That the Annapolis Convention ever met to make smooth the way for the more important one which came together eight months afterward and framed a permanent Constitution for the United States was unquestionably due to the persistence and the political adroitness of Mr. Madison.
But it was not exceptional work. The same diligence and devotion to public duty mark the whole of this period of three years through which he continued a member of the state legislature. As chairman of the judiciary committee he reduced with much labor the old colonial statutes to a body of laws befitting the condition of free citizens in an independent State. From his first to his last session he contended, though without success, for the faith of treaties and the honest payment of debts. The treaty with England provided that there should be "no lawful impediment on either side to the recovery of debts heretofore contracted." The legislature notified Congress that it should disregard this provision, on the plea that in relation to "slaves and other property" it had not been observed by Great Britain. Mr. Madison did not then know that--as he said three years later--"the infractions [of the treaty] on the part of the United States preceded even the violation on the other side in the instance of the negroes." He maintained, nevertheless, that the settlement of the difficulty, if it had any real foundation, belonged to Congress, the party to the treaty, and not to a State which had surrendered the treaty-making power; and that in common honesty one planter was not relieved from his obligation to pay a London merchant for goods and merchandise received before the war, because other planters had not been paid for the negroes and horses they had lost when the British troops invaded Virginia. At each of the three sessions of the legislature, while he was a member, he tried to bring that body to adopt some line of conduct which should not--to use his own words--"extremely dishonor us and embarrass Congress." It was useless; the repudiators were quite deaf to any appeals either to their honor or their patriotism.
On another question both he and his State were more fortunate. Religious freedom had to be once more fought for, and he was quick to come to the defense of a right which had first called forth his youthful enthusiasm. Two measures were brought forward from session to session to secure for the church the support of the state. The first was a bill for the incorporation of religious societies; but when it was pushed to its final passage it provided for the incorporation of Episcopal churches only. For this Mr. Madison consented to vote, though with reluctance, in the hope that the church party would be so far satisfied with this measure as to abstain from pushing another which was still more objectionable.
He was disappointed. Naturally those who had carried their first point were the more, not the less, anxious for further success. Now it was insisted that there should be a universal tax "for the support of teachers of the Christian religion." The tax-payer was to be permitted to name the religious society for the support of which he preferred to contribute. If he declined this voluntary acquiescence in the law, the money would be used in aid of a school; but from the tax itself none were to be exempt on any pretext. Madison was quick to see in such a law the possibility of religious intolerance, of compulsory uniformity enforced by the civil power, and of the suppression of any freedom of conscience or opinion. The act did not define who were and who were not "teachers of the Christian religion," and that necessarily would be left to the courts to decide. A state church would be the inevitable consequence; for it was not to be supposed that any dominant sect would rest till it secured the recognition by law of its own denomination as the sole representative of the Christian religion. To expect anything else was to ignore the teachings of all history.
The burden of opposition and debate fell, at first, almost solely upon Madison. Some of the wisest and best men of the State were slow to see, as he saw, that religious freedom was in danger from such legislation. There was, it was said, a sad falling-off in public morality as indifference to religion increased. There was no cure, it was declared, for prevalent and growing corruption except in the culture of the religious sentiment, and the teachers of religion, therefore, must be upheld and supported. But granting all this, Madison saw that the proposed remedy would be to give, not bread but a stone, and a stone that would be used in return as a weapon. It was impossible to regulate religious belief by act of the Assembly, and therefore it was worse than foolish to try.
