WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. — In 1784, Patrick Henry, then a Virginia legislator, proposed a bill that imposed a moderate annual tax on all citizens of Virginia for the support of the Christian religion. When he read the bill, James Madison saw red. For Madison, Henry's bill spelled the beginning of a new Inquisition.
"Distant as [the bill] may be, in its present form, from the Inquisition," he wrote, "it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance."
Unlike some Americans today who applaud monuments of the Ten Commandments on state property that sanctify the Judeo-Christian tradition, Madison was adamant that Christian religion deserved no privileged status whatsoever; to single out one religion, he wrote, "degrades from the equal rank of Citizens" all those who have a different sense of the divine. "Who does not see," he asked in 1785, "that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christianity, in exclusion of all other Sects?"
Indeed, for Madison, freedom of religion was the foundation of all other rights. When he first proposed a bill of rights to Congress in June 1789, he underscored freedom of conscience: "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, abridged."
There was no murky area concerning the separation of church and state for Madison: he saw only black and white. When he was president in 1811, as his biographer Irving Brant reminds us, a bill came up to grant a certain piece of land to a Baptist church in Mississippi; because of a surveying error, the church had been built on federal land. Wasn't it fair to rectify the error and give the church the land? Madison said no and vetoed the bill. He saw a slippery slope and a dangerous precedent.
Madison even objected to chaplains in Congress who were paid out of the federal taxes. The appointment of congressional chaplains, he wrote, was "a palpable violation of equal rights" because it "shut the door of worship against the members whose creeds and consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority." Chaplains for the Army and Navy fared no better in his mind. And yet, because chaplains in the Army and Navy already existed, he thought the more prudent course was to leave certain small matters alone. Nor did proclamations of thanksgiving meet his test of separation of church and state for, he wrote, "they seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion."
Not all politicians or even presidents have understood Madison's intent - not even his contemporary John Adams. In his inaugural speech in 1797, President Adams addressed his words to all who "call themselves Christians," and, at the close of his speech, declared that it was his "duty" to end by reminding Americans that a "decent respect for Christianity" was the best recommendation for public service.
But, he would later write - perhaps as apologetically: "Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion."
Eighteenth-century rationality is a hard act to follow. But Alabamians - who have wrangled over a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building - as well as the rest of Americans would do well to return to the words of the founders for a cool lesson in the meaning of freedom of conscience and tolerance.
• Susan Dunn is the author of 'Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light,' and coauthor with James MacGregor Burns of the forthcoming 'George Washington.'