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Edmund Randolph's views on Separation of Church and State

Research and Writing by Tom Peters

The son of the King's Attorney in pre-revolutionary Virginia, Edmund Randolph (1753-1813) broke with his loyalist family to join the movement for American independence. While his support for the Union was unwavering, his attitude toward the Constitution was paradoxical. Randolph played a major role in preparing the first draft of the Constitution, but was so skeptical of the finished product that he choose not to sign. Still, Randolph urged the ratification of the Constitution in the Virginia Convention of 1788, and later served as Attorney General and Secretary of State under George Washington. It's probably best to describe him as one who embraced the Constitution as a necessary evil; he didn't like centralized authority, but realized that the nation could not survive without a strong federal government.

Randolph began life as a Deist, but joined the Episcopal Church later in life. An advocate of religious liberty, he did not believe that the Constitution granted any power to the federal government over religion. Responding to Patrick Henry's argument at the Virginia Convention that the Constitution endangered religious liberty, Randolph replied that

Randolph was so committed to limiting the power of government in the area of religion that he was concerned with the wording of Article VI, section 3 of the Constitution: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." In a February 29, 1788 letter to James Madison, Randolph wrote:

According to late 19th century historian Moncure Daniel Conway, Randolph's letter "led to their [Randolph and Madison's] agreement on the 16th and 20th amendments accompanying the Virginia ratification, which were combined in the first article added to the Constitution [i.e., the First Amendment]."

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