Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

William Bunnell & Peter Rosell, Signators on 1785 Albermarle County, Virginia Petition

From George Farris:

The 1785 religious petition from Albemarle that includes William Bunnel and Peter Rossell as signatories (page 3) is attached.  While Peter's name looks like his usual signature, the signature for William Bunnell looks like it may have been written by someone else. He always signed as Bonnel - not Bunnel. We know that he was there at that time from the 1785  Albemarle marriage bond for Anne Bonnel and John Farris - which he signed with his usual Wm Bonnel signature.


From John Bunnell:

I can’t put my finger on it, but there seems to be something particularly important about this document that George found.  This petition is too eloquently written, informed, and studied to have been the product of local county bumpkins.  This document clearly relates to the brewing debate over religious freedom then on-going in the Virginia legislature.  These arguments resulted in the passage of the seminal  Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson that passed in the state assembly several months later (January 16, 1786).  Thomas Jefferson considered the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of his three greatest achievements, as is inscribed on his tombstone.  Is it just coincidental that this document was presumably signed in Charlottesville, the county seat of Albemarle County, which is also the location of Monticello, Jefferson’s home?  Did Thomas Jefferson write this?  This would seem unlikely, as he was in Paris as the Minister to France during these years.  But could he have written it in France and send it to his home county to support the upcoming assembly vote?  If not Jefferson, was it written by a close associate of his? Was there a compatriot of this in the community that held similar views and was familiar with the existing legislation?  Why is it not signed by the author, whoever he is?

If I get by Monticello an time in the future, I may drop in to see if they can shed any light on this petition.

George Farris:

While Jefferson was in France James Madison pushed for the Religious Freedom act and got it passed by the Virginia Assembly.  Madison was more verbose than Jefferson and this petition looks like his writings.  Similar petitions were circulated in other counties, not just in Albemarle.  The Act was a joint effort of Jefferson and Madison.

Here is a quote from that pretty well establishes James Madison as the author of the petition signed by William Bonnel in 1785:

" As a state legislator in 1776, Madison proposed a small but profound change in the wording of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had said that everyone should have “fullest Toleration” of their religion. That wording implied that one religion was approved while the government would merely put up with others. Madison successfully argued that the wording should be changed to “free exercise of religion,” which truly protected the right to follow one’s conscience. In 1785, as the legislature debated whether to continue to fund churches with tax money, Madison wrote an influential petition called “Memorial and Remonstrance,” which clearly laid out 15 arguments against government support of churches. Madison emphasized that religion was a matter of individual conscience and could not be directed by the government in any way". 

John Bunnell:
See the following web sites for a discussion of this petition plus the letter between Madison and Jefferson where Madison describes writing the document and then having copies distributed to the “Upper Counties.”  Absolutely amazing.  This is one of the foundational documents of American democracy signed by our ancestors.

Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, [ca. 20 June] 1785  As this site describes, the Albemarle County document is one of at least thirteen copies of the Memorial & Remonstrance against Religious Assessments that were distributed mainly through the western counties of Virginia for signature. 

From James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 20 August 1785   "The opposition to the general assessment gains ground. At the instance of some of its adversaries I drew up the remonstrance herewith inclosed. It has been sent thro’ the medium of confidential persons in a number of the upper county[s] and I am told will be pretty extensively signed. The presbyterian clergy have at length espoused the side of the opposition, being moved either by a fear of their laity or a jealousy of the episcopalians. The mutual hatred of these sects has been much inflamed by the late act incorporating the latter. I am far from being sorry for it as a coalition between them could alone endanger our religious rights and a tendency to such an event had been suspected. The fate of the Circuit Courts is uncertain. They are threatened with no small danger from the diversity of opinions entertained among the friends of some reform in that department. But the greatest danger is to be feared from those who mask a secret aversion to any reform under a zeal for such a one as they know will be rejected."

