Saturday, March 30, 2013

Abigail to John Adams March 31, 1776

"I wish you would ever write me a Letter half as long as I write you; and tell me if you may where your Fleet are gone? What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able Defence? Are not the Gentry Lords and the common people vassals, are they not like the uncivilized Natives Britain represents us to be? I hope their Rifle Men who have shown themselves very savage and even Blood thirsty; are not a specimen of the Generality of the people.

I am willing to allow the Colony great merit for having produced a Washington but they have been shamefully duped by a Dunmore.

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Equally Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us. Do not you want to see Boston; I am fearful of the small pox, or I should have been in before this time. I got Mr. Crane to go to our House and see what state it was in. I find it has been occupied by one of the Doctors of a Regiment, very dirty, but no other damage has been done to it. The few things which were left in it are all gone. Crane has the key which he never delivered up. I have wrote to him for it and am determined to get it cleaned as soon as possible and shut it up. I look upon it a new acquisition of property, a property which one month ago I did not value at a single Shilling, and could with pleasure have seen it in flames.

The Town in General is left in a better state than we expected, more owing to a precipitate flight than any Regard to the inhabitants, tho some individuals discovered a sense of honour and justice and have left the rent of the Houses in which they were, for the owners and the furniture unhurt, or if damaged sufficient to make it good. Others have committed abominable Ravages. The Mansion House of your President [John Hancock] is safe and the furniture unhurt whilst both the House and Furniture of the Solicitor General [Samuel Quincy] have fallen a prey to their own merciless party. Surely the very Fiends feel a Reverential awe for Virtue and patriotism, whilst they Detest the parricide and traitor.

I feel very differently at the approach of spring to what I did a month ago. We knew not then whether we could plant or sow with safety, whether when we had toiled we could reap the fruits of our own industry, whether we could rest in our own Cottages, or whether we should not be driven from the sea coasts to seek shelter in the wilderness, but now we feel as if we might sit under our own vine and eat the good of the land.

I feel a 'gaieti de Coar' to which before I was a stranger. I think the Sun looks brighter, the Birds sing more melodiously, and Nature puts on a more cheerful countenance. We feel a temporary peace, and the poor fugitives are returning to their deserted habitations.

Though we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should be theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusillanimity and cowardice should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the Evil and shun it.-I long to hear that you have declared an independency-and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness."

[spelling modernized]

Monday, March 25, 2013

Thomas Jefferson’s Misunderstood “Letter to the Danbury Baptists”

On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a thirteen-foot mammoth cheese weighing some 1,200 pounds.  It was delivered by dissenting Baptist minister and long-time advocate of religious liberty, Reverend John Leland, who then preached a sermon to the president and members of Congress at the Capitol two days later.  Jefferson took the opportunity to compose a letter to the Danbury Baptists on the relationship between government and religion that would shape the course of twentieth-century jurisprudence.

Jefferson had been a staunch supporter of disestablishment and freedom of conscience for decades.   His Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom failed to pass in his home state in 1779, but it would eventually be adopted in 1786 as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  It combined the principles of disestablishment of the official Anglican Church and defended religious liberty as a natural right.  It read:
That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. 
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson reaffirmed these principles while answering a series of queries to a European audience.  Jefferson again averred that religious liberty was a natural right that was free of coercion by the state particularly in a republic rooted upon popular sovereignty.  “Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights,” he wrote, “only as we have submitted to them.  The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit.”  The government, he states, cannot impose restrictions or civil liabilities upon the governed for their religious opinions.  “We are answerable for them to our God.” 

Although he was in Paris when the Constitutional Convention was held and the new Constitution ratified, Jefferson kept abreast of events in his country and consistently prodded his friend, James Madison, to include a Bill of Rights to protect the inalienable rights of mankind.  Eventually, Madison would introduce amendments in the First Congress and secure their passage, including the First Amendment, which read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The First Amendment was meant as a limit on the national Congress only.  Madison wanted limits on the states but they were rejected.  State limitations on religious liberty and establishment persisted after the First Amendment was adopted.  Religious tests for office remained in place in most states, and Connecticut (1818) and Massachusetts (1833) did not disestablish their official state churches until decades after.  The Supreme Court reinforced the idea that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states but rather only to the national government in Barron v. Baltimore (1833).

In the 1800 Election, Federalists attacked Jefferson for atheism and warned their followers to hide their Bibles should Jefferson be elected.  While Jefferson certainly had heterodox personal religious views, and he broke with the precedent of Presidents Washington and Adams regarding the constitutionality of issuing days of thanksgiving or fasts, he did not keep religion out of the public square.

In his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson appealed to the unity of Americans centered on the principles of a natural rights republic.  He included freedom of religion as one of the “essential principles of our government.”  Moreover, he finished the address with a prayerful supplication.  “May that infinite power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”

Jefferson made many other prayerful statements in his official capacity as President of the United States.  For example, in his First Annual Message to Congress, Jefferson stated:
While we devoutly return thanks to the beneficient Being who has been pleased to breathe into them the spirit of conciliation and forgiveness, we are bound with peculiar gratitude to be thankful to him that our own peace has been preserved through so perilous a season, and ourselves permitted quietly to cultivate the earth and to practice and improve those arts which tend to increase our comforts.

In his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson reiterated his belief in religious liberty free of government interference by supporting the Danbury Baptists who were suffering under establishment in Connecticut.  “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,” he wrote.

While Jefferson personally opposed state establishments of religion, and had been the father of disestablishment in Virginia, he respected American constitutionalism.  He recognized that neither he nor Congress had no authority over religious policies of the states, which had their own constitutions and bills of rights.  Even though he saw the natural right of religious liberty violated by any establishment, he firmly respected the federal relationship between the national government and the states.  The view is analogous to Abraham Lincoln’s constitutional belief that while he thought slavery violated natural rights and the principles of the Declaration of Independence, it was an issue that was left to the states, and the president had no authority over slavery.

