Madison Letter to Jefferson on the Bill Concerning Religious Freedom, January 22, 1786

Madison Letter to Jefferson on the Bill Concerning Religious Freedom,

January 22, 1786

Following the aftermath of the Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison carried Jefferson’s “Bill concerning Religious Freedom” through the House of Delegates to enactment. This letter to Jefferson is a report of the bill’s success and of its ultimate form as enacted into law. Of most significance in this otherwise unremarkable letter is the last sentence, which displays Madison’s unusual optimism that the bill’s enactment would permanently rid the state of Virginia of any attempts to invade the liberty of conscience.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group


Richmond, Jan. 22d, 1786

My last dated Nov 15th, from this place answered yours of May 11th, on the subject of your printed notes. . . . Our Assembly last night closed a Session of 97 days, during the whole of which except the first seven, I have shared in the confinement. . . . The titles in the enclosed list will point out to you such of the bills as were adopted from the Revisal.

* * * *

The only one of these which was pursued into an Act is the Bill concerning Religious freedom. The steps taken throughout the Country to defeat the Genl Assessment had produced all the effect that could have been wished. The table was loaded with petitions and remonstrances from all parts against the interposition of the Legislature in matters of Religion. A general convention of the Presbyterian church prayed expressly that the bill in the Revisal might be passed into a law, as the best safeguard short of a Constitutional one, for their religious rights. The bill was carred thro’ the H. of Delegates, without alteration. The Senate objected to the preamble, and sent down a proposed substitution of the 16th art: of the Declaration of Rights. The H. of D. disagreed. The Senate insisted, and asked a Conference. Their objections were frivolous indeed. In order to remove them as they were understood by the Managers of the H. of D. The preamble was sent up again from the H. of D. with one or two verbal alterations. As an amendment to these the Senate sent down a few others, which as they did not affect the substance though they somewhat defaced the composition, it was thought better to agree to than to run further risks, especially as it was getting late in the Session and the House growing thin. The enacting clauses past without a single alteration, and I flatter myself have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.

Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson (Jan. 22, 1786), in 2 The Writings of James Madison, 1783-1787, at 214 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1901).