Madison Letter to Bradford, April 1, 1774

Letter from James Madison to William Bradford, April 1, 1774.

The excerpted portion of this letter from Madison to his dear friend, William Bradford, is significant because it gives the reader a glimpse into the state of the movement for religious freedom in Virginia. Of interest here is Madison’s characterization of the clergy of the Established Church, who use all their influence and connections to put down religious insurrection, thereby securing their livelihood. From other correspondence, it is clear that Madison found such efforts deplorable. Also of interest is Madison’s understanding of the importance of religious liberty. Without religious liberty, every other endeavor undertaken by the human mind is wasted.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

To William Bradford

April 1st, 1774. Virginia Orange Cy.

My Worthy Friend:

I have another favour to acknowledge in the receipt of your kind Letter of March the 4th. I did not intend to have written again to you before I obtained a nearer communication with you but you have too much interest in my inclinations ever to be denied a request.

* * *

Our Assembly is to meet the first of May When It is expected something will be done in behalf of the Dissenters: Petitions I hear are already forming among the Persecuted Baptists and I fancy it is in the thoughts of the Presbyterians also to intercede for greater liberty in matters of Religion. For my part I can not help being very doubtful of their succeeding in the Attempt. The Affair was on the Carpet during the last Session; but such incredible and extravagant stories were told in the House of the monstrous effects of the Enthusiasm prevalent among the Sectaries and so greedily swallowed by their Enemies that I believe they lost footing by it and the bad name they still have with those who pretend too much contempt to examine into their principles and Conduct and are too much devoted to the ecclesiastical establishment to hear of the Toleration of Dissentients, I am apprehensive, will be again made a pretext for rejecting their requests. The Sentiments of our people of Fortune & fashion on this subject are vastly different from what you have been used to. That liberal catholic and equitable way of thinking as to the rights of Conscience, which is one of the Characteristics of a free people and so strongly marks the People of your province is but little known among the Zealous adherents to our Hierarchy. We have it is true some persons in the Legislature of generous Principles both in Religion & Politicks but number not merit you know is necessary to carry points there. Besides[,] the Clergy are a numerous and powerful body[,] have great influence at home by reason of their connection with & dependence on the Bishops and Crown and will naturally employ all their art & Interest to depress their rising Adversaries; for such they must consider dissenters who rob them of the good will of the people and may in time endanger their livings & security.

You are happy in dwelling in a Land where those inestimable privileges are fully enjoyed and public has long felt the good effects of their religious as well as Civil Liberty. Foreigners have been encouraged to settle amg. you. Industry and Virtue have been promoted by mutual emulation and mutual Inspection, Commerce and the Arts have flourished and I can not help attributing those continual exertions of Gen[i]us which appear among you to the inspiration of Liberty and that love of Fame and Knowledge which always accompany it. Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unuits it for every noble enterprize every expanded prospect. How far this is the Case with Virginia will more clearly appear when the ensuing Trial is made. . . .

Farewell.

JM

Letter from James Madison to William Bradford (April 1, 1774), in 1 The Papers of James Madison, at 111-13 (Robert A. Rutland & William M.E. Rachal, etc., 1962).