You can view all of the petitions by accessing searching for “religion,” and then looking for the documents submitted by the different counties from October through December, 1785.  Most of the petitions were from the printed version.  The handwriting on the Albemarle County copy of the document is unique.  As such, it seems to be either the “second copy” written in James Madison’s handwriting and provided to George Nichols of Albemarle County or a copy of that document made by George Nichols.  The “first copy,” in James Madison’s handwriting, is in the National Archives, but I have not been able to find an on-line image for comparison.


To the Honble the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia
A Memorial and Remonstrance
We the subscribers of Albemarle county, having taken into serious consideration a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly entitled, “A Bill establishes a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”, and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free state remonstrate against it, and to declare the reasons by which we are determined.  We remonstrate against the said Bill.
Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that Religion of the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, and not by force or violence.” (Decl. Rights art. 16.) The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it, as these may dictate.  This right is, in its nature an unalienable right.  It is unalienable; because the opinions of men, depending only on the violence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.  It is unalienable also because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.  It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him.  This duty is precedent both in order of time and in degree of obligation to the claims of Civil Society.  Before any man can be considered as a member if Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.  And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man, who becomes a member of a particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.  We maintain, therefore, that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.  True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.
Because, if Religion can be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be the subject to that of the Legislative Body.  The latter are but the creatures and viceregents of the former.  Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited.  It is limited with regard to the co-ordinate departments: more necessarily it is limited with regard to the constituents.  The preservation of a free Government requires, not merely that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power, be invariably maintained; but more especially, that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people.  The Rulers, who are guilty of such and encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants.  The people who submit to it, are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.
Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.  We hold this prudent jealously to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution.  The freemen of America did not wait till Usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents.  The saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.  We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it.  Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other Religions? that the same authority which can force a Citizen to contribute threepence only of his property, for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment, in all cases whatsoever.
Because the Bill violates that equality which ought to be the basis of every law, and which is more indispensable, in proportion as the validity or expedience of any law is more liable to be improved.  “If all men are by nature equally free and independent;” (Decl. Rights A.1.) all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions, as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights.  Above all, are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience.” (Decl. Rights Art.16) Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us 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.  As the Bill violates equally by subjecting some to peculiar burdens; so it violates the same principle by granting to others, peculiar exemptions.  Are the Quakers and Mononists the only Sects who think a compulsive support of their Religions unnecessary and unwarrantable?  Can their piety alone be entrusted with the care of public worship?  Ought their Religions to be endowed above all others with extraordinary privileges, by which proselytes may be enticed from all others?  We think too favorable of the justice and good sense of these denominations to believe that they either covet preeminences over their fellow Citizens, or that they will be seduced by them from the common opposition to the measure.
Because the Bill implies, either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent judge of Religious truth, or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy.  The first is an arrogant pretension, falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world:  the second, an unhallowed perversion of the means of Salvation.
Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion.  To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world:  it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence:  nay it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have preexisted and been supported, before it was established by human policy:  it is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in hose who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies, to trust it to its own merits.
Because experience witnesses that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.  During almost fifteen Centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial.  What have been the fruits?  more or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy ignorance and servility in the Society: in ____ superstition, bigotry and persecution.  Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lush. those of every Sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with civil policy.   Propose a restoration of this primitive state, in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of the flocks; many of them predict its downfal.  On which side ought their testimony to have the greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
Because the establishment in question is not necessary for the support of Civil Government.  If it be urged as necessary for the support of Civil Government, only as it is a means of supporting Religion, and it be not necessary for the latter purpose, it cannot be necessary for the former.  If Religion be not within the Cognizance of Civil Government, how can its legal establishment be said to be necessary to Civil Government?  What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society?  In some instances they have been seen to exact a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil Authority; in many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the Guardians of the liberties of the people.  Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries.  A just government instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.  Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion, with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.
Because the proposed establishment is a departure from that generous policy, which offering an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our Country and an accession to the number of its Citizens.  What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy?  Instead of holding for them asylum for the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution.  It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative Authority.  Distant as it may be, in its present form, from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree.  The one is the first step, the other the last, in the career of Intolerance.  The magnanimous sufferer under this cruel scurge in foreign regions must view the Bill as a beacon on our Coast, warning him to seek some other haven, where liberty and _________ in ______ extent may ______ ______ repose from his troubles
Because it will have a like tendency to banish our Citizens.  The allurements presented by other situations, are every day thinning their number.  To superadd a fresh motive to emigration, by revoking the liberty which they now enjoy would be the same species of folly which has dishonoured and depopulated flouting Kingdoms.
Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several Sects.  Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all differences in religious opinion.  Time has at length revealed the true remedy.  Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease.  The American theater has exhibited proofs that equal and compleat liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys its malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State.  If with the salutary effects of this system under our own eyes, we begin to contract the bounds of religious freedom, we know no name that will too severely reproach our folly.  At least let warning be taken at the first fruits of the threatened innovation.  The very appearance of the bill has transformed that “Christian forbearance, love and charity,” (Decl. Rights art: 16) which of late mutually prevailed, into animosities and jealousies which may not soon be appeased.  What mischiefs may not be dreaded should this enemy to the public quiet be armed with the force of a Law?
Because the policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity.  The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be, that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind.  Compare the number of those, who have as yet received it, with the number still remaining under the dominion of false Religions, and how small is the former?  Does the policy of the Bill tend to lessen the disproportion?  no, it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of truth, from coming into the region of it; and countenances, by example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them.  Instead of levelling as far as possible, every obstacle to the victorious progress of truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian timidity, would circumscribe it, with a wall of defense against the encroachment of error. 
Because attempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to so great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate the laws in general, and to slacken the bands of Society.  If it be difficult to execute any law which is not generally deemed necessary or salutary, what must be the case where it is deemed invalid and dangerous?  And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotence in the Government on its general authority?
Because a measure of such singular magnitude and delicacy, ought not to be imposed, without the clearest evidence that it is called for by a majority of Citizens; and no satisfactory method is yet proposed, by which the voice of the majority in this case, may be determined, or its influence secured. “The people of the respective counties are indeed requested to signify their opinion respecting the adoption of the Bill to the next Session of Assembly.”  But the representation must be made equal, before the voice, either of the Representative or of the Counties, will be that of the people.  Our hope is that neither of the former, will after due consideration, espouse the dangerous principle of the Bill.  Should the event disappoint us, it will still leave us in full confidence, that a fair appeal to the latter will reverse the sentence against our liberties.

