Born this day, March 16, in 1751, James Madison is the forgotten founder. He was a generation younger than Washington, Adams and that crowd. Soft spoken and small of stature, he avoided the limelight. He was more depth than dazzle.
It was Madison who proposed the tripartite structure of the United States government---legislative, executive, and judiciary branches—which would check and balance each other. Mr. Madison was the one who was responsible for calling the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and, by securing the participation of General Washington, insuring it had the clout to get the job done.
Although initially opposed to adding a Bill of Rights to the nation’s charter, Madison was the primary architect of the first ten amendments. In addition to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, trial by jury, guarantee of due process, protection against self-incrimination, freedom of the press and the other fundamental liberties we take for granted, Madison proposed other safeguards never adopted---exemption of conscientious objectors from military service, for example.
Of all the founders, Madison was most strict about separating church and state. He broke his own rule during the War of 1812, when as President he issued an official prayer offering thanks to the “Great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe.” But later in life he regretted issuing the prayer at all. If he had his way, he would have eliminated military chaplains as well.
Mingling church and state, he had observed in his youth, led to the decline of organized religion. Faith should be voluntary, he realized—not a civic requirement. He and his best friend Thomas Jefferson engineered the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom that officially dis-established the Church of England in his home state. And if he had the power to write amendments to the federal constitution, Madison would have dis-established churches in other states as well. (As it happened, Massachusetts was the last to eliminate government support for an established church in 1833, just three years before Madison’s death.)
He believed that a religiously diverse America was the best guarantee against spiritual tyranny. With many denominations vigorously competing for converts, none was likely to attain a monopoly of temporal power. In the Federal Papers, he wrote that “the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, in the other case in the multiplicity of sects.”
Thanks to Madison, America today is not only one of the most intensely devout countries in the developed world, but also the most spiritually diverse. It is a precious legacy. Happy Birthday Jemmy! We are grateful for your life’s work.
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