Sunday, September 19, 2021

Quotes from the Founders on Religious Liberty

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right and the first among rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution in the First Amendment (Bill of Rights). It is the right to think, express and act upon what you deeply believe, according to the dictates of conscience. Freedom of conscience is critical to the health of a diverse society. It allows different faiths and beliefs to flourish. Religious freedom protects the rights of all groups and individuals, including the most vulnerable, whether religious or not. The Founders were firm in their support of this important principle that serves as the cornerstone of liberty in all nations. Following are a few quotes from James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington:

“In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.” –James Madison, Federalist 51 

“Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” –James Madison, Essay on Property, March 29, 1792 

“One of the amendments to the Constitution... expressly declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,' thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others.” –Thomas Jefferson, Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798 

“The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.” –Thomas Jefferson, Minutes of the Board of Visitors, University of Virginia, 1819 

“Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.” –John Adams, Letter to Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776 

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” –John Adams, To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia Of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798 

“Remember civil and religious liberty always go together: if the foundation of the one be sapped, the other will fall of course.” –Alexander Hamilton, A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress, December 15, 1774 

“[A]s far as lies in your power, you are to protect and support the free exercise of religion of the country, and the undisturbed enjoyment of the rights of conscience in religious matters, with your utmost influence and authority.” –George Washington, Letter to Benedict Arnold, September 14, 1775 

“[N]o one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution—For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” –George Washington, Letter to George Mason, October 3, 1785
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Photo: Religious Liberty (1876). The country’s largest monument to religious liberty stands in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The towering 24-foot, 13-ton statue was commissioned by the Jewish fraternal organization Independent Order of B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant) and dedicated "to the people of the United States" as an expression of support for the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. It was executed in marble by sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917).

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Traitors Against the King of England

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other out Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” 
Although not really a new argument, today some say that America was founded by “rich white men” and that because of this and the fact that some were slaveholders we should not honor them or the documents they authored. This shallow attitude ignores the facts, and that while a few of them, such as John Hancock and George Washington were wealthy merchants or landowners, not all of them were “rich” by colonial standards. A few did lose their wealth or saw their fortunes significantly diminished as a result of the war and its economic effects. And, being traitors against the King of England was no small thing.

This view of the Founders and their generation also disregards the sacrifices made and blood shed by the men (and women), respectively, who fought for and supported the cause of independence. It is important to note that Black soldiers were scattered throughout the Continental Army in integrated infantry regiments, where they were often assigned to support roles as waggoneers, cooks, or artisans. African Americans also served as gunners, sailors and privateers in the Continental Navy during the Revolution.

The Declaration’s bold assertion that “all Men are Created Equal” and Constitution’s Article 1, twenty-year clause, put the slave trade on a path to extinction. See: “All Men are Created Equal: America's Defining Creed.” While we may wishfully look back and judge that they somehow should have done more to eradicate these wrongs in their lifetime, they first had to declare independence from their mother country (the originating empire of the colonial slave trade), out-maneuver and defeat the world-renown British army and navy, establish a new nation with a Bill of Rights, and simultaneously raise a standard of truth sowing the seeds of individual liberty and human rights-- that would eventually bear fruit after the Civil War of the 1860’s (with 612,000 casualties) and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. What risks did these men individually and together undertake for the freedoms we now enjoy? Among them was death for High Treason. 

“The most serious of all felonies in the 1700’s was High Treason, or treason against the King of England. Eighteenth-century laws describe the four basic types of high treason: 

1. “When a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king, of our lady his queen, or of their eldest son and heir.” 
 2. “If a man do violate the king's companion, or the king's eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the king's eldest son and heir.” 
3. “If a man do levy war against our lord the king in his realm”. 
4. “If a man be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere.” 

This aspect of the treason law pertains to trading with enemy nations, as well as trading with pirates. Many English colonies, including the American colonies, trading openly with pirates because the merchants could avoid the high English tariffs. Since High Treason was, and arguably remains, the most serious capital crime, testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act was required to convict, and the punishment in the Eighteenth century was severe. 

