Celebrating America’s First Freedom

Published 8:04 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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There’s a small building in Richmond’s Shockoe Slip that commemorates a huge, but little-known historic event.

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The Virginia General Assembly, which convened last week, didn’t always meet in Thomas Jefferson’s Greek temple on the Hill, the magnificent Virginia State Capitol building that has influenced public architecture throughout the United States.

In the Assembly’s early years in Richmond, it met in a fairly nondescript clapboard sided building down in Shockoe, several blocks below the present Capitol Square.

And it was there, on Jan. 16, 1786, that the General Assembly adopted one of the most important pieces of legislation in its now 399-year history — The Virginia Act for Religious Freedom.

Better as the Statute for Religious Freedom, this remarkable document as the product of what a remarkable mind — that of Thomas Jefferson.

Religious freedom was a relatively new, and quite controversial, concept when Jefferson penned what he considered one of his two most important documents (the other being the Declaration of Independence). When the United States was born, a number states still had “official” religious denominations, and some of those would remain in place into the early years of the 19th century.

In Virginia, political leaders debated the issue of religious freedom at length, and sentiment was strong to continue something along the lines of the Toleration Act of Great Britain, which maintained the Church of England as the “official” state religion, but tolerated dissenters.

And tolerance was about as far as many 18th century legislators were willing to go. Patrick Henry, for instance, wanted to continue taxpayer support of religion by imposing a tax on Virginians to support a church, though he would have allowed them to could choose which church their taxes would support.

Jefferson would have none of it. He understood that “tolerance” is bestowed, and thus can also be taken away. Nothing short of full religious freedom was acceptable to Jefferson, for freedom of conscience, he held, was a natural right — a God-given right.

He pressed for full religious freedom and in 1777 drafted his historic statute. He formally introduced it to the Assembly two years later, but it was rejected. James Madison, who had better people skills than Jefferson, shared Jefferson’s views and became the statute’s champion. Jefferson was in Paris as Minister to France in 1786 when his friend Madison won its adoption.

When Madison authored the Bill of Rights soon after the U.S. Constitution was adopted, he used the Virginia Statute as the model for the religious freedom clauses — the first freedom articulated in the First Amendment, where it resides today.

The Statute remains in the Virginia Code, though there have been clarifying additions, and Jan. 16 is officially celebrated across the nation each year as National Freedom of Religion Day.

The site of the early Capitol down in Shockoe is now home to a small building that celebrates America’s “First Freedom.” There, the First Freedom Foundation, in cooperation with the Valentine organization, has erected a display recognizing the efforts by Jefferson and Madison, together with efforts to educate future generations in the precious freedom we enjoy.

Like our other First Amendment freedoms, we often take our freedom of religion for granted. We should never do so. The intent of the First Freedom Center is and Freedom of Religion Day to see that we don’t.