The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Madison's "Who are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties?" (1792)

"Reason, secularism, and republicanism were inseparable elements in Madison's intellectual universe which justified constitutionally limited government for Americans."

(Robert Morgan, James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, p. 150).

Research and writing by Jim Allison and Susan Batte


Madison's intellectual universe called for a strict separation of church and state for the purpose of securing the natural right of Americans to their full enjoyment of their own beliefs and because he was distrustful of appeals to "irrational sources of authority in the American Republic" This distrust occupied Madison's thoughts while he prepared notes on religion in November 1791 as demonstrated when he wrote: "For the cave of Jupiter in Crete where Minos, Epimenides and Pythagoras pretended to have recd. A divine sanction to their laws and see Anacharsis."

Morgan writes that Madison had the cave of Jupiter in mind when he wrote his famous article in the National Gazett in 1792, Who Are The Best Keepers of The People's Liberties? "With this ironical allusion to the Platonic cave filled with the mysterious shadows of a divine order, Madison rejected a religious sanction for the authority of government in the American republic."

Morgan further comments on the Article as follows:

Composing it [the article] in the form of a dramatic dialogue, Madison ascribed to an imaginary "anti-republican" the belief that the people are "stupid, suspicious, licentious." They cannot trust themselves and, therefore, must resign themselves to "obedience," once they have established government. They should leave their liberties to the care of their "wise rulers." To this call for elite rule a "republican" replies that the general lot of people throughout history has been that of "slavery" in which they have been kept in ignorance and divided in order to be ruled. The lesson to be drawn from this undoubted truth, however, is that people ought to be "enlightened...awakened...and united" so that they may oversee governments once they are established. To this optimistic prescription the anti-republican answers that not even "the science of the stars' can instruct the common people in the "mysteries of government." To this charge Madison's republican answered: "Mysteries indeed! But mysteries belong to religion, not to government; to the ways of the Almighty, not to the works of man." In religion mysteries are due to the "dimness of the human sight." There need be no mysteries about institutions created by man, however, "unless for those inferior beings endowed with a ray perhaps of the twilight vouchsafed to the first order of terrestrial creation."

With this ironical allusion to the Platonic cave filled with the mysterious shadows of a divine order, Madison rejected a religious sanction for the authority of government in the American republic (James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, p. 150)

Below, we reproduce Madison's article in full.


WHO ARE THE BEST KEEPERS OF THE PEOPLE'S LIBERTIES?

National Gazette, December 20, 1792

Republican---[answer to the title] The people themselves. The sacred trust can be no where so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it.

Anti-republican--The people are stupid, suspicious, licentious. They cannot safely trust themselves. When they have established government they should think of nothing but obedience, leaving the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers.

Republican--Although all men are born free, and all nations might be so, yet too true it is, that slavery has been the general lot of the human race. Ignorant--they have been cheated; asleep--they have been surprised; divided--the yoke has been forced upon them. But what is the lesson? That because the people may betray themselves, they ought to give themselves up, blindfold, to those who have an interest in betraying them? Rather conclude that the people ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it.

Anti-republican--You look at the surface only, where errors float, instead of fathoming the depths where truth lies hid. It is not the government that is disposed to fly off from the people; but the people that are ever ready to fly off from the government. Rather say then, enlighten the government, warn it to be vigilant, enrich it with influence, arm it with force, and to the people never pronounce but two words--Submission and Confidence.

Republican--The centrifugal tendency then is in the people, not in the government, and the secret art lies in restraining the tendency, by augmenting the attractive principle of the government with all the weight that can be added to it. What a perversion of the natural order of things! To make power the primary and central object of the social system, and Liberty but its satellite.

Anti-republican-The science of the stars can never instruct you in the mysteries of government. Wonderful as it may seem, the more you increase the attractive force of power, the more you enlarge the sphere of liberty; the more you make government independent and hostile towards the people, the better security you provide for their rights and interests. Hence the wisdom of the theory, which, after limiting the share of the people to a third of the government ... establishes two grand hereditary orders ... inveterately hostile to the rights and interests of the people, yet by a mysterious operation all combining to fortify the people in both.

Republican--Mysterious indeed! But mysteries belong to religion, not to government; to the ways of the Almighty, not to the works of man. And in religion itself there is nothing mysterious to its author; the mystery lies in the dimness of the human sight. So in the institutions of man let there be no mystery, unless for those inferior beings endowed with a ray perhaps of the twilight vouchsafed to the first order of terrestrial creation.

Anti-republican--You are destitute, I perceive, of every quality of a good citizen, or rather of a good subject. You have neither the light of faith nor the spirit of obedience. I denounce you to the government as an accomplice of atheism and anarchy.

Republican--And I forbear to denounce you to the people, though a blasphemer of their rights and an idolater of tyranny. Liberty disdains to persecute.