Madison was influenced by early American documents, political figures, and ideological principles of the Revolution. He used familiar phrases from previously written documents to strengthen his argument, and many of these influences would have been familiar to the other members of the General Assembly and the citizens of Virginia.
Madison shared similar political views as Thomas Jefferson, who is famous for writing the Declaration of Independence. Madison and Jefferson were both prominent Virginia politicians as well as neighbors. They could relate to each other on a personal level as well as through political ideology. Throughout their political careers they shared similar views on issues of the day, and often collaborated on policy issues. They both believed strongly that the power of the government belonged ultimately to the people who were being governed. They also placed emphasis on the power of the human mind and individual conscience, and as a result believed that the people had individual rights that the government should not interfere with.
Elements of Madison’s argument in the Memorial and Remonstrance are influenced by Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Madison said that the freedom to practice religion is an unalienable right. This is found in the first numbered section of the document, where Madison said that “the Religion 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.” The phrase “unalienable right” was used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and therefore would have been a concept familiar to Madison’s target audience, the men of Virginia’s General Assembly as well as the citizens of Virginia.
Madison was also influenced by the political philosophies and writings of John Locke. Locke was an English philosopher who inspired the European Enlightenment and early American political thought. He believed in the concept of a social contract between citizens and in the importance of toleration, especially religious toleration. Locke’s works are the foundation of liberalism, a political doctrine that values protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual. Locke believed that the government’s role was to protect the people, but also recognized that the government could become a threat to people’s freedom if the government went beyond its role and threatened the individual rights of the people.
Madison and Locke shared the same fundamental views about the relationship between church and state. They both believed that regulating and influencing religion and the practice of religion was not within the government’s scope of power. Locke felt that the jurisdiction of the government was concerned only with “civil goods” such as life, liberty, and property and ought not “in any way to be extended to the salvation of souls.” In other words, the government should not be concerned with the religious practices of the people because it was not related to the government’s role of promoting and protecting people’s lives and personal property. Madison said in the Memorial that government interference in religious matters leads to chaos and violence, which can be seen in other countries who had established religion at the time. He says that the right of freedom of conscience is similar to all other fundamental rights, either it can be taken away by legislature or it can be left untouched, and it should be untouched because the government should not have authority to interfere with the natural rights of its citizens.
Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance is heavily influenced by John Locke’s Letter on Toleration, which was written in 1685. Madison’s Memorial borrows phrases almost in exact form from Locke’s letter. Madison denied to “the Civil Magistrate” any power over religion because “Religious truth” and “the means of salvation” are beyond the concerns of the state. Locke said that “the magistrate ought not to forbid the holding or teaching of any speculative opinions in any church, because they have no bearing on the civil rights of his subjects.” Madison’s fellow delegates in the General Assembly would have been familiar with this letter, because its core ideas were incorporated into other early American documents from the Revolution. Locke’s Letter on Toleration is also the document where the famous phrase “life, liberty, and property” came from. It was later modified to read “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence.
Madison used these many influences to create a document that is celebrated as a comprehensive list of arguments against religious establishment in the newly formed United States. The idea of disestablishment would later be included in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the formation of an established church and guarantees religious freedom.