In the Spring of 1776, with the American Revolution well under-way, the Commonwealth of Virginia's Revolutionary Convention deliberated the new state's constitution. The delegates intended to include a Declaration of Rights, which, in turn, would include a clause on religious liberty. George Mason proposed, “All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” but James Madison objected. Such an appeal for religious toleration is defective, he reasoned, for behind the idea of toleration is the assumption that one's religious beliefs are held at the pleasure of the state, not according to a natural right. In an effort to secure real religious freedom, Madison proposed an alternative: “That religion or the duty we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence and compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience.” Religious freedom prevailed over toleration, eventually becoming a crucial component of American politics due, in part, to Madison's efforts.
Perhaps more than any other member of the founding generation, Madison played a major role in forming America's political institutions. Often called the Father of the Constitution, Madison helped design the architecture of the United States Constitution and then helped defend it, in collaboration with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, with The Federalist Papers (which Thomas Jefferson called “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written”). Contemporary political commentator Michael Barone has summarized Madison's legacy, as follows: “Madison's Constitution was the greatest leap forward since the first millennium in achieving a balance of order and liberty, national pride and rational principle, faith and reason.” Madison understood that all human freedoms–political, economic, intellectual, and religious–formed an integrated whole and that restricting one was tantamount to restricting all.
After the ratification of the Constitution, Madison went on to serve in the United States House of Representatives (1789—1797), as Secretary of State under Jefferson (1801—1809), and as the fourth President of the United States (1809—1817). In retirement, he succeeded Jefferson as the rector of the University of Virginia, helping to educate the next generation of American statesmen.
Sources: “On Property” by James Madison, and “James Madison and Religious Liberty” by Joseph Loconte in Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 729 (March 16, 2001).
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