Blackstone states that “the punishment of high treason in general is very solemn and terrible”: 

1. That the offender be drawn to the gallows, and not be carried or walk: though usually (by connivance length ripened by humanity into law) a sledge or hurdle is allowed, to preserve the offender from the extreme torment of being dragged on the ground or pavement 
2. That he be hanged by the neck and then cut down alive 
3. That his entrails be taken out and burned, while he is yet alive 
4. That his head be cut off 
5. That his body be divided in four parts 
6. That his head and quarters be at the king's disposal. 

The punishment did not end with the personal suffering of the offender; the punishment extended to his or her family. The law states that a person who is found guilty of treason must also undergo "forfeiture" and "corruption of blood." In forfeiture, the person is forced to give all their lands and property to the state. Corruption of blood prevents the person's immediate family and hereditary heirs from owning property or conducting business-- in effect ruining the offender's family forever. 

But the punishment of treasonous women is similar, yet different from men. “For as the decency due to the sex forbids the exposing and publicly mangling their bodies, their sentence (which it to the full as terrible to sensation as the other) is to be drawn to the gallows, and there to be burned alive.”

Today, the most famous offenders of the eighteenth-century English treason laws are the Founding Fathers and American Revolutionaries. The Declaration of Independence violates the 3rd law of Treason, [and their subsequent actions violated the 4th]. When John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other founding fathers signed this statement, they did not sign some empty philosophical statement, they signed their death warrant. This action displayed their dedication to the cause of American independence and the ultimate disloyalty to King George III. Until the Declaration of Independence, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the others only disagreed with Parliament, not the Crown; in fact, after a day of fighting the British soldiers, Washington and his officers would toast the King before dinner. This document is important because it marks the revolutionaries' acknowledgment that the corruption of the English government was not contained within the Parliament, but extended all the way up to the King; it marks the point of no return: either the revolutionaries were going to gain their independence from England and create a new country, or they were going to lose the war to the best army in the world, forfeit everything they owned, ruin their families, and be hung, drawn and quartered.” As Benjamin Franklin exclaimed to his fellow signers on August 2nd, 1776 (when the Declaration was actually signed), “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” 

Of those fifty-six men who pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor,” no signer was killed outright by the British. One, Richard Stockton, was imprisoned solely for having signed the Declaration of Independence. Others were captured while fighting in the army and were treated like other prisoners of war (which was fairly harsh). Of the 56 signers, seventeen held commissions in the army or did medical duty during the war. While the majority survived the conflict, many of those had property that was looted or destroyed, but most managed to re-establish themselves financially after the war. Carter Braxton did suffer financial hardship because of the British, but he retained other holdings. What ruined him were commercial setbacks after the war [just as those that affected Thomas Jefferson]. “The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew they could have been targeted by the British as traitors. They showed tremendous courage and bravery by willingly putting their names on a document that could bring about their deaths. They were remarkable men.” 

And, lest we forget, throughout the course of the seven-year Revolutionary War, an estimated 6,800 Americans were killed in action, 6,100 wounded, and upwards of 20,000 were taken prisoner. Historians believe that at least an additional 17,000 deaths were the result of disease, such as smallpox, including about 8,000–12,000 who died while prisoners of war.  Are we as willing to risk our lives and fortunes (great or small) and so unselfishly sacrifice for human liberty? Without regard to the color of their skin, we owe a great debt of gratitude to our nation’s founders and to the Patriots of ’76. 
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Sunday, August 29, 2021

James Madison and Religious Liberty

Dunking of Baptist Preachers in Virginia (1778)

By: Joseph Loconte 

"A wide-eyed and youthful James Madison, traveling in Culpeper County in Virginia, came upon a jail that housed half a dozen Baptist preachers, held simply for publishing their religious views. Madison bristled with indignation at the "diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution." Writing to his friend William Bradford, he ended with a lament: "So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among us..." 

[While Madison's] role as the major architect of the Constitution is widely understood, his passion for securing religious freedom is not. "There is no principle in all of Madison's wide range of private opinions and long public career," writes biographer Ralph Ketcham, "to which he held with greater vigor and tenacity than this one of religious liberty." Historians mistakenly ignore the importance of Madison's early education. Rather than going closer to home, he chose the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), an evangelical seminary known as both a citadel for republicanism and a haven for dissenting Presbyterianism. The influence of college president Rev. John Witherspoon--under whom Madison studied directly--is difficult to overstate. One of the assigned topics in Madison's senior year was to defend the proposition that "every religious profession, which does not by its principles disturb the public peace, ought to be tolerated by a wise state." Madison's lifelong zeal for religious freedom began in May 1776 when state lawmakers wrote a new constitution for the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia. The document contained a Declaration of Rights with a clause on religious liberty, penned by George Mason. The original clause declared that "all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience...." 

