Madison vetoed An act incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church
in the town of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia.
Madison’s reasons for this veto, which are found later in this chap-
ter, were accepted by the majority of the House. Many of the repre-
sentatives of 1811 had just never given much thought to the First
Amendment’s establishment clause before this, and hadn’t realized
that the bill violated it. One even made a comment often heard today
– that he had always thought the amendment meant only that a
national religion couldn’t be established. The majority of the House,
after reading Madison’s veto message, decided that he understood the
First Amendment better than they did, and wanted to drop the bill.
Some, however, wanted to take another vote and try to override the
veto. This minority included Laban Wheaton, a representative from
Massachusetts, who presented an argument as melodramatic as any
heard from today’s religious right, warning that the failure of this bill
would lead to religion being banned altogether in the entire District of
Columbia. One thing Wheaton used to justify the bill, of course, was
the appointment of tax-supported chaplains by the first Congress.
Mr. W. said he did not consider the bill any infringement of the
Constitution. If it was, both branches of the Legislature, since
the commencement of the government, had been guilty of
such infringement. It could not be said, indeed, that they had
been guilty of doing much about religion; but they had at every
session appointed Chaplains, to be of different denominations,
to interchange weekly between the Houses. Now, if a bill for
regulating the funds of a religious society could be an infringe-
ment of the Constitution, the two Houses had so far infringed
it by electing, paying or contracting with their Chaplains. For
so far it established two different denominations of religion.
Mr. W. deemed this question of very great consequence. Were
the people of this District never to have any religion? Was it to
be entirely excluded from these ten miles square?
Laban Wheaton was apparently unable to convince the majority of
the House that religion was in danger, or that the existence of chap-
LIARS FOR JESUS
14. The Debates and Proceedings of the Congress of the United States of America, vol. 22,
11th Cong., 3rd Sess., (Washington D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1853), 984.
lains justified further violations of the First Amendment. When anoth-
er vote was taken on the bill, it failed 74-29.
Remarkably, what Madison called a “step beyond the landmarks
of power” that should not have “the effect of a legitimate precedent”
has appeared in the opinions of a number of Supreme Court justices,
one even invoking Madison’s name and implying that he voted in
favor of paying chaplains.
According to Justice Reed, in his dissenting opinion,
McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948: “The prac-
tices of the federal government offer many examples
of this kind of ‘aid’ by the state to religion. The
Congress of the United States has a chaplain for each
House who daily invokes divine blessings and guid-
ance for the proceedings. The armed forces have com-
missioned chaplains from early days.”
According to Justice Burger, delivering the opinion of
the court, Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984: “In the very week
that Congress approved the Establishment Clause as
part of the Bill of Rights for submission to the states,
it enacted legislation providing for paid Chaplains for
the House and Senate.” and “It is clear that neither the
17 draftsmen of the Constitution who were Members
of the First Congress, nor the Congress of 1789, saw
any establishment problem in the employment of con-
gressional Chaplains to offer daily prayers in the
Congress, a practice that has continued for nearly two
centuries. It would be difficult to identify a more
striking example of the accommodation of religious
belief intended by the Framers.”
Justice Burger, in his dissenting opinion, Wallace v.
Jaffree, 1985: “Some who trouble to read the opin-
ions in these cases will find it ironic - perhaps even
bizarre - that on the very day we heard arguments in
JAMES MADISON’S DETACHED MEMORANDA
15. The Debates and Proceedings of the Congress of the United States of America, vol. 22,
11th Cong., 3rd Sess., (Washington D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1853), 997.
the cases, the Court’s session opened with an invoca-
tion for Divine protection. Across the park a few hun-
dred yards away, the House of Representatives and
the Senate regularly open each session with a prayer.
These legislative prayers are not just one minute in
duration, but are extended, thoughtful invocations
and prayers for Divine guidance. They are given, as
they have been since 1789, by clergy appointed as
official chaplains and paid from the Treasury of the
Justice Burger, in his footnote to a misleading description of
the 1789 committee in Marsh v. Chambers, 1983, not only implied
that Madison’s appointment to that committee somehow indicated
his approval of chaplains, but that he approved of paying them with
public money by voting for the bill authorizing their payment. In order
to give this impression, Burger made it sound as if Madison voted for
an individual bill whose sole purpose was authorizing the payment of
chaplains. There was no such bill. Chaplains were just among the
many employees listed in An Act for allowing compensation to the
members of the Senate and House of Representatives of the United
States, and to the officers of both Houses,
which, of course, Madison
did vote for.
According to Justice Burger’s footnote: “It bears note
that James Madison, one of the principal advocates of
religious freedom in the Colonies and a drafter of the
Establishment Clause,...was one of those appointed to
undertake this task by the House of Representa-
tives...and voted for the bill authorizing payment of
Justice Scalia, in his dissenting opinion, Lee v. Weis-
man, 1992, referred to Marsh v. Chambers: “As we
detailed in Marsh, congressional sessions have opened
with a chaplain’s prayer ever since the First Congress.”
LIARS FOR JESUS
16. Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, vol. 1,
(Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1845), 71.
The last of the many subjects addressed by Madison in Monopolies,
Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments, and one of the
two mentioned by the religious right American history authors, was
proclamations of national days of prayer.
Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending
thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the
legislative acts reviewed.
Altho’ recommendations only, they imply a religious agency,
making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.
The objections to them are: 1. that Govts ought not to inter-
pose in relation to those subject to their authority but in
cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a
contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such
can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory
trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities.
They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation,
Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions
addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In
their individual capacities, as distinct from their official sta-
tion, they might unite in recommendations of any sort what-
ever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do.
