Politicians and Petitions: Passing the "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" in Virginia
The defeat of Patrick Henry's general assessment bill in the Virginia legislature, brought about by the mobilization of dissenters in a petition campaign influenced by James Madison, led to the passage of Thomas Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" in 1786. Jefferson proposed his bill in 1779 as part of an effort to revise the Virginia legal code, seeking to bring state law into alignment with the newly inaugurated revolutionary government. But, the Assembly barely addressed the bill. The power of the established church was too strong and the members postponed the reading of the radical religion bill for a day when the legislative session had already closed.Early on, few religious dissenters lived in colonial Virginia, but the Great Awakening jolted the American colonies, swelling dissenting congregations. Revolutionary War then ushered in change that emboldened dissenters to reject traditional deference to elites and solicit legal equality. As people across the socio-economic spectrum bore the hardships of the war and shouldered significant responsibility for the support of an infant government, many of the inferior sort thought of themselves as equal to the gentry and sought the legal protection of their right of conscience. When Patrick Henry proposed a general assessment bill, which would require a tax to support instruction by Christian teachers of varied denominations, it ignited the "first truly popular state political campaign" and in 1785 an avalanche of petitions descended upon the General Assembly, killing the general assessment bill and generating the momentum for James Madison to reintroduce to the General Assembly Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom."From early in their careers, revolutionary leaders Patrick Henry, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson each defended religious liberty, but they parted ways on the role of government in religion. Patrick Henry fostered the traditional eighteenth-century belief that to maintain a virtuous society that would support a republic, the government must prop up religion. To Henry, individuals could still freely choose their religious expression while the government encouraged broad religious principles. To both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, any state requirement with regards to religion violated conscience. To protect the inherent right of conscience, the state and the church must be separate.Thomas Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" passed because of James Madison's savvy political maneuvering, but he was only one man--an important man--but laws in the United States do not pass because of one voice. The diverse voices expressed in dissenter petitions opposing the general assessment overwhelmed the Assembly and created the circumstances to defeat Patrick Henry's bill and bring about the protection of the inherent right of conscience in Virginia.This political achievement marked state protection of liberty of conscience as an inherent right and not a point of toleration from the state. Over two hundred years later, it is easy to assume inevitability of the development of religious freedom in these terms, but at a time when established state religion was the norm, this was an extraordinary contingent event reliant on the choices and actions of Virginia citizens.
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