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To James Madison from John Blair Smith, 21 June 1784

From John Blair Smith

Hampden Sydney, June 21. 1784.

Dear Sir;

I am sorry to interrupt your attention to important business, by introducing a matter in this letter, which you are already tired of. However as it is of some importance, I presume upon your usual patience & candor.

Since my arrival at home,1 I have seen a part of your Journals, & by them have learned the objects of the Petition from the Episcopal Clergy, which in one or two instances, appear to me very exceptionable. The first part of their prayer is necessary & proper; & the whole of it might pass without much animadversion to its disadvantage, ’till you hear them requesting that “they, the Clergy, may be incorporated by law;” & then an attentive mind must revolt against it as very unjustifiable, & very insulting to the members of their communion in general.2 Had they requested that an incorporating act should pass, in favour of that Church as a party of Christians, whereby the people might have had a share in the direction of ecclesiastical regulations, & the appointment of Church officers for that purpose, it would have been extremely proper. But as the matter now stands, the Clergy seem desirous to exclud[e] them from any share in such a privilege & willing to oblige the members of their Churches to sit down patiently, under such regulations as an incorporated body of Clergymen, who wish to be peculiarly considered as ministers in the view of the law, shall chuse to make, without a legal right to interfere in any manner, but such as these spiritual leaders may think fit to allow. I should expect that such an Idea of spiritual domination, would be resented & opposed by every adherent to that Society. I should suppose that every one of them who felt the spirit of his station would regard the attempt as an indefensible remain of Star-chamber tyranny, & resist it accordingly. However, if the Gentlemen, of the communion are so used to Dictators, that they either have not observed the Jure divino pretension to domineer over them, or have not inclination or Spirit to oppose it, perhaps it may be thought proper for one so little interested in the matter as myself to be Silent. I confess that I have less reason to interfere than many others: but as a Citizen of a free State I am interested in the Spirit which my Countrymen discover, & am sorry that there is room to suppose them too insensible of their own importance in any instance whatever.

But that part of the petition, which concerns me most, as well as every Non-Episcopalian in the state, is, where these Clergymen pray for an act of the Assembly to Enable, them to regulate all the spiritual concerns of that Church &c. This is an express attempt to draw the State into an illicit connexion & commerce with them, which is already the ground of that uneasiness which at present prevails thro’ a great part of the State. According to the spirit of that prayer, the Legislature is to consider itself as the head of that Party, & consequently they as Members are to be fostered with particular care. This is unreasonable & highly improper, as well as dangerous. It ought therefore to [be] treated by the assembly as an ill-digested Scheme of policy in the present State of affairs. I am sorry that Christian Ministers should virtually declare their Church a mere political machine, which the State may regulate at pleasure; but I shall be surprized if the Assembly shall assume the improper office. The interference of the Legislature is always dangerous, where it is unnecessary. And I am sure it is plainly so in this case. It would be to decide upon a matter which a Superior power, I mean the Convention in the Bill of Rights, has already determined.3 It would be to give leave to do what every class of Citizens has a natural, unalienable right to do without any such leave; for surely every religious society in the State possesses full power to regulate their internal police; without depending upon the Assembly for leave to do so. Surely we are not again to be irritated & harassed with the heavy weight of a State-Church, that is to sit as sovereign over the rest, by depending in a more particular manner for direction in Spirituals, upon that antiquated fountain head of influences, the secular power.

I have here hastily throw together the very first thoughts which occurred to me upon reading the Journals; & as you certainly have taken notice of the same improprieties in the petition which I have now done, I hope you will use your extensive influence to prevent the consequences intended to flow from it.4 I am, Dr. Sir, with the greatest respect Yr. very hble Servt.

John B: Smith.

RC (DLC). Cover missing. Docketed by JM.

1The Reverend John Blair Smith (1756–1799) had been an undergraduate at the College of New Jersey when JM was in his final year of study. In the graduating class of 1773 with Henry Lee, Smith was a professor at Hampden-Sydney, 1775–1779, captain of the Hampden-Sydney volunteers, 1776–1777, and president of the college, 1779–1791 (Charles Grier Sellers, Jr., “John Blair Smith,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, XXXIV [1956], 201–25). From 1795 to 1799 he was president of Union College, Schenectady, New York. Smith was more than usually interested in this session of the General Assembly, for Hampden-Sydney had petitioned the legislature for a gift of land on 1 June, and by 12 June had approval for “certain lands … in the County of Prince Edward” (JHDV description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg. Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , May 1784, pp. 30, 38, 48, 51). JM, along with other public men then serving in the General Assembly, was a member of the Hampden-Sydney board of trustees, though there is no evidence that he ever attended a meeting (Alfred J. Morrison, The College of Hampden-Sydney: Calendar of Board Minutes, 1776–1876 [Richmond, 1912], p. 171; General Catalogue of Princeton University, 1746–1906 [Princeton, 1908], pp. 96, 97).

2The unexceptional “first part” of the Protestant Episcopal petition of 4 June sought repeal or amendment “of sundry laws now in force, which direct modes of worship and enjoin the observance of certain days.” Smith objected to the request that the former Anglican church be incorporated and the clergy thereof permitted “to regulate all the spiritual concerns of that Church, alter its form of worship, and constitute such canons, by-laws and rules … as are suited to their religious principles …” (JHDV description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg. Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , May 1784, p. 36).

3As principal author of Article XVI of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, JM had no need for instruction in its meaning. See Brant, Madison description begins Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis and New York, 1941–61). description ends , I, 241–48; Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (8 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , I, 170–79.

4JM served on the Committee on Religion and knew all too well that this measure had few supporters but a single and powerful one—Patrick Henry. On 8 June the committee reported in favor of incorporating the Episcopal church, and a bill was introduced on 16 June. On 25 June the Committee of the Whole debated the bill and finally ordered it held over until the “second Monday in November next” (JHDV description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg. Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , May 1784, p. 79). “Extraordinary as such a project was, it was preserved from a dishonorable death by the talents of Mr. Henry,” JM reported to Jefferson on 3 July 1784.

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