Multiplying Divisions - The Federalist and Religious Factions

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” gratifyingly concluded his role with an amendment-less Constitution in September 1787, then headed for New York to work on The Federalist Papers. Yet it was only the next summer when he would voice to his Virginian constituency a promise to propose a bill of rights at the First Congressional Congress. What happened during this nine-month interstice? How concerned was James Madison at this time with the idea of a codicil? Were the seeds of the Bill of Rights germinating in his fertile mind while he was up north in 1788?

In a previous article in Liberty, I wrote that “a bill is far from Madison’s thoughts at this time [September 1787].” We need to consider this statement through a closer observation of Madison’s role in The Federalist Papers. First, we need to explore his knowledge of religion prior to and through 1787. Let’s examine how this previous awareness impacts his political thinking; principally in his views on the novelty of American democracy, during the denouement of the Constitution. How did he view religious liberty in The Federalist Papers? Finally, considering his religious familiarity, why was he coy about it prior to the Bill of Rights?

Religious Influence on Politics

Bearing in mind the religiosity of early America, The Federalist Papers —like the Constitution they are defending—is conspicuously silent on matters of religion. James Madison was not unaware of religious issues or of Christianity in particular. His mother was a devout Anglican, and his father was a vestryman. “The church life of his boyhood had been genuine and worthwhile,” writes biographer Ralph Ketcham, “yet he had observed firsthand the narrow-minded bigotry and cruelty of religious persecution.”1 It appears that when he was old enough to go away for studies in 1769 he chose the school carefully along religious lines. Gary Wills adds that Madison chose Princeton to avoid the incompetent Anglicans who ran the College of William and Mary.2Although loyal to Virginia, he had to admit that religious freedom was lacking in his “country.” Princeton was where this precocious Virginian would study under the newly arrived Scottish savant John Witherspoon. Under the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, Witherspoon produced an atmosphere of intellectual pursuit as well as religious freedom by grounding the school’s education upon the “free and equal liberty and advantage of education for any person of any religious denomination whatever.”3

Princeton soon became the “West Point for dissenting Presbyterianism.”4 Its liberalism influenced not only the students but the communities that the graduates moved back to. A British officer complained that Princeton’s president “poisons the minds of his young students and through them the Continent.”5 His influence would eventually permeate America’s conception and adolescence.6

Madison’s curiosity compelled him to complete his three-year course of study in two whirlwind years. After Princeton—back in Virginia—he kept close touch with Northern classmates. In his letters to William Bradford of Pennsylvania one gets the impression that the years after his graduation in 1771 were a period of searching. His choice of vocation and place in the colonies was unclear. The letters reveal a young man sensitive to religion and perhaps even headed toward a clerical career.

However, any ideas he had entertained about entering the ministry evaporated as the colonies became caught up in a state of rebellion. The cool and rational Madison may have considered the Boston Tea Party (1773) one of indiscretion, but he couldn’t thwart the attractions of democracy and civil liberties that the incident called for. It was to the Philadelphian Bradford that he requested a copy of their colonial charter—”a draft of its original and fundamental principles of legislation, particularly the extent of your religious toleration.”7 The farther from Princeton he traveled and the deeper the colonies were ensconced in revolution, the more terse he became on purely religious issues. In the immediacy of the situation, theological musings were tacitly implied, even as they were overshadowed by political views. In the future Madison’s taciturnity would save him from being subjected, “as his friend Jefferson repeatedly was, to attacks upon him as an infidel who was a menace to the religious or moral foundation of the nation.”8

The next decade and a half found Madison cultivating his place in history. He toiled away at political pursuits without wholly neglecting or being oblivious to religious concerns. He assisted in the composition of the Virginia’s Declaration of Rights (1776). His “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments(1785) quieted Patrick Henry’s attempt to support Anglicanism with state money. But what were his thoughts in 1787? Some may suggest that the framers were trying—as the French would—to erase our Christian past and create a godless Constitution. Two authors have asserted that “God and Christianity are nowhere to be found in the American Constitution.”9 Although this is a polemic statement, it is true that the document was secular. “The new American constitution,” notes William Lee Miller, “certainly was not soaked all the way through by explicit Christian religious references the way the constitutions of ‘Islamic Republics’ are soaked in the claims of Islam.”10

