|James Madison, Architect of the American|
In the first years of the American Republic we were governed by The Articles of Confederation, a constitution that conceived of the nation as a loose affiliation of autonomous states pledged to collaboration rather than as a single nation with a sovereign government. The system outlined by the Articles did not work. It was ineffectual in dealing with issues such as the immense debt incurred by the American Revolution as well as matters of foreign policy. Collaboration under the Articles depended on the mutual trust among the States but the divisions that would eventually lead to Civil War some eighty years later were already beginning to fester, imperiling the unity of the new nation. It was clear to many, though not to all, that a stronger federal government had to be designed. A convention was called to refashion the Articles of Confederation but once in session and without explicit authorization from the Continental Congress that convoked such an assembly, the convention decided to scrap the Articles and replace it with an entirely new Constitution. Given that so many of the heroes of the Revolution were members of that Convention—Washington, Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, among others (Jefferson and Adams were abroad on Diplomatic Missions) the members of the Constitutional Convention got away with their bait-and-switch coup and our present Constitution was the result. It was not an easy struggle. There were those among the great founders who were appalled that so much had been taken from the sovereignty of the several states and given over to the national government. Moreover, they not only saw the danger to the States, but saw the rights of individual imperiled by the failure of the new Constitution to explicitly guarantee them. It was agreed that as soon as the Constitution was approved it would be necessary to amend it with a “Bill of Rights” that would make explicit the rights that were taken as due the individual under the English Common Law tradition dating back to Magna Carta.
Madison did not single-handedly write the Constitution. No one person wrote it. He did not even serve the role to the Constitution that Jefferson had for the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was produced by incessant argument and debate over each point but no individual was as active in that discussion and debate process as was James Madison. In the four months of the convention (May-September 1787) Madison spoke over 200 times. He clearly articulated a plan for government and when it was necessary to come to compromise, as it was time after time on point after point, it was Madison who guided the way out of each impasse.
When the Constitution was finally ratified it was Madison who then took up the cause for a Bill of Rights. It was not at first a popular cause among the leaders of the new government although it certainly was a matter of concern in several of the States and among the citizenry at large. Congress and the Executive branch were busy trying to get the Constitution itself to work and were reluctant to begin amending it. Nevertheless Madison was able to guide the passage of the first ten amendments which we now call the Bill of Rights. He did not get everything he wanted. For example, Madison wanted an amendment that would assert the sovereignty of the national government over that of the individual States—an amendment that some historians believe would have prevented the Civil War, or at least robbed secession of any constitutional legitimacy. (It would have interesting consequences for several of today’s issues as well.) Nevertheless, the Bill of Rights was eventually passed and quickly ratified by the states.
The first amendment guarantees: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The phrase that interests us in this question of our being a Christian nation is the idea that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibition the free exercise thereof. It is clear from the text that not only is no one Church to be established—or proscribed—but religion itself is neither to be established nor proscribed.
Madison was a protégé of Thomas Jefferson and while he may or may not have subscribed to Jefferson’s deist philosophy, he clearly subscribed to Jefferson’s political philosophy articulated in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Madison had worked with Baptist preacher, Elijah Craig (after whom the designer Bourbon is named), in making sure that there would be constitutional guarantee for religious liberty. Craig had served time in jail for preaching without a license in the days when the Anglican Church was established by law in Virginia and non-Anglicans were forbidden to preach or hold services. While an Episcopalian himself (his cousin, also James Madison, was the first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia) Madison clearly wanted to make sure that the no religion was set up to have a claim of precedence over others in either Virginia or the new Republic. It would be inconsistent with his record to say that the “Father of the Constitution” saw the United States as a Christian Nation in the sense that Christianity (or any other religion) had a pride of place among various systems of belief or thought recognized by law or governmental courtesy in the American Republic whom he had done more than any other individual to shape.