Because, finally, “the equal right of every Citizen to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience, is held by the same tenure with all our other rights.  If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weight its importance it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the Declaration of those Rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia as the basis and foundation of Government, " (Re to Decl. Rights) it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather with studied emphasis.  Either then we must say, that the will of the Legislature is the only measure of their authority; and that, in the plenitude of this authority, they may sweep away our fundamental rights; or, that they are bound to leave this particular right untouched and sacred: Either we must say that they may control the freedom of the press; may abolish the trial by jury; may swallow up the Executive and Judiciary powers of the State; nay, that they may annihilate our very right of suffrage, and erect themselves into an independent and hereditary Assembly; or we must say that they have no authority to enact into a law, the Bill under consideration.  We the subscribers say that the General Assembly of this Commonwealth have no such authority and that no effort may be omitted on our part against so dangerous a usurpation, we oppose to it this Remonstrance; earnestly praying, as we are duty bound, that the supreme Lawgiver of the Universe, by illuminating those to whom it is addressed, may, on the one hand, turn their Councils from every act which would affront his holy prerogative or violate the trust committed to them and, on the other, guide them into every measure which may be worthy of his blessing, may redound to their own praise, and may establish more firmly the liberties, the prosperity, and the happiness of the Commonwealth. 

No comments:

Post a Comment