It was due to him that the question was postponed from one session to the next. A copy of the bill was sent, meanwhile, into every county of the State for the consideration of the people, and that was aided by a "Memorial and Remonstrance," written by Madison, which was circulated everywhere for signature, in readiness for presentation to the next legislature. The bill, the memorial said, would be "a dangerous abuse of power," and the signers protested against it with unanswerable arguments, taking for a starting-point the assertion of the Bill of Rights, "that religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." It is not at all improbable that many signed this remonstrance, not so much because they believed it to be true as because it was a protest against a tax; that others were more moved by jealousy of the power of the Episcopal Church than they were by anxiety to protect religious liberty outside of their own sects. But whatever the motives, the movement was too formidable to be disregarded. It was made a test question in the election of members for the legislature of 1785-86; at that session the bill for the support of religious teachers was rejected, and in place of it was passed "an act for establishing religious freedom," written by Jefferson seven years before. This provided "that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
In the memorial and remonstrance Madison had said: "If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man. To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered." If the people of Virginia did not clearly comprehend this doctrine in all its length and breadth a hundred years ago, it is not quite easy to say who were then, or who are now, at liberty to throw stones at them. The assertion of the broadest religious freedom was no more new then than it is true that persecution for opinion's sake is now only an ancient evil. It was not till fifty years after Virginia had refused to tax her citizens for the support of religious teachers that Massachusetts repealed the law that had long imposed a similar burden upon her people.
It was in 1786, the last year of Madison's service in the Virginia Assembly before he returned to Congress, that the craze of paper money broke out again through all the States. The measure was carried in most of them, followed in the end by the usual disastrous consequences. Madison's anxiety was great lest his own State should be carried away by this delusion, and he led the opposition against some petitions sent to the Assembly praying for an issue of currency. The vote against it was too large to be due altogether to his influence; but he gave great strength and concentration to the opposition. In Virginia, tobacco certificates supplied in some measure the want of a circulating medium, and it was, therefore, easier there than in some of the other States to resist the clamor for a paper substitute for real money. A tobacco certificate at least represented something worth money. Madison assented to a bill which authorized the use of such certificates. But his "acquiescence," he wrote to Washington, "was extorted by a fear that some greater evil, under the name of relief to the people, would be substituted." He was "far from being sure," he added, that he "did right." But no evils with which he had to reproach himself followed that measure.
These three years of his life were probably among the happiest, if they were not altogether the happiest, in his long public career. There was little disappointment or anxiety, and evidently much genuine satisfaction as he saw how certainly he was gaining a high place in the estimation of his fellow-citizens for his devotion to the best interests of his native State. In the recesses of the legislature he had leisure for studies in which he evidently found great contentment. He traveled a good deal at intervals, especially at the North; learned much of the resources and character of the people outside of Virginia, and became acquainted with the leading men among them. Jefferson urged him to pass a summer with him in Paris; and some foreign diplomatic service was open to him, had he expressed a willingness to accept it. But he preferred to know something more of his own country while he had the leisure; and if his life was to be passed in public service, as now seemed probable to him, he chose, at least for the present, to serve his country at home, where he thought he was more needed, rather than abroad. In his orders for books sent to Jefferson the direction of his studies is evident. He sought largely for those which treated of the science of government; but they were not confined to that subject. Natural history had great charms for him. He was a diligent student of Buffon, and was anxious to find, if possible, the plates of his thirty-one volumes, in colors, that he might adorn the walls of his room with them. He made careful comparisons between the animals of other continents, as described and portrayed by the naturalist, and similar orders in America. All new inventions interested him. "I am so pleased," he writes, "with the new invented lamp that I shall not grudge two guineas for one of them." He had seen "a pocket compass of somewhat larger diameter than a watch, and which may be carried in the same way. It has a spring for stopping the vibration of the needle when not in use. One of these would be very convenient in case of a ramble into the western country." A small telescope, he suggests, might be fitted on as a handle to a cane, which might "be a source of many little gratifications," when "in walks for exercise or amusement objects present themselves which it might be matter of curiosity to inspect, but which it was difficult or impossible to approach." Jefferson writes him of a new invention, a pedometer; and he wants one for his own pocket. Trifles like these show the bent of his mind; and they show a contented mind as well.
While writing of important acts of the legislature of 1785, he is careful to give other information in a letter to Jefferson, which is not uninteresting as written ninety-eight years ago, and written by him.
