Monday, June 17, 2013

The value of Madison's Memorial & Remonstrance

Eva Brann posts a very insightful and beautifully written reflection on that topic over at The Imaginative Conservative: Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance": A Jewel of Republican Rhetoric. As she rightly notes, Madison's work deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest examples of American argument and reasoning, with a rhetorical punch that puts in the same league as the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. Worth studying not only for its argument and phrasing but for its constitutional importance (as she observes it has been used in part by the Supreme Court as a guide to what the principle of non-establishment of religion means), Brann demonstrates that the rhetorical structure of Madison's argument is linked to his substantive presentation of the argument for religious liberty. One point that Brann makes, and that bears repeating, is that Madison's argument is an essentially religious one, grounded not only in republican principle but also in Christian thought. A wonderful discussion of rhetoric, good writing and the principles of freedom and republican virtue.


Mark David Hall said...

I submitted the following the Imaginative Conservative, but thought I would post it here as well:

There is much to be admired in Brann’s essay. I take no issue with her contention that Madison's Memorial makes a fine, powerful argument. However, like many scholars and jurists she assumes that it had an "immediate and the historical efficacy." On the contrary, I would like to suggest that this eloquent argument had little influence prior to the nineteenth century.

As Brann recognizes, some 10,929 Virginia citizens signed petitions to the VA General Assembly, of which 1,552 affixed their signatures to copies of Madison’s Memorial. Far more popular was an earlier, anonymous evangelical petition signed by 4,899 citizens (including eleven women), which argued that state support of religion is “contrary to the spirit of the Gospel” and that ending it would lead “[r]eligion [to] (if departed) speedily return, and Deism be put to open shame, and it’s [sic] dreaded Consequences removed.” (Dreisbach and Hall 2009, 307-308).

The Memorial was reprinted anonymously a few times prior to 1791, but there is little evidence that it was influential in this era. It was not referenced as an authority or ideal in any record of any debate over church-state relations that I could find prior to the ratification of the First Amendment. Of course many of these records are poor, but we cannot assume a document had influence simply because we think it is eloquent, powerful, or even correct.

A brief note on Madison and chaplains: On February 29, 1788, the Confederation Congress (including Madison) voted to pay congressional chaplains $300 per year. (Dreisbach and Hall 2009, 219) Once the Constitution was ratified, the new Congress met and appointed a committee to select chaplains—a committee on which Madison served. Within days Congress had selected and agreed to pay chaplains. (Id., 472; Olree 2008, 154, 173-176) The new national government also reauthorized the Northwest Ordinance, issued calls for prayer and fasting, and provided for military chaplains. (Dreisbach and Hall 2009, 453-57, 473-74) In no instance is anyone recorded as objecting to these acts—including Madison—because they violated the letter or spirit of the Memorial or Virginia Statute. As a relatively old man Madison privately regretted his previous positions, but I don't know why we should accept this later position as Madison's "true" view.

I address all of these issues in far greater detail in a forthcoming article "Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty,
and the Creation of the First Amendment," which will be published in the journal American Political Thought.

Mark David Hall
George Fox University

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Memorial was reprinted anonymously a few times prior to 1791, but there is little evidence that it was influential in this era.

James Hutson agrees. One from our vaults:

Mark D. said...

Professor Hall,

Thank you so much for dropping by and leaving your comment. I can't speak to the influence or lack thereof of Madison's Memorial & Remonstrance during the 19th century -- I do know, has Brann demonstrates in the appendix to her work, that the M&R has been very influential with the Supreme Court as it has tried to find some principles upon which to ground its approach to the Establishment Clause. And, of course, the value of Madison's work as an example of Republican and Christian rhetoric doesn't depend on its popularity at the time -- it may have been largely ignored and still be a classic exposition of republican and Christian insight.

That said, I very much look forward to your upcoming article. I have written a bit on Jefferson and Madison and the First Amendment myself, so I look forward to your scholarly input as a professional historian of the Founding Era.

Thank you again for your thoughts -- they are always welcome. And thank you for your work on Roger Sherman. It sounds like a wonderful and much needed contribution to the ongoing debate regarding religion and the American Founding.



Mark D. said...


Thanks for posting that link to your earlier entry here at American Creation.



Tom Van Dyke said...

I do know, has Brann demonstrates in the appendix to her work, that the M&R has been very influential with the Supreme Court as it has tried to find some principles upon which to ground its approach to the Establishment Clause.

As Hall and Daniel Dreisbach also note and argue--when it comes to the Court citing Founders on the Establishment Clause, statistically it's Jefferson and Madison 90+% of the time, although Jefferson was THE theological outlier and Madison lost a LOT of Constitutional battles, and to the point here, specifically over chaplains.

I always found Madison's argument to be subtly a theological one, not a political one [echoing one by Adam Smith, not-so-coincidentally], keeping religion safe from the encroachment of the state, not our 20th/21st century version that fears the vice-versa, "theocracy."

Madison's and Smith's argument--perhaps inspired by a sympathy for unitarianism--is that state support for religious establishments entrenches bad churchmen and bad theology.

If you can follow me on this [I don't believe I've attempted this argument before formally]--church establishments become unresponsive to the spiritual needs of their congregations, and become forces for doctrine and dogma rather than theological truth--especially when backed by the power and money of the state.

Forget the "theocracy! theocracy!" bleat--in America, papism was a non-playa, there were at least 3 major competing Protestant traditions [Anglican, Calvinist and Baptist], as well as your various Quakers and whatnots to prevent any establishment of a Church of America.

The greater danger is the state pumping up a crap church than any given church/sect being able to pump up a crap government. Madison's argument vs. chaplains is rather modest--he's not against chaplains, just the US Gov't pumping up crap churches with taxpayer dough.

No problem with privately-financed chaplains--that was his argument. A non-crap church should be able to roust up the necessary donations with little trouble. Crap churches play the political game and the money game, because they must.

And if you look around at the Protestant mainline circling the bowl in the 21st century, it's only their $$ in the bank and ownership of the real estate their churches sit on that keeps them above water. I think Madison's instincts were spot-on.

Anyway, I think the above line of argument jibes with all of Madison's various writings and letters and I'm not sure I've heard it offered just this way elsewhere. As always, discussion is welcomed. I don't think Madison was ever the least bit worried about "theocracy." I think it's far more probable he wanted "liberal" [Christian?] theology to get a chance to breathe, unsmothered by government-supported religious establishments.

Mark D. said...

Tom, my law review article on this took much the same tack as you are describing. Theocracy wasn't the concern -- the concern was freeing up the Church to do its work free of government constraint and government support for competing religious institutions.

Tom Van Dyke said...