It was not only secular but also a rationalistic document. “America would have a secular state,” writes Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, “where in all persons would be free to pursue their religious preferences in open competition.”11 Madison, who attended every session of the convention, did not object to the direction the nation was taking. Instead of a Christian nation based upon traditions of established religion or the idealism of the Great Awakening, the framers sought to found the United States upon reason and natural rights. Although the leaders of the Great Awakening promulgated the belief that only religion could make a moral citizen, Madison, on the basis of history, disagreed. In “Memorial”he showed that legislated religion over 15 centuries has largely produced “pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”12 Yet neither a purely religious nor a secular position can account for the shape our nation took in those embryonic years. Rather, the Great Awakening and Enlightenment had combined to bring liberty to the new nation, the former believing every person was accountable to God for their beliefs of conscience, while the latter basing freedom upon reason and “natural rights.” Individual citizens were given religious freedom, and the churches received “the right to worship freely and to use all legal means of persuasion to maintain themselves and woo new members.”13

From Philadelphia the document went to New York, where Congress would decide whether it would go to the individual states for ratification. Although Virginia would need Madison to hasten ratification, after the convention he felt himself drawn to New York. Here he would begin collaborating with Alexander Hamilton under the pseudonym Publiusto write a number of essays to the locals arguing for ratification. There were 85 numbers in The Federalist Papers between Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay. Madison would cram into these papers all of his research and findings of which he had shared and learned while behind the closed doors in Philadelphia.

The issues in The Federalist Papers are social yet have profound influence upon the interpretation of religion’s place in society. So far it is clear that Madison was aware of the religious issues. So why was he reserved on the topic in the years 1787-1789? We need to look at two of his papers that have had the most profound influence upon the development of religious freedom. These, in particular, have been discussed at length by countless historians and political scientist, yet few have connected their insights to religious liberty.14

Political Influences

Hamilton, the chief contributor, chided his reader on comparing the American experiment with ancient democratic attempts. He asserted three novelties: checks and balances, representation, and the principle “which has made the foundation of an objection to the new Constitution, I mean the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT within such systems are to revolve.”15

“Though first announced by Hamilton,” writes Paul A. Rahe on the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT principle, it was principally “the work of his colleague James, Madison [in No. 10].”16 Here Madison argues against the popular political philosophy of the day: a direct democracy in a small locality.

“Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that the majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”17

How does a 36-year-old come to contest so emphatically a principle championed by the great philosophers of antiquity as well as the Enlightenment, such as Montesquieu? Madison’s acute brilliance was cultivated behind the desk more than from experience. In January, 1786 two trunks of books had made their way to him from Jefferson in Paris.18 By the spring of 1787 he had thoroughly researched from those volumes the poor performance of confederations or leagues throughout history.19 Thus, he would have a plethora of data regarding democracies and republics that would make him a cut above the other delegates in Philadelphia. His knowledge, preparation, and organizational skills would make him a formidable force in the construction (1787) and explanation (1788) of the Constitution.

In Federalist No. 10 he warns that the source for social conflict exists in the unequal distribution of property. Yet the theory of enlarging the orbit is not so much extending the geography, but rather expanding the factions within the republic. He proposed dispersing “these conflicting interests over a large geographic area, preventing any single one from dominating.”20 He was horrified by societal monopolies and so, ironically, advocated a splintering that created unity and reduced despotic impulses. Although he purports to reveal a defense against tyranny, he does not do us the service of defining this invidious power here. He defines it later as the “severe deprivation of natural rights.” The next question to be posed is that if the enlargement of the orbit is a protection against the privation of natural rights (tyranny), what are those rights? If only he would have answered this, it would have benefited our search by knowing how he regarded a bill of rights at this time. However, this is a question that is left unanswered, since he was taking up his pen in defense of a federal Constitution, not a Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, he is leading us, and himself, to a precipice that can be bridged only by a specific bill that protects “natural rights.”