"I. Rumsey," he says, "by a memorial to the last session, represented that he had invented a mechanism by which a boat might be worked with little labor, at the rate of from twenty-five to forty miles a day, against a stream running at the rate of ten miles an hour, and prayed that the disclosure of his invention might be purchased by the public. The apparent extravagance of his pretensions brought a ridicule upon them, and nothing was done. In the recess of the Assembly he exemplified his machinery to General Washington and a few other gentlemen, who gave a certificate of the reality and importance of the invention, which opened the ears of this Assembly to a second memorial. The act gives a monopoly for ten years, reserving a right to abolish it at any time by paying Â£10,000. The inventor is soliciting similar acts from other States, and will not, I suppose, publish the secret till he either obtains or despairs of them."
This intelligence was evidently not unheeded by Jefferson. In writing, some months after he received it, to a friend on the application of steam-power to grist-mills, then lately introduced in England, he adds: "I hear you are applying the same agent in America to navigate boats, and I have little doubt but that it will be applied generally to machines, so as to supersede the use of water-ponds, and of course to lay open all the streams for navigation." Nor does Madison seem to have been one of those who doubted if anything was to come of Rumsey's invention. All this was less than a hundred years ago, and now there is a steam-ferry between New York and Europe running about twice a day.
In a similar letter, a year later, he is careful, among grave political matters, to remember and report to the same friend that in the sinking of a well in Richmond, on the declivity of a hill, there had been found, "about seventy feet below the surface, several large bones, apparently belonging to a fish not less than the shark; and, what is more singular, several fragments of potter's ware in the style of the Indians. Before he [the digger] reached these curiosities he passed through about fifty feet of soft blue clay." Mr. Madison had only just heard of this discovery, and he had not seen the unearthed fragments. But he evidently accepts the story as true in coming from "unexceptionable witnesses." He adds, as a corroboration, that he is told by a friend from Washington County of the finding there, in the sinking of a salt-well, "of the hip-bone of the incognitum, the socket of which was about eight inches in diameter." Such things were peculiarly interesting to Jefferson, and Madison was too devoted a friend to him to leave them unnoticed. But they were hardly less interesting to himself, though he had not much of Jefferson's habit of scientific investigation. That "the potter's ware in the style of the Indians" should be found so deeply buried only seems to him "singular;" nor, indeed, is there any record, so far as we know, that this particular fact was any more suggestive to Jefferson, though apparently so likely to arouse his inquiring mind to seek for some satisfactory explanation. But his geological notions were too positive to admit even of a doubt as to the age of man. Supposing a Creator, he assumed that "he created the earth at once, nearly in the state in which we see it, fit for the preservation of the beings he placed on it." Theorist as he was himself, he had little patience with the other theorists who were already beginning to discover in the structure of the earth the evidence of successive geological eras. The different strata of rocks and their inclination gave him no trouble. He explained them all by the assumption that "rock grows, and it seems that it grows in layers in every direction, as the branches of trees grow in all directions." That evidences of the existence of man should be found with a superimposed weight of earth seventy feet in thickness would present to him no difficulty. If the fact had specially aroused his attention he would have explained it in some ingenious way as the result of accident.
[Footnote 8: With how much interest Jefferson watched the progress of this controversy he showed in his letters from Paris. In February, 1786, he wrote to Madison: "I thank you for the communication of the remonstrance against the assessment. Mazzei, who is now in Holland, promised me to have it published in the _Leyden Gazette_. It will do us great honor. I wish it may be as much approved by our Assembly as by the wisest part of Europe." Again, in December of the same year, he says: "The Virginia Act for religious freedom has been received with infinite approbation in Europe, and propagated with enthusiasm. I do not mean by the governments, but by the individuals who compose them. It has been translated into French and Italian, has been sent to most of the courts of Europe, and has been the best evidence of the falsehood of those reports which stated us to be in anarchy. It is inserted in the _EncyclopÃ©die_, and is appearing in most of the publications respecting America. In fact, it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind had been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles; and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions!" This latter passage is characteristic, and many who do not like Jefferson will read between the lines the exultation of a man who was not always careful to draw the line between religious liberty and irreligious license.]