Convention to Amend Articles of Confederation; Constitution Drafted; John Leland’s Influence on James Madison; Constitution Ratified by the States

A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry

Jerald Finney
Copyright © March 5, 2018

A convention was called in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.

  • “In a little more than a year after the passage of the Virginia Act for Religious Liberty the convention met which prepared the Constitution of the United States. Of this convention Mr. Jefferson was not a member, he being then absent as minister to France…. Five of the states, while adopting the Constitution, proposed amendments. Three—New Hampshire, New York, and Virginia—included in one form or another a declaration of religious freedom in the changes they desired to have made, as did also North Carolina, where the convention at first declined to ratify the Constitution until the proposed amendments were acted upon. Accordingly, at the first session of the first Congress the amendment now under consideration [the First Amendment] was proposed with others by Mr. Madison. It met the views of the advocates of religious freedom, and was adopted.”[1]

After the drafting of the Constitution, it was submitted to the states for ratification. “[I]t was doubtful whether it would pass. Massachusetts and Virginia were the pivotal states.”[2] The Baptists of Virginia were against ratification because the Constitution did not have sufficient provision for religious liberty. Patrick Henry had declined to serve at the Convention and was against it. He posed as the champion of the Baptists in opposition to the Constitution. Of course, Madison was for ratification. However, the Baptists chose John Leland, the most popular preacher in Virginia, as candidate of Orange County to the state ratification convention opposed to ratification, and his opponent was to be James Madison. Mr. Leland likely would have been elected had he not later withdrawn. Mr. Madison, when he returned from Philadelphia, stopped by Mr. Leland’s house and spent half a day communicating to him about “the great matters which were then agitating the people of the state and the Confederacy” and relieving Baptist apprehensions as to the question of religious liberty. Because of this meeting, Mr. Leland withdrew in favor of Mr. Madison and the Baptists of Orange County were won over to the side of Madison.[3] “If Madison had not been in the Virginia Convention, that Constitution would not have been ratified by the State, and as the approval of nine states was required to give effect to this instrument, and as Virginia was the ninth, if it had been rejected by her, the Constitution would have failed…. [A]nd that it was by Elder Leland’s influence that Madison was elected to the Convention.”[4]

The Constitution was ratified and election of the officers of government was the next order of business. Patrick Henry, using his influence in the Legislature, prevented Madison from being elected as Senator. In addition, the Legislature drew the lines for Representative district to prevent Madison from being elected as Representative. However, he was able to “relieve Baptist apprehensions as to any change in his principles, and assure them of his readiness to aid in securing a proper amendment to the Constitution on the subject of religious liberty.” He was elected.

[1] Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. at 164.

[2] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, Volume I, (Texarkana, Ark.-Tex.: Bogard Press, 1922), p. 391.

[3] Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (Harrisonburg, VA.: Sprinkle Publications, 2007; First Published Lynchburg, VA.: J. P. Bell Company, 1900), pp. 150-158; William P. Grady, What Hath God Wrought: A Biblical Interpretation of American History (Knoxville, Tennessee: Grady Publications, Inc., 1999), pp. 166-167.

[4] Christian, Volume I, pp. 391-392. Statement of J.S. Barbour, of Virginia, in 1857, in an eulogy of James Madison.

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