Madison didn't like it. He objected to Mason's use of the word "toleration" because it implied that the exercise of faith was a gift from government, not an inalienable right. Madison's substitute--"all men are entitled to the full and free exercise" of religion--essentially won the day. This put Madison far ahead of John Locke, who generally mustered no more than grudging toleration for religious belief. 

Over the next decade, Madison would be involved in various religious liberty battles in the Virginia legislature, from repealing penalties against dissenters to suspending taxpayer support for Anglican clergymen. Those struggles came to a head in 1784 when--religious conservatives take note--the General Assembly tried to pass a General Assessment bill to collect tax money for all Christian churches in the name of "public morality." Madison and others saw the bill for what it was: an attempt to prop up the Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) church with taxpayers' money. Prompted by Baptist leaders and others, Madison penned his now-famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in July 1785. 

Biographer Irving Brant calls the 15-point document "the most powerful defense of religious liberty ever written in America." One reason is that Madison made freedom of conscience--meaning belief or conviction about religious matters--the centerpiece of all civil liberties. He called religious belief "precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society." By placing freedom of conscience prior to and superior to all other rights, Madison gave it the strongest political foundation possible. 

Hard-core separationists and others disagree, claiming that the Memorial's pious rhetoric masks an antipathy to religion. But consider Madison's appeals in the Memorial. He voices concern that the misuse of religion would lead to "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation." He reasons that government support would "weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author." He recalls that ecclesiastical establishments of the past have done great damage to the "purity and efficacy" of religion." Are these the arguments of a religious scoffer? 

Madison would pick up the fight again during the drafting of the First Amendment. As chairman of the House conference committee on the Bill of Rights, Madison's original draft was among the most ambitious: "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship...nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed...." Though somewhat less expansive in its protections, the final version--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" --clearly bears the Madison stamp. 

The point is that, thanks largely to Madison, free exercise replaced toleration as the national standard for protecting religious liberty, a standard he first raised in Virginia and sustained throughout his political career... What is nearly indisputable is that his religious instincts fueled much of his political activity. 

In the fight to pass the Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty, he shamed Christian conservatives--who tried to insert the words "Jesus Christ" in an amended preamble--with these words: "The better proof of reverence for that holy name would be not to profane it by making it a topic of legislative discussion...." In 1795, during a congressional debate over naturalization, he bluntly repelled anti-Catholic prejudices: "In their religion there was nothing inconsistent with the purest Republicanism." At age 65, in retirement at his estate in Virginia, Madison praised the separation of church and state because, by it, "the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased...." 

In the twilight of his life, Madison wrote that "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...." 
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The Heritage Foundation, March 16, 2001. 
https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/james-madison-and-religious-liberty
Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow for Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and a regular commentator on religion for National Public Radio.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Recollections of Joan of Arc

“A young boy approached Mark Twain one day, after spotting the famous author standing alone on a stone bridge in Redding, Connecticut. Twain was a familiar presence in the community, and the boy had awaited such a chance to express his admiration. “I was glad that he was alone,” Coley Taylor recalled years later in an article in American Heritage. “I had wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” But Twain’s response to the young boy’s praise was shocking. “I had never seen him so cross. I can see him yet, shaking that long forefinger at me,” Taylor recalled. “You shouldn’t read those books about bad boys!” the author scolded. “Now listen to what an old man tells you. My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc. You are too young to understand and enjoy it now, but read it when you are older. Remember then what I tell you now. Joan of Arc is my very best book.”[1] 
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“Joan of Arc, a peasant girl living in medieval France, believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its long-running war with England. With no military training, Joan convinced the embattled crown prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where it achieved a momentous victory over the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. After fulfilling her mission and seeing the prince crowned King Charles VII, Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake in 1431, at the age of 19. 

