Want more news from Southwest and Southside? Sign up for one free daily email newsletter.
Byron Faidley has been sifting through the records at Washington and Lee University’s Special Collections in chronological order since the fall, looking for documents to digitize.
In early March, Faidley was sorting through files from Zachariah Johnston, a late 18th-century W&L trustee and state government representative. And in his routine search, Faidley stumbled upon a folder marked “religious freedom.”
“And I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of an important thing. I should probably take a look at that and dig a little deeper,’” Faidley said. Inside, he found a document titled “A Memorial and Remonstrance.” The document bore no signature, no sign of authorship.
“But the handwriting looked very different from the rest of the manuscript collection,” Faidley said. “One thing that struck me was that it was rather small handwriting,” a staple trait of Thomas Jefferson’s hand, he said.
But after a quick Google search of the title, Faidley discovered the true author to be James Madison. Madison had written the document anonymously in the 1780s, and did not take credit for it until around 1820.
“It really isn’t finding so much as it is further identifying,” Faidley said. “We knew it was there. We just didn’t quite know the full story yet.”
Faidley immediately contacted his boss, Tom Camden, a 1976 W&L alumnus who has led the special collections team for 10 years.
“I was blown away,” Camden said. “We have handwritten Washington documents and Jefferson documents and Patrick Henry documents. We’ve had Madison signatures on documents. But I had never seen a piece like this, that’s an extensive draft in the hand of one of our founding fathers.”
W&L received the collection of documents holding Madison’s manuscript in 1977. Since then, it has been sitting in a temperature-controlled vault for nearly 50 years, waiting to be “rediscovered,” Camden said.
“To go back and have a second look at it, this many years later, it’s like Christmas,” Camden said. “Even the most jaded, non-history geek is going to get excited about this. This is an unrecorded, handwritten manuscript of one of our founding fathers.”
Camden then contacted Lynn Uzzell, a visiting politics professor and Madison scholar, to confirm the document’s suspected author. She said “there can be no two opinions” on the question of the manuscript’s importance.
“Madison and Jefferson both are on the forefront of novel thinking about religious freedom, and this is one of those seminal documents,” Uzzell said. The Library of Congress has the only other copy of the manuscript in Madison’s original hand, a more finalized version.
Madison did not write many pieces intended for publication, Uzzell said. “But this is the handwriting he uses when he’s taking some care that it can be read. And so this tells us that it is pretty near a complete final draft. But nonetheless, you can see that he is making revisions on the copy.”
Camden said the document is not only remarkable because of its foundational calls for the separation of church and state, but also because of its association with the university.
“Washington and Lee, make no mistake, has played a role in the nation’s history,” he said. “In fact, I talk often about how the history of this school mirrors the history of the nation.”
From Madison’s hand, across the mountains, to small town Lexington
Camden said the story of Madison’s document begins in 1784, with Jefferson calling for a bill to dictate the relationship between church and state.
Patrick Henry, the politician known for shouting “give me liberty or give me death,” proposed a bill that would tax the American people to support the Church of England. “And James Madison said, ‘I don’t think so,” Camden said.
“Remonstrance,” the title of the piece, is another word for protest. “So here is a memorial and protest against Patrick Henry’s bill,” Camden said, where Madison “lists 15 statements about why this is not a good move.”
Zachariah Johnston was a “pious Presbyterian” who supported Madison’s cause, Camden said. The founding father wanted Johnston’s input on the bill, so he sent a copy. This connection also helped spread word of Madison’s proposal to the Southwest Virginia valley, Uzzell said.
“This particular manuscript is, after all, a petition. It was meant to gather signatures,” she said. “And so we now know that Zachariah Johnston, who had this among his papers, was one of Madison’s loyal foot soldiers in spreading this across the mountain and getting signatures here.”
David B. Mattern worked on the Papers of James Madison at University of Virginia, a project created to publish and preserve writings of the “Father of the U.S. Constitution” and the fourth U.S. president, for 30 years. Uzzell consulted him for a confirmation of Madison’s hand.
“For Zachariah Johnston to have a copy in Madison’s hand indicates a level of friendship that, at least to my knowledge, historians have not known about,” Mattern said. “So, I think it’ll be an interesting thing especially for the Madison papers to delve into.”
Patrick Henry’s bill was ultimately defeated, Camden said. And in 1786, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, incorporating key elements from Madison’s manuscript.
“Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom is probably one of the most important bills,” Camden said. “I mean, it was so important to Jefferson that on his tombstone, he listed it as being one of the things he’s most proud of. It’s a very simple separation of church and state.”
The early manuscript stayed in Johnston’s family home, right outside of Lexington, until one family member gave it to Washington and Lee in 1977. Its identification half a century later is “mostly due to more resources that we have today,” Faidley said. “We can hop on Google and type in a title and there’s usually something on the other end of that search that’s helpful in a matter of minutes.”
The manuscript’s final destination
The next step for Madison’s rediscovered manuscript is conservation, Camden said. The document itself has some “losses,” with frayed edges and scattered holes likely due to insects or weather.
But the losses could also be attributed to the preservation method used to seal the document in the 1960s at the Richmond-based Barrow Lab. The “Barrow” method was chemical-based, Camden said.
“It’s almost like the lamination process that you would see with a driver’s license,” he said. “But it’s inherently self-destructing because it is chemically based. So it looks stable, and it may look stable for the next 20 years. But ultimately it’s going to self-destruct.”
Last week, Camden drove to a lab in Greensboro, North Carolina, for a consultation, hoping to reverse the Barrow method on the manuscript.
“I took this document with me, carefully put it in the back seat. And I’m going down Route 29 to Greensboro reminding myself periodically, ‘Oh my God, I have James Madison in my backseat,’” he