Misstatements of Fact
Founding Myth is littered with historical inaccuracies. Every writer slips occasionally, but the large number of errors in this work call into question the author’s commitment to providing an accurate account of the founding era. This is particularly significant for a constitutional attorney who believes history is, at least upon occasion, relevant for interpreting the First Amendment.
Seidel’s historical errors sometimes cut against his own argument. For instance, he asserts that “every colony had an established church.” By most counts, only nine of the original thirteen colonies had establishments; Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware did not. Some separationists point to these colonies, especially Rhode Island, as being ahead of their time with respect to church-state relations. Seidel offers no explanation as to why he considers them to have establishments.
Separationists are often interested in debates over religious establishments in only one state: Virginia. Seidel focuses on these as well, especially on the general assessment bill supported by Patrick Henry that would have provided state support to ministers from different denominations. The bill did not say how much support would be given, but Seidel refers to it as “Henry’s proposed three-penny tax.” He is presumably conflating the proposal with Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773, which included a three penny tax on tea (to which Madison refers in his Memorial and Remonstrance).
Madison’s Memorial had some influence in Virginia, but not as much as an evangelical petition that received three times as many signatures. But whatever impact it had, it did not convince “the people of Virginia to vote against the bill giving financial support to Christian ministers,” as Seidel asserts. In December of 1784, the Virginia legislature postponed action on the general assessment bill until the fall of 1785, but a final vote was never taken on it. Instead, the legislature passed Jefferson’s famous Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, but it did so in 1786, not 1785 as Seidel claims.