Although we know her as Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d'Arc in French, she called herself Jehanne la Pucelle, or Joan the Maid. She is also known as the "Maid of Orléans." Pucelle means “maid” and also signifies that she was a virgin, an important distinction given that her society held female virginity before marriage in high regard.”[2] 

Her military career lasted from between April 1429, when she left with troops to help raise the siege of Orléans, and May 1430 when she was captured by English troops loyal to John of Luxembourg. To Joan and her supporters, her mission of driving the English out of France and crowning Charles was one that was called upon her by God. “I am sent here in God’s name, the King of Heaven, to drive you body for body out of all France...” she said in a challenge written down and sent to the English before she went into battle at Orléans. 
________________________________
Twain wrote: “[Joan's] history has still another feature which sets her apart and leaves her without fellow or competitor: there have been many uninspired prophets, but she was the only one who ever ventured the daring detail of naming, along with a foretold event, the event's precise nature, the special time-limit within which it would occur, and the place and scored fulfillment. 

At Vaucouleurs she said she must go to the King and be made his general, and break the English power, and crown her sovereign - "at Rheims." It all happened. It was all to happen "next year" - and it did. 

She foretold her first wound and its character and date a month in advance, and the prophecy was recorded in a public record-book three weeks in advance. She repeated it the morning of the date named, and it was fulfilled before night. 

At Tours she foretold the limit of her military career - saying it would end in one year from the time of its utterance - and she was right. 

She foretold her martyrdom - using that word, and naming a time three months away - and again she was right. 

At a time when France seemed hopelessly and permanently in the hands of the English she twice asserted in her prison before her judges that within seven years the English would meet with a mightier disaster than had been the fall of Orleans: it happened within five - the fall of Paris. 

Other prophecies of hers came true, both as to the event named and within the time limit prescribed. 

Taking into account, as I have suggested before, all the circumstances - her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life, she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced… 

Love, Mercy, Charity, Fortitude, War, Peace, Poetry, Music--these may be symbolized as any shall prefer: by figures of either sex and of any age; but a slender girl in her first young bloom, with the martyr's crown upon her head, and in her hand the sword that severed her country's bonds--shall not this, and no other, stand for PATRIOTISM through all the ages until time shall end?”[3]
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[1] Ted Gioia, “How Joan of Arc Conquered Mark Twain” https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/04/12/how-joan-arc-conquered-mark-twain) 
[2] https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/saint-joan-of-arc 
[3] Mark Twain, “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1919)

Sunday, August 8, 2021

America the Beautiful

The author of the hymn "America the Beautiful," Katharine Lee Bates, was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1859 and grew up near the rolling sea. Bates, who eventually became a full professor of English literature at Wellesley College, made a lecture trip to Colorado in 1893 and there she wrote the words to "America the Beautiful." 

As she told it, "We strangers celebrated the close of the session by a merry expedition to the top of Pike's Peak, making the ascent by the only method then available for people not vigorous enough to achieve the climb on foot nor adventurous enough for burro-riding. Prairie wagons, their tail-boards emblazoned with the traditional slogan, "Pike's Peak or Bust," were pulled by horses up to the half-way house, where the horses were relieved by mules. We were hoping for half and hour on the summit, but two of our party became so faint in the rarified air that we were bundled into the wagons again and started on our downward plunge so speedily that our sojourn on the peak remains in memory hardly more than one ecstatic gaze. It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind." 

On July 4, 1895, Bates' poem first appeared in The Congregationalist, a weekly newspaper. Bates revised her lyrics in 1904, a version published that year in The Boston Evening Transcript, and made some final additions to the poem in 1913. 

For several years "America the Beautiful" was sung to almost any popular air or folk tune with which the lyrics fit: "Auld Lang Syne" was one of the most common. Today it is sung to a melody written in 1882 by Samuel Augustus Ward, a Newark, New Jersey, church organist and choirmaster. Ward originally composed the melody (also titled "Materna") to accompany the words of the sixteenth century hymn "O Mother Dear, Jerusalem." When the National Federation of Music Clubs sponsored a 1926 contest to elicit new music for Bates' poem but failed to find a winner, Ward's music prevailed. "America the Beautiful" has been called "an expression of patriotism at its finest." It conveys an attitude of appreciation and gratitude for the nation's extraordinary physical beauty and abundance, without triumphalism. It has also been incorporated into a number of films including The Sandlot and The Pentagon Wars. Its lyricist, Katharine Lee Bates, died March 28, 1929, and is buried in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and its composer, Samuel A. Ward, died on September 28, 1903, in Newark, New Jersey.

