What is Patriotism in the United States? — part 4


Yet the work of those who accomplished this grand victory was not then fully done, even in their direct efforts relating to their own country.

As we have seen, this victory was completed Jan. 16, 1786. Just a month before this, December 1785, a proposition made by Maryland to Virginia to call together commissioners from all the States to consider and “regulate restrictions on commerce for the whole” had been laid before the very legislature which passed the “Bill Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia.” This proposition of Maryland created the opening which was instantly seized by Madison through which to push to successful issue the desire for the creation of the nation by the forming of the Constitution of the United States. And in pushing to successful issue the desire for the creation of a national power, there was carried along, also, and finally fixed in the Constitution of the United States, the same principle of religious right that had been so triumphantly fixed in the code of Virginia.

The sole reference to religion in the Constitution as formed by the convention and submitted to the people, is in the declaration that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

The national government being one of delegated powers only, no mention whatever of religion, nor any reference to the subject in the Constitution, would have totally excluded that subject from the cognizance of the government. And this sole mention that was made of it was a clear and positive evidence that the makers of the Constitution intended to exclude the subject of religion from the notice of the national power. So the people understood it when the Constitution was submitted to them for their approval. And the assurance of “the perfect liberty of conscience prevented religious differences from interfering with zeal for a closer union.”

As we have seen, the contest for religious right in Virginia in 1785–86 had awakened a deep interest in the subject in the other States, and when the principle of this natural right had triumphed in Virginia, the effect of it was felt in every other State. And when the Constitution came before them with a clear recognition of the same principle, this was a feature immensely in its favor throughout the country.

After five States had ratified the Constitution, “the country from the St. Croix to the St. Mary’s fixed its attention on Massachusetts, whose adverse decision would inevitably involve the defeat of the Constitution.” Massachusetts ratified the Constitution, and in the doing of it, she considered this very question of religious right.

One member of the convention objected against the proposed Constitution that “there is no provision that men in power should have any religion. A papist or an infidel is as eligible as Christians.” He was answered by three members that “no conceivable advantage to the whole will result from a test.”

Another objected that “It would be happy for the United States if our public men were to be of those who have a good standing in the church.” To this it was answered that “human tribunals for the consciences of men are impious encroachments upon the prerogatives of God. A religious test, as a qualification for office, would have been a great blemish.”

Again it was objected that the absence of a religious test would “open the door to popery and the Inquisition.” And to this it was answered: “In reason and the Holy Scriptures, religion is ever a matter between God and individuals, and therefore no man or men can impose any religious test without invading the essential prerogative of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ministers first assumed this power under the Christian name; and then Constantine approved of the practice when he adopted the profession of Christianity as an engine of state policy. And let the history of all nations be searched from that day to this and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests has been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world.”

As the action of Massachusetts by its example, made sure the adoption of the Constitution; and as this particular point of religious right was specially discussed in that convention, and was decided in favor of the Constitution as it stood, with reference to that subject; it is certain from this fact alone, if there were no other, that it was the intent of the Constitution, and the makers thereof, totally to exclude religion in every way from the notice of the general government.

Yet this is not all. In the Virginia convention, objection was made that the Constitution did not fully enough secure religious right, to which Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” answered:—

“There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation. I can appeal to my uniform conduct on this subject that I have warmly supported religious freedom.”

Nor yet was this all. By the people of the United States, even this was not deemed sufficient. Knowing the inevitable tendency of men in power to fall in love with power, and to give themselves credit for inherent possession of it, and so to assert power that in nowise belongs to them, the people of the United States were not satisfied with the silence of the national charter; nor yet with this clear evidence of intention to exclude religion from the notice of the national power. They demanded positive provisions which should in so many words prohibit the government of the United States from touching any question of religion. They required that there should be added to the Constitution articles of the nature of a Bill of Rights; and that religious right should in this be specifically declared. Here is a letter of Jefferson’s, dated Paris, Feb. 2, 1788, which tells the whole story as to this point:—

“Dear Sir: I am glad to learn by letters, which come down to the 20th of December, that the new Constitution will undoubtedly be received by a sufficiency of the States to set it agoing. Were I in America I would advocate it warmly till nine should have adopted, and then as warmly take the other side to convince the remaining four that they ought not to come into it until the declarations of rights is annexed to it; by this means we should secure all the good of it, and procure as respectable opposition as would induce the accepting States to offer a Bill of Rights; this would be the happiest turn the thing could take. I fear much the effects of the perpetual re–eligibility of the President, but it is not thought of in America, and have, therefore, no prospect of a change of that article. But I own it astonishes me to find such a change wrought in the opinions of our countrymen since I left them, as that three fourths of them should be contented to live under a system which leaves to their governors the power of taking from them the trial by jury in civil cases, Freedom of Religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, the habeas corpus laws, and of yoking them with a standing army. That is a degeneracy in the principles of liberty to which I had given four centuries instead of four years, but I hope it will all come about.”

To see how fully this letter stated the case, it is necessary only to read the first ten amendments to the Constitution. These ten amendments were the Bill of Rights which the people required to be added to the Constitution as it was originally framed. The first Congress under the Constitution met March 4, 1789, and in September of the same year, these ten amendments were adopted. And in the very first of these provisions, stands the declaration of the freedom of religious right under the United States government:—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thus the people of the United States, in their own capacity as such, made the supreme law of the land positively and explicitly to declare the total exclusion of religion from any consideration whatever on the part of the national government.

Nor was the matter permitted to stand even thus on that question; for in 1797 the treaty of Tripoli was made and signed by President Washington, and approved by the Senate of the United States, in which it is declared that:—“The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.” This being a material part of a treaty, “made under the authority of: the United States,” it thus became a material part of “the supreme law of the land.”

Such is the history, such the establishment, and such the perfect supremacy of religious right in the United States. Thus for the people of the United States, and for the world, “religion was become avowedly the attribute of man and not of a corporation.”

Read part 5 — The Principle and the Supreme Law Disregarded | Home | Articles Index