Religion & The Constitution: The Official Record
Part 2 of 3
Moving right along to the Bill of Rights debates of the 1st Congress 1st Session as archived at the Library of Congress.
August 15, they begin to debate the fourth proposition, “no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”
Mr. Sylvester had some doubts of the propriety of the mode of expression used in this paragraph. He apprehended that it was liable to a construction different from what had been made by committee. He feared it might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.
Mr. Vining suggested the propriety of transposing the two members of the sentence.
Mr. Gerry said it would read better if it was, that no religious doctrine shall be established by law.
Mr. Sherman thought the amendment altogether unnecessary, inasmuch as Congress had no authority whatever delegated by them by the Constitution to make religious establishments; he would, therefore, move to have it struck out.
Mr. Carroll.- as the rights of conscience are, in their nature, of peculiar delicacy, and will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand; and as many sects have concurred in opinion that they are not well secured under the present constitution, he said he was much in favor of adopting the words. He thought it would tend more towards conciliating the minds of the people to the Government than almost any other amendment he had heard proposed. He would not contend with the gentlemen about the phraseology, his object was to secure the substance in such a manner as to satisfy the wishes of the honest part of the community.
Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience. Whether the words are necessary or not, he did not mean to say, but they had been required by some State Conventions, who seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause of the constitution, which gave power to Congress to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the constitution, and the laws made under it, enabled them to make laws of such a nature as might infringe in the rights of conscience, and establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended, and he thought it as well expressed as the nature of the language would admit.
Mr. Huntington said that he feared, with the gentlemen first up on this subject, that the words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion. He understood the amendment to mean what had been expressed by the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Madison); but others might find it convenient to put another construction upon it. The ministers of their congregations to the Eastward were maintained by the contributions of those who belonged to their society; the expense of building meeting-houses was contributed in the same manner. These things were regulated by by-laws. If an action was brought before a Federal Court on any of these cases, the person who had neglected to perform his engagements could not be compelled to do it; for a support of ministers, or a building of places of worship might be construed into religious establishment. By the charter of Rhode Island, no religion could be established by law; he could give a history of the effects of such a regulation; indeed the people were now enjoying the blessed fruits of it. He hoped, therefore, the amendment would be made in such a way as to secure the rights of conscience, and a free exercise of the rights of religion, but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all.
(I would like to interject some additional information for context and a dash of personal opinion. When Mr. Huntington says, “By the charter of Rhode Island, no religion could be established by law; he could give a history of the effects of such a regulation; indeed the people were now enjoying the blessed fruits of it” this statement is actually a sarcastic dig at no religious establishment. At the time, Rhode Island was often referred to as ‘Rogues Island’ because the state was used as a haven by smugglers and other nefarious characters; also, the merchants of Rhode Island were major players in the slave trade. I did find it humorous that Mr. Huntington goes on to say that he wished to secure those rights, “but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all” after having just patronized the hell out of them; seemed familiar.)
Mr. Madison thought if the word national was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of the honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.
Mr. Gerry did not like the term national, proposed by the gentleman from Virginia, and he hoped it would not be adopted by the House. It brought to his mind some observations that had taken place in the conventions at the time they were considering the present Constitution. It had been insisted upon by those who were called antifederalists, that this form of Government consolidated the Union; the honorable gentleman’s motion shows that he considers it in the same light. Those who were called antifederalists at that time complained that they had injustice done them by the title, because they were in favor of a Federal Government, and the others were in favor of a national one; the federalists were for ratifying the constitution as it stood, and the others not until amendments were made. Their names then ought not to have been distinguished by federalists and antifederalists, but rats and antirats.
Mr. Madison withdrew his motion, but observed that the words, “no national religion shall be established by law,” did not imply that the government was a national one.
The question was then taken on Mr. Livermore’s motion, and passed in the affirmative 31-20.
August 17, the committee then proceeded to the fifth proposition: “no State shall infringe the equal rights of conscience, nor the freedom of speech or of the press, nor of the right of trial by jury in criminal cases.”
Mr. Tucker. – This is offered, I presume, as an amendment to the constitution of the United States, but it goes only to the alteration of the constitutions of particular States. It will be much better, I apprehend, to leave the State Governments to themselves, and not to interfere with them more than we already do; and that is thought by many to be rather too much. I therefore move, sir, to strike out these words.
Mr. Madison conceived this to be the most valuable amendment in the whole list. If there was any reason to restrain the Government of the United States from infringing upon these essential rights, it was equally necessary that they should be secured against the State Governments. He thought that if they provided against the one, it was as necessary to provide against the other, and was satisfied that it would be equally grateful to the people.
Mr. Livermore had no great objection to the sentiment, but he thought it not well expressed. He wished to make it an affirmative proposition; “the equal rights of conscience, the freedom of speech or of the press and the right of trial by jury in criminal cases, shall not be infringed by any State.”
This transposition being agreed to, and Mr. Tucker’s motion being rejected, the clause was adopted.
August 20, on motion of Mr. Ames, the fourth amendment was altered to read, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience,” this being adopted.
August 24, Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, (two-thirds of both Houses deeming it necessary,) That the following articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States as amendments to the constitution of the United States, all or any of which articles, when ratified by three-fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the said constitution.
Ordered, That the clerk of this House do carry to the Senate a fair engrossed copy of the said proposed articles of amendment, and desire their concurrence.
It’s interesting to note that on the 22nd (bottom of first column), Mr. Tucker, for the second time (the first was on August 17), proposed an amendment to the ‘no religious test’ clause by inserting the word ‘other’ between the words ‘no’ and ‘religious’
It passed in the negative (i.e. it failed… twice.)
Next up Part 3: The Bill of Rights in the Senate
Steve is an American veteran who views those that support the usurpation of our secular nation in order to pervert it into their preferred theocracy as “domestic enemies” that must be vanquished, nonviolently, through the use of history, facts, and reason.