If a dominating force leads to tyranny and this in turn is the privation of rights, then extending the sphere will best protect against tyranny through the vehicle of (Madison does not go this far yet) a bill of rights. Although property rights are spoken of in No. 10, we might also read that the defense of natural rights “is the first object of government.”

Enlarging the orbit has profound implications for religious freedom. It is in the same vein as societal monopoly. He was not against religion; he sought to protect it. A free approach to religion—as in the realm of property—was for him the only way to secure liberty and unity. Madison often quoted Voltaire’s claim that “if one religion only were allowed in England, the government would possibly be arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but, as there are a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”21

This free-market strategy is further explored the novelty of representation. The masses are expected to elect virtuous representatives. Hamilton and Madison are in agreement on this novelty of representation in the Constitution. They believed “that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. . . . To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men.”22

After New York, Madison rushed to Virginia only to hear Patrick Henry questioning the reasonableness of depending for such a long time on a representative in the Capitol with little contact between him and his constituency. The inimitable orator thought it ludicrous to confide such power on representatives. In opposition, Madison argued for trusting not only the representatives but also the source of their power: the people who elect them. Henry, as commanding as he was, could not stand the force of persuasion coming from the intellect that had spent the past two years studying little else but the democratic experiment.

The picture becomes clearer, and yet and yet equivocal as well, when one juxtaposes enlarging the orbit with the remaining novelty of checks-and-balances. Garry Wills does this fascinatingly in Explaining America. “Madison splintered society in No. 10 to prevent majority faction. Then, having done so, he went further in No. 51 and splintered government.”23 Isn’t this a serious contradiction on his part? In No. 10 he was contemptuous of the masses, but now in No. 51 he is a Jeffersonian optimist toward the people as electors. Was Madison’s view a little schizophrenic? No, but it was multifaceted.

The enlargement of the orbit principle, based as it is on individual autonomy, encourages society to be divided into factions. This freedom of conscience is further encouraged by the liberty to vote for representatives. However, before this liberty and freedom turns into anarchy, the representatives are checked. No. 10 sees society being saved from disruption caused by societal (or religious) monopoly through multiplying factions. We can call this Madison’s Plan A. However, if this plan fails then he has Plan B in No. 51: checks and balances.

Robert Dahl, usually a critic of Madison, summarizes Madison’s position this way: “Why is the separation of powers necessary to prevent tyranny? Because it provides an external check on the tyrannical impulse of officials. Why does it provide an external check? Because it guarantees that the ambitions of individuals in one department will counteract those in another.”24

This is satisfactory as long as the other branches serve as the cooling agents that the framers intended them to be.25 However, if the legislative branch is based upon public opinion, why should you check the democratic will of the people? Isn’t that the negation of democracy? Human nature is necessary to answer this objection. Political theory and an understanding of human nature go hand in hand as government is summarily a reflection of a society’s view of human nature. Ralph Ketcham, commenting on Madison’s view of human nature, writes that “he took seriously Presbyterian skepticism about the goodness and rationality of human beings.”26 After all, it is Madison who said, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. . . . If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” He then sums up the difficulty of a modern democratic government: “You must first enable the government to control the government; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”27 The preservation of liberty requires the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

The bookish Virginian’s theories were based upon a cynical view of human nature but also colored with optimism. He wrote that just “as there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”28 He could look upon human nature with both Hobbes’s pessimism and Lockean optimism . Madison the pessimist calls for checks; Madison the optimist calls for representation. Without the novelties expressed in The Federalist Papers the American experiment might have plummeted into revolutionary anarchy.