But then their recommendations ought to express the true
character from which they emanate. 3. They seem to imply
and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national reli-
gion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a
theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many
nations which have embraced Xnity, is too apt to lurk in the
bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the
distinction between religious & political societies. The idea
also of a union of all to form one nation under one Govt in
acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But
reason and the principles of the Xn religion require that all
the individuals composing a nation even of the same pre-
cise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at
the same time, the union ought to be effected thro’ the inter-
JAMES MADISON’S DETACHED MEMORANDA
vention of their religious not of their political representatives.
In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated
widely from others, and where no agreement could take
place thro’ the former, the interposition of the latter is dou-
bly wrong: 4. The tendency of the practice, to narrow the
recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect.
The 1st proclamation of Genl Washington dated Jany 1.
1795 (see if this was the 1st)17 recommending a day of
thanksgiving, embraced all who believed in a supreme ruler
of the Universe. That of Mr. Adams called for a Xn worship.
Many private letters reproached the Proclamations issued
by J. M. for using general terms, used in that of Presidt W–n;
and some of them for not inserting particulars according
with the faith of certain Xn sects. The practice if not strictly
guarded naturally terminates in a conformity to the creed
of the majority and a single sect, if amounting to a majority.
5. The last & not the least objection is the liability of the
practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal
of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities.
Candid or incautious politicians will not always disown such
views. In truth it is difficult to frame such a religious
Proclamation generally suggested by a political State of
things, without referring to them in terms having some bear-
ing on party questions. The Proclamation of Pres: W. which
was issued just after the suppression of the Insurrection in
Penna and at a time when the public mind was divided on
several topics, was so construed by many. Of this the
Secretary of State himself, E. Randolph seems to have had
The original draught of that Instrument filed in the Dept. of
State (see copies of these papers on the files of J. M.)
LIARS FOR JESUS
17. Madison never did check to see if this was the first before having this copied for publica-
tion. It was actually the second. Washington, at the request of Congress, issued a proclamation
for a day of thanksgiving in October 1789. Apparently, Madison, who was a member of Congress
at the time, forgot about this. Madison’s note, which appears in Fleet’s 1946 transcription, does
not appear in the 1914 Harper’s Magazine publication of the essay. The January 1, 1795 is what
appeared in 1914.
18. This note is also omitted in the 1914 publication.
the hand writing of Mr Hamilton the Secretary of the
Treasury. It appears that several slight alterations only had
been made at the suggestion of the Secretary of State; and
in a marginal note in his hand, it is remarked that “In short
this proclamation ought to savour as much as possible of
religion, & not too much of having a political object.” In a
subjoined note in the hand of Mr. Hamilton, this remark is
answered by the counter-remark that “A proclamation of a
Government which is a national act, naturally embraces
objects which are political” so naturally, is the idea of poli-
cy associated with religion, whatever be the mode or the
occasion, when a function of the latter is assumed by those
During the administration of Mr Jefferson no religious procla-
mation was issued. It being understood that his successor
was disinclined to such interpositions of the Executive and
by some supposed moreover that they might originate with
more propriety with the Legislative Body, a resolution was
passed requesting him to issue a proclamation.
It was thought not proper to refuse a compliance altogether;
but a form & language were employed, which were meant to
deaden as much as possible any claim of political right to
enjoin religious observances by resting these expressly on
the voluntary compliance of individuals, and even by limiting
the recommendation to such as wished simultaneous as
well as voluntary performance of a religious act on the occa-
Religious right American history authors are quick to point out the
fact that Madison, although denouncing the practice in the Detached
Memoranda, did make a few prayer day proclamations while he was
president. They completely ignore, however, that he indicated in the
Detached Memoranda and elsewhere that, although reluctantly com-
plying with the requests from Congress, he never liked this practice.
JAMES MADISON’S DETACHED MEMORANDA
19. Elizabeth Fleet, “Madison’s ‘Detached Memoranda,’” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series,
Vol. 3, No. 4, October 1946, 560-562.
According to David Barton, in his book Original
Intent: “...throughout his Presidency (1809-1816),
Madison endorsed public and official religious expres-
sions by issuing several proclamations for national days
of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving.”
Madison’s compliance with Congress’s requests can hardly be con-
sidered an endorsement of official religious expression. He obviously
wished this practice had never been started, but thought it “not proper
to refuse a compliance altogether” when Congress asked him to do it
during the War of 1812. Madison did not regularly make these procla-
mations “throughout his presidency,” as Barton claims. He issued none
during the three years before the war, and none during the two years
following it. Those that he did issue were so general and unauthorita-
tive, or, as Madison put it, “mere designations of a day,” that they
were objected to many religious leaders. In his 1813 proclamation, he
even included the following statement about the separation between
church and state.
If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy the
favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to
whom it is addressed, it must be that in which those who
join in it are guided only by their free choice, by the impulse
of their hearts and the dictates of their consciences; and
such a spectacle must be interesting to all Christian
nations as proving that religion, that gift of Heaven for the
good of man, freed from all coercive edicts, from that
unhallowed connection with the powers of this world which
corrupts religion into an instrument or an usurper of the
policy of the state, and making no appeal but to reason, to
the heart, and to the conscience, can spread its benign
influence everywhere and can attract to the divine altar
those freewill offerings of humble supplication, thanksgiv-
ing, and praise which alone can be acceptable to Him
whom no hypocrisy can deceive and no forced sacrifices
LIARS FOR JESUS
20. Proclamation of July 23, 1813, The Debates and Proceedings of the Congress of the United
States of America, vol. 27, 13th Cong., Appendix, (Washington D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1854), 2674.
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