Madison Letter to Reverend Adams, 1832
In this letter, Madison comments on Reverend Adams’ sermon relating Christianity to Civil Government. Madison begins with the oft-stated premise that both religion and civil government can exist independently of one another. In support of this proposition, Madison resorts to history as the great teacher. History is replete with examples of where government and religion are combined in varying degrees. Throughout Europe, the prevalent opinion was that religion and civil government could not be preserved or supported without some alliance between them. Yet, as Madison points out, the practice in America of separating religion from civil government has been established with resounding success. In every state where establishment was once embraced and then abolished, both religious zeal and governmental support have flourished. Even in states where establishment still exists, such as could be found in England, relaxation of those laws has not proved to be detrimental to either religion or good government. The best way to guard against usurpations of power or influence on either side is to avoid all government interference whatever in matters of religion, other than what is necessary to preserve the liberty of religion of each sect against trespasses by others.
Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group
CHIC. HIST. SOC. MSS. 1832.
TO REV. — ADAMS
I recd in due time the printed copy of your Convention sermon on the relation of Xnity to Civil Govt with a manuscript request of my opinion on the subject.
There appears to be in the nature of man what insures his belief in an invisible cause of his present existence, and anticipation of his future existence. Hence the propensities & susceptibilities in that case of religion which with a few doubtful or individual exceptions have prevailed throughout the world.
Waiving the rights of Conscience, not included in the surrender implied by the social State, and more or less invaded by all religious Establishments, the simple question to be decided is whether a support of the best & purest religion, the Xn religion itself ought not so far at least as pecuniary means are involved, to be provided for by the Govt rather than be left to the voluntary provisions of those who profess it. And on this question experience will be an admitted Umpire, the more adequate as the connection between Govts & Religion have existed in such various degrees & forms, and now can be compared with examples where connection has been entirely dissolved.
In the Papal System, Government and Religion are in a manner consolidated, & that is found to be the worst of Govts.
In most of the Govts of the old world, the legal establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little toleration of others makes a part of the Political and Civil organization and there are few of the most enlightened judges who will maintain that the system has been favorable either to Religion or to Govt.
Until Holland ventured on the experiment of combining a liberal toleration with the establishment of a particular creed, it was taken for granted, that an exclusive & intolerant establishment was essential, and notwithstanding the light thrown on the subject by that experiment, the prevailing opinion in Europe, England not excepted, has been that Religion could not be preserved without the support of Govt nor Govt be supported witht an established religion that there must be at least an alliance of some sort between them.
It remained for North America to bring the great & interesting subject to a fair, and finally to a decisive test.
In the Colonial State of the Country, there were four examples, R. I. N. J. Penna and Delaware, & the greater part of N. Y. where there were no religious Establishments; the support of Religion being left to the voluntary associations & contributions of individuals; and certainly the religious condition of those Colonies, will well bear a comparison with that where establishments existed.
As it may be suggested that experiments made in Colonies more or less under the Controul of a foreign Government, had not the full scope necessary to display their tendency, it is fortunate that the appeal can now be made to their effects under a compleat exemption from any such controul.
It is true that the New England States have not discontinued establishments of Religion formed under very peculiar circumstances; but they have by successive relaxations advanced towards the prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion or good Government.
And if we turn to the Southern States where there was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the support of Religion; and since that event a surrender of it to a spontaneous support by the people, it may be said that the difference amounts nearly to a contrast in the greater purity & industry of the Pastors and in the greater devotion of their flocks, in the latter period than in the former. In Virginia the contrast is particularly striking, to those whose memories can make the comparison. It will not be denied that causes other than the abolition of the legal establishment of Religion are to be taken into view in accountg for the change in the Religious character of the community. But the existing character, distinguished as it is by its religious features, and the lapse of time now more than 50 years since the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently prove that it does not need the support of Govt and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary aid.
The apprehension of some seems to be that Religion left entirely to itself may run into extravagances injurious both to Religion and to social order; but besides the question whether the interference of Govt in any form wd not be more likely to increase than controul the tendency, it is a safe calculation that in this as in other cases of excessive excitement, Reason will gradually regain its ascendancey. Great excitements are less apt to be permanent than to vibrate to the opposite extreme.
Under another aspect of the subject there may be less danger that Religion, if left to itself, will suffer from a failure of the pecuniary support applicable to it than that an omission of the public authorities to limit the duration of their Charters to Religious Corporations, and the amount of property acquirable by them, may lead to an injurious accumulation of wealth from the lavish donations and bequests prompted by a pious zeal or by an atoning remorse. Some monitory examples have already appeared.
Whilst I thus frankly express my view of the subject presented in your sermon, I must do you the justice to observe that you very ably maintained yours. I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions & doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded agst by an entire abstinance of the Govt from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, & protecting each sect agst trespasses on its legal rights by others.
I owe you Sir an apology for the delay in complying with the request of my opinion on the subject discussed in your sermon; if not also for the brevity & it may be thought crudeness of the opinion itself. I must rest the apology on my great age now in its 83d year, with more than the ordinary infirmities, and especially on the effect of a chronic Rheumatism, combined with both, which makes my hand & fingers as averse to the pen as they are awkward in the use of it.
Be please to accept Sir a tender of my cordial & respectful salutations.
Letter from James Madison to Reverend Adams (1832), in 9 The Writings of James Madison, 1819-1836, at 484 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1910).