entity Tags: Patrick Henry, Kenneth C. Davis, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Domestic Propaganda

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