This helps us understand the rest of the letter in which he wrote about the constitutional limits the First Amendment imposed on Congress: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”  This metaphor has been (mis)used by the Supreme Court in the Everson (1947) case and subsequent jurisprudence on issues of school prayer and Bible readings as to read that there should be no religion in the public square.  It also helped “incorporate” the Bill of Rights and apply them to the states contrary to the original intention of the founders.  Moreover, Jefferson explicitly recognized the Establishment Clause as a limitation on the national Congress not local schools or state governments.

Finally, Jefferson encourages the states to imitate the national Congress and follow the principle of disestablishment in order to protect natural rights.  “Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

The Supreme Court unfortunately "cherry-picked" a quote from a letter of a president to a congregation.  They could easily have used one of the letters that George Washington wrote to the congregations or from his official Farewell Address in which he states that religion is essential to virtue, morality, and self-government.  Instead, the Court decided to pull out a quote which best suited their needs or desires.

In 1800, Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  Indeed, he was following this promise when he defended religious liberty, promoted disestablishment, and respected constitutionalism in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists.  

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia.  He has written four books and teaches history in Williamsburg, VA. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Conscience is the Most Sacred of Property: James Madison’s Essay on Property


On January 24, 1774, James Madison wrote to a college friend praising the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred only weeks before.  He praised the Boston patriots for their boldness in “defending liberty and property.”  Equating political and civil liberty, he warned that if the Church of England had established itself as the official religion of all the colonies, then “slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us.”

         Madison had in mind the religious tyranny that he was then witnessing in Virginia.  In an adjacent county to his home, a half dozen itinerant Baptist ministers were in jail for preaching the Gospel to all who would listen, even from their jail cells.  Baptists and other dissenting Christians had suffered horrific violations of their religious liberty when they were horsewhipped on stage or violently driven out of towns for preaching without a license.  Madison lamented that a “diabolical Hell-conceived principle of persecution rages,” and asked his friend to “pray for liberty of conscience to revive among us.”  

The young Madison believed that religious liberty was an essential right of mankind.  Educated at Princeton under the tutelage of Rev. John Witherspoon, he was imbued with the ideas of religious and political liberty from the Scottish Enlightenment.  Madison told his friend, “That liberal catholic and equitable way of thinking as to the rights of conscience, which is one of the characteristics of a free people.”

Following the revolution of 1776, Madison would be at the center of the struggle over religious establishment a decade later when Virginian legislators took up the issue of Patrick Henry’s bill for a general assessment for religion.  After some brilliant politics that delayed the consideration of the bill and pushed Henry into the governorship, Madison led the forces of disestablishment with his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance” against religious taxes.  He wrote, “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.”  Madison continued, stating that, “It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.”  That duty is built into the fabric of human nature and precedes the claims of civil society.  “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.”  If there is a sense here of separation of church and state, Madison’s understanding is that the government must not interfere with the inalienable rights of liberty of conscience.

In the First Congress, Madison fulfilled the promise of the Federalists to ratify amendments to the Constitution protecting essential liberties though not altering the structure of the government.  The First Amendment reflected decades of Madison’s serious thought and work protecting religious liberty.  Although Madison wanted the Bill of Rights applied to the states, he lost the debate, and the First Amendment specifically limited the power of Congress to establish an official national church or to interfere with freedom of conscience.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  He had been at the forefront of the twin goals of disestablishment and religious liberty as a natural right in Virginia during the American Revolution and now at the national level during the founding of the American republic.

In 1791 and 1792, Madison wrote a series of essays on the principles of republican government for Philip Freneau’s highly partisan National Gazette.  On March 29, 1792, Madison published his “On Property” essay, which posited a new understanding of a property in natural rights.  Madison writes that property is much more than merely land or wealth, and “embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right.”  In this sense, every person “has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.”  The most essential right in human nature is religious liberty, in Madison’s estimation.  “He has a peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.”  He sums up his thinking about property by stating, “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”  

Madison then brilliantly explored the very purpose of republican self-government to protect the inalienable rights of mankind, striking another Lockean chord.  “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort,” he writes, “This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”  For Madison, it was a moral principle that the government must act justly and fulfill its purposes.  His social compact thinking mirrored that of the Declaration of Independence.  He wrote:

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government, where a man’s religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy.  Conscience is the most sacred of all property; other property depending in part of positive law, the exercise of that, being a natural and unalienable right . . . [There is] no title to invade a man’s conscience which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection, for which the public faith is pledged, by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

            Madison averred that the United States government was not a government that violated the sacred rights of mankind.  Indeed, it was instituted to protect those rights.  “If there be a government then which prides itself in maintaining the inviolability of property . . . and yet directly violates the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons, and their faculties . . . that such a government is not a pattern for the United States.”  Madison finished his essay with more conditional logic, stating that if the new republic wished to be known for wise and just government, it would “respect the rights of property, and the property in rights.” 

           James Madison spent a lifetime thinking about the natural right of religious liberty and in public service doggedly working to protect it at the state and national level from government intrusion.  The current administration shows either a willful ignorance or a remarkable disregard for Madison’s career-long defense of freedom of conscience to so openly and blatantly violate the property rights that Roman Catholics and other religious people have in their conscience.  Thus, we are reminded of the importance of studying history and the Constitution that we may understand American founding principles and firmly stand united against any violations of religious and civil liberty by the government. 

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA, and the author of four books including, America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.