The Church and State Debate
In the years following the Revolution, petitions played a vital role in registering widespread political opinion on important questions of public policy and religion. The ultimate stakes were the disestablishment of the Church of England and the possibility of a newfound commitment to full religious freedom for all citizens of the independent commonwealth. The most notable example is the famous "Ten-thousand Name" petition, presented during the first General Assembly session on October 16, 1776. Asking for disestablishment of the Church of England as well as religious equality, this document consisted of 125 pages sewn or joined together with wax seals, and was signed by an unprecedented ten thousand Virginia citizens. With other petitions, this enormous manuscript began the debate over the relationship of church and state in Virginia.
By this time, petitions had become such a valuable way for legislators to gauge public opinion that delegates often postponed a vote until they could consult their constituents. Such a case occurred during the 1784 session of the House. The delegates had just decided in favor of the bill to incorporate the Protestant Episcopal Church. But when the question of whether to levy a general tax, or assessment, to support ministers of the Christian religion came up, the House voted to defer consideration of it until the next General Assembly session. They voted to distribute copies of the assessment bill throughout the commonwealth and invited the people to signify their opinion of the bill.
James Madison circulated his great "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments" to all corners of the state, urging Virginians to secure as many signatures as possible. This action brought forth a veritable torrent of petitions. During the fall session of 1785, ninety petitions were presented expressing an opinion for or against the assessment bill, an astonishing response. The "Ten-thousand Name" petition of a decade before remained the largest ever received in number of signers, but the controversy over assessment drew by far the largest number of petitions. Moreover, the petitions conveyed a clear sense of the people's wishes, running nearly three to one against the assessment bill. The bill was quickly abandoned without being brought to a vote. Madison then brought forward the "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" that Thomas Jefferson had drafted in 1777, which had failed to pass in the intervening years. It passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate to become law early in 1786, thereby ensuring the permanent separation of church and state.