James Madison Papers

Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, [31 October] 1785

Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

[31 October 1785]1

I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion,2 who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow-citizens he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of wor[l]dly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment; and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

III. And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Printed copy (Hening, Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols.; Richmond and Philadelphia, 1819–23). description ends , XII, 84–86). No Ms copy has been found. Jefferson drew up the bill in 1777 as part of the Revised Code of Virginia laws. The earliest printed copy is a broadside printed in Williamsburg in 1779. The Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly in Virginia in MDCCLXXVI (Richmond, 1784) contained the same text except for slight variations in punctuation and spelling. These texts are the closest to Jefferson’s original. The act above is an amended version of these; however, what is generally accepted as “The Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” is hybridized version written by Jefferson himself in 1786. For a detailed consideration of the various texts, see Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N. J., 1950——). description ends , II, 547–52.

1JM introduced this bill along with 117 others for the Revised Code in the House on 31 Oct. 1785. The bills were read twice and referred to a Committee of the Whole House. This bill was considered by a Committee of the Whole on 15 Dec., when an unidentified amendment was proposed and passed on the following day. A second amendment, which would have struck out the preamble and replaced it with a statement from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, was defeated on the same day with JM voting against it. The bill passed on 17 Dec. Alexander White carried it to the Senate. On 29 Dec. the Senate reported the bill back with an amendment, which the House took under consideration. JM voted with the majority against the amendment. On 9 Jan. 1786 the Senate reported back requesting a joint conference on the amendment. The House appointed JM, Zachariah Johnston and Innes to manage the business on the part of the House. The conference was held 12 Jan. On 13 Jan. the House agreed to the amendments and added its own changes. The House passed these amendments and ordered JM to notify the Senate on 16 Jan. The Senate reported the enrolled bill back, and the speaker signed the act on 19 Jan. 1786 (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 , Oct. 1785, pp. 95–96, 115 and passim). Thus while adoption of the whole Revised Code was not achieved during the session (after thirty-six had been enacted, most of the remaining bills were postponed to the 1786 session) —the House decided that a few bills were of particular importance. Of these, the bill for religious freedom was the only one enacted into law, as JM “presided as midwife at its legislative birth” (Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, p. 279). The enacting clauses remained unaltered, but Jefferson’s philosophical preamble met opposition in both Houses. The amendment replacing the preamble with a statement from the Declaration of Rights was defeated in the House and then revived by the Senate. JM headed the House delegation to the joint conference to work out the differences. He dismissed the Senate’s objections as “frivolous” but saw to it that the House sent up the bill with several alterations to meet the Senate’s objections. The Senate returned further amendments which JM thought best to accept and not run further risk since “they did not affect the substance though they somewhat defaced the composition,” and it was growing late in the session (JM to Jefferson, 22 Jan. 1786). By the deletion of some of the more sweeping statements about the supremacy of reason, the broad base on which Jefferson founded the bill was somewhat diminished (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N. J., 1950——). description ends , II, 549–52). Nevertheless JM presumed that the enactment had “in this country extinguished for ever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind” (JM to Jefferson, 22 Jan. 1786) while Jefferson expressed his satisfaction at seeing “the standard of reason at length erected” (Jefferson to JM, 16 Dec. 1786 [DLC]).

2JM and Jefferson undoubtedly discussed this bill some years after its passage, for Jefferson in his “Autobiography” mentions the debate over the preamble and says that the effort was made to alter this phrase to read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion” (Ford, Writings of Jefferson, I, 62). Jefferson held that in defeating the proposed change the legislators “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

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