Source: Library of Congress
Photo: Pikes Peak, Colorado

America the Beautiful 

O beautiful for spacious skies, 
For amber waves of grain, 
For purple mountain majesties 
Above the fruited plain! 

America! America! 
God shed his grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood 
From sea to shining sea! 

O beautiful for pilgrim feet 
Whose stern impassioned stress 
A thoroughfare of freedom beat 
Across the wilderness! 

America! America! 
God mend thine every flaw, 
Confirm thy soul in self-control, 
Thy liberty in law! 

O beautiful for heroes proved 
In liberating strife. 
Who more than self their country loved 
And mercy more than life! 

America! America! 
May God thy gold refine 
Till all success be nobleness 
And every gain divine! 

O beautiful for patriot dream 
That sees beyond the years 
Thine alabaster cities gleam 
Undimmed by human tears! 

America! America! 
God shed his grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood 
From sea to shining sea!

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Frederick Douglass: "What to a Slave is the 4th of July?"


Frederick Douglass (February 1818 - February 20, 1895) was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and writer. After escaping from slavery, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement. In the 1840’s he argued that “Liberty and Slavery – opposite as Heaven and Hell” are both in the Constitution.[1]  However, as he distanced himself from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who called the Constitution a “Covenant with Death” and publicly burned the Constitution, Douglass changed his views. In 1851, “after an ongoing dialogue with New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith, Douglass came to agree with Smith that the Constitution actually had anti-slavery implications.”[2]

 On July 5, 1852, at age 34, Douglass spoke to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in New York on the subject, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”[3] Although slavery remained entrenched in the southern states and millions of his fellow men were in bondage, Douglass expresses hope in America’s promise of equality, though yet unfulfilled. Such changes are not easy and will take time, he says: 

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day... you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages... As with rivers so with nations. 

Next, Douglass honors the Declaration of Independence: “The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny. Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” 

Douglass then proceeds to pay tribute to the Founding Fathers: 

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. 

While he joins with the nation in its annual jubilee, he acknowledges that he and his people are not fully encompassed within it: “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He recounts his own experiences as a slave, and the horrors of the slave trade, having watched from the wharves as a child, “the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh.” 

Douglass goes on to argue that the glaring issue and contradiction of his time was the failure not only of the government and of politicians, but also of churches, of ministers, and of the people of America, to live up to the principles set forth by the Founders and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: 

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. 

He then calls upon America’s churches: 

Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive... [Contrasting the churches in England with America, Douglass states] the church [in England], true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating, and improving the condition of mankind, came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and restored him to his liberty. There, the question of emancipation was a high religious question. It was demanded, in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God. The Sharps, the Clarksons, the Wilberforces, the Buxtons, and Burchells and the Knibbs, were alike famous for their piety, and for their philanthropy. The anti-slavery movement there was not an anti-church movement, for the reason that the church took its full share in prosecuting that movement: and the anti-slavery movement in this country will cease to be an anti-church movement, when the church of this country shall assume a favorable, instead of a hostile position towards that movement. 

Douglass continues, clearly affirming his belief that the Constitution is not a pro-slavery document and that it should be an object of our devotion, meant to be read and understood by all citizens: 

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? ... the Constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted... the Constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens. 

Douglass concludes his great oration with hope: 

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence [and] the great principles it contains....” 

May we as Americans follow the course of the river which our Founders charted for our young nation, upholding the truth that “all men are created equal” -- in both our words and actions, and diligently heed the call of former slave Frederick Douglass to remember the principles of Declaration of Independence, embracing his admonition that, “The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”
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[1] “Oath to Support the Constitution,” The North Star, April 5, 1850, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Foner, Phillip S., ed. (WW Norton & Co, New York, 2007) 2:118. (“LWFD”). 
[2] Cohen, Robert, “Was the Constitution pro-Slavery? The Changing View of Frederick Douglass,” in Social Education 72(5) (National Council for Social Studies, 2008), p. 248. 
[3] Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, Foner, Phillip S., ed. (Lawrence Hill, Chicago, 1999), pp. 188-206.