Think of how all of this might have mattered in the immediacy of creating a government and the insurgent pressures of revolution! It is imperative that we view Madison’s role in the development of religious liberty as an impassioned politician seeking a solution, rather than an evangelist implementing utopian ideals. This is why, when we come to The Federalist Papers of 1788, we find arguments explicitly indispensable to political liberty but implicitly explosive for religious freedom.

Yet after all of this talk in The Federalist Papers, Madison was still not vocally espousing a bill of rights. After all, a question this article seeks to explore is whether he had been silently contemplating a bill or rights during 1788. In response to Virginians’ cries for such a bill, he would point out that “parchment barriers” such as the 1776 religious liberty clauses had not been as effective promoting religious freedom as would a tolerance in government toward a multiplicity of sects.

In addition, he was silent because he lacked the foresight for how a bill of rights could be effectively introduced without destroying the Philadelphia creation. Madison teaches us today that leadership is not about merely bowing to pressure groups, nor hastily composing frameworks for the future without the foresight for how all parties involved will be affected.

How does the contemporary moral leader deal with the factions of today: school prayer, abortion, gay marriage, etc.?The Federalist Papers shows us how to give personal freedom yet reserve the prerogatives of governmental procedure. It is true he supported splintering society through a multiplicity of sects; but he saw this division happening under an orderly supervision (i.e., checks and balances). Although reserved in 1788, he was undoubtedly ruminating on the procedure for how the Bill of Rights would corroborate with the original document: the Constitution of the United States of America. Until the recipe was clear in his mind, he ambulated in cool opposition: but once he found the ingredients to implement, he was relentless in championing the Bill of Rights.



1Ralph Ketcham, “James Madison and Religion: A New Hypothesis,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 38, no. 2 (June 1960): 67.

2Garry Wills, James Madison (New York: Times Books, 2002), p. 15.

3Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 30.

4William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: America’s Foundation in Religious Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003), p. 71.

5Varnum Lansing Collins, President Witherspoon (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 133.

6“His pupils include a president of the United States and vice-president, twenty-one United States senators and twenty-nine members of the House, twelve state governors, fifty-six state legislators, and thirty-three judges” (Garry Wills, Explaining America: The Federalist [Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1981], p. 18).

7William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal, eds., The Papers of James Madison (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-1985), vol. 1, p. 101.

8Miller, p. 73.

9Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 27.

10Miller, p. 95.

11Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 263.

12James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.”in Hutchinson and Rachal vol. 8, pp. 298-304.

13Lambert, p. 252.

14Joseph LeConte makes some explicit connections between these two papers and religious liberty. “Faith and the Founding: The Influence of Religion on the Politics of James Madison,” Journal of Church and State 45, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 706.

15Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (New York: Bantam, 1982), p. 38.

16Paul A. Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, Inventions of Prudence: Constituting the American Regime (Chapel Hill, N.C.:University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 40.

17Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, p. 48.

18Miller, p. 89. Adrienne Koch states that during Jefferson’s five years in Paris he procured for Madison “hundreds of volumes.” In Jefferson & Madison: The Great Collaboration (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 18, 19.

19Hutchinson and Rachal, vol. 9, pp. 3-24, 345-357. This survey is now known as “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies,” with the resulting document specifically for the American states being “Vices of the Political System of the United States.”

20LeConte, p. 706.

21Voltaire, Letters Concerning the English Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 44, 45.

22John P. Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976-1986), vol. 10, p. 417.

23Wills, Explaining America, p. xvii.

24Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 20.

25It is said that when Jefferson arrived back in America from Paris, he questioned Washington about his agreeing to a bicameral legislature. “Why did you pour your tea into that saucer?” Washington asked. “To cool it,” Jefferson answered. “Just so,” Washington quipped, “we pour House legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it” (Alvin M. Josephy, The American Heritage History of the Congress of the United States [New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1975], p. 46.

26Ketcham, “James Madison and Religion,” p. 81.

27Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, p. 262.

28Ibid., p. 284.

Article Author: Nicholas Cross