Today, January 16, is the anniversary of Virginia’s enacting the Statute for Religious Freedom, in 1786. It deserves an international celebration.
After working with George Mason and the kid, James Madison, to craft Viriginia’s Bill of Rights in 1776, Thomas Jefferson was dispatched as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Being assigned to Philadelphia was a bother to Jefferson — the real action, he thought, was in Virginia, where a new form of government was being crafted, where Virginians were working to determine what was the best government to assure the most freedom for free peoples. Jefferson was called on to draft what became the Declaration of Independence, a task and accomplishment he later grew to appreciate. Still, he wanted to go back to Virginia, and soon.
When Jefferson got back to Virginia, he spent much of his time doing exactly what he thought was the good stuff: Crafting a good government for a good nation, Virginia. Among other things he served as governor, and he wrote about 150 model laws for the good government he so earnestly hoped to see. In 1779, he wrote a law to cement the religious freedom James Madison had persuaded Mason and Jefferson to include in the Virginia Bill of Rights. But the law languished in a busy legislature still working to win the right to make that government work, in a war with Britain. Jefferson wrote about his successes and failures, as a record for others (see Notes on the State of Virginia).
By 1785, Jefferson had been called to the post-war ambassadorship of the confederation of thirteen colonies to France. When Patrick Henry rose in the legislature in Williamsburg to proposed that Virginia rethink its disestablishment of religion, to at last consider paying clergy for teaching kids, Jefferson sat unaware on the other side of the Atlantic. James Madison saw the full import of Henry’s proposal, though. While noting that a country like Virginia should desire education for its youth and morality as part of the instruction, such an action as Henry proposed was tantamount to picking a religion — shouldn’t the people have a chance to weigh in on the issue? Madison proposed to put the issue over to the next session of the legislature, in 1786, and the Virginia Assembly approved Madison’s proposal. Read the rest of this entry »