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

“The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was one of the most important documents in early U.S. religious history. It marked the end of a ten-year struggle for the separation of church and state in Virginia, and it was the driving force behind the religious clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791. 

The Statute was first attempt to remove government influence from religious affairs 
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 and accepted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, the bill was, as Jefferson explained, an attempt to provide religious freedom to “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and [the] infidel of every denomination.” In effect, it was the first attempt in the new nation to remove the government’s influence from religious affairs. 

Jefferson created law to undo established churches in Virginia 
When the bill was first introduced during the legislative session in 1779, the Episcopal Church, which had just recently declared its independence from the Church of England, was the state-sponsored or established church in Virginia. Tax monies were used to support the church, and colonial laws compelled mandatory church attendance. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jefferson and James Madison had long opposed established churches, because they believed that religion was a natural right best protected without governmental coercion. Furthermore, they objected to the limited religious freedom available to other religious entities in Virginia—most notably Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians—although they confined their protest to a few friends during the early years of the American Revolution. The situation changed, however, in 1779, as the war was winding down. That year, Jefferson’s bill was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly, but it was soon postponed. In response, in 1784 the fiery, headstrong Patrick Henry countered Jefferson’s bill with a bill of his own that called for a general assessment tax to support “Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Each taxpayer was allowed to choose what church or minister could receive his tax money. It was, then, a proposal to replace the Episcopal Church with “multiple establishments” of religion, creating a tight church-state network in Virginia that would use government dollars to support all Christian churches, not just Episcopalian Christianity. With Jefferson in France serving as American minister during the 1780s, the task of opposing Henry’s bill fell to Madison, Jefferson’s close friend and collaborator. Madison proceeded to pursue successfully three goals, which led to the defeat of Henry’s bill and the passage of Jefferson’s. First, Madison secured an alliance with evangelical sects that were opposed to the assessment bill. Second, he supported Patrick Henry’s election to the governorship in 1784, thereby removing him from the legislature. And, third, he penned a finely crafted pamphlet called “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment,” opposing Henry’s bill, supporting Jefferson’s, and calling for a separation of church and state. 

James Madison supported the Statute in a pamphlet 
In the “Memorial” Madison eloquently articulated the principles at stake: “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? That same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.” The pamphlet was an instant hit. It was widely circulated in Virginia, and it was signed by over two thousand Virginians, many of whom were Presbyterians and Baptists who thought Henry’s bill posed a threat to religious liberty in the Old Dominion.  In addition to the pamphlet, Madison guided Jefferson’s bill to passage; it was finally enacted on January 16, 1786 by the Virginia General Assembly.”[1] 

The Statute affirmed freedom of conscience 
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom stands for the proposition that no human authority (civil or religious) should impose its religious views or opinions on individuals. It confirms the natural rights of all men to form their own religious beliefs and to exercise freedom of conscience. In its opening sentence Jefferson wrote that,  “Almighty God hath created the mind free.”  James Madison fully agreed, arguing that men have property not only to earthly possessions, but also property in their “opinions and the free communication of them...” and stated that, “conscience is the most sacred of all property.”[2]  Attesting to this principle Thomas Jefferson declared that he had, “sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”[3]

Writing his own epitaph, Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and as father of the University of Virginia [photo above of Jefferson's grave at Monticello]. 

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786 

Section I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of Legislators and Rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess, or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously, of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil Magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he, being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of Civil Government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them: 

Section II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or Ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened 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. 

Section III. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.[4] 
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[1] The First Amendment Encyclopedia https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/880/virginia-statute-for-religious-freedom (2009) by: Matthew Harris (professor of history and director of legal studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He teaches and writes on the US Constitution, with a particular emphasis on Religion and the Law and Race and Religion), accessed 19 Nov 2020. 
[2] James Madison, Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999) pp. 515-517. 
[3] Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian Boyd (Princeton University Press, 1950) 32:168.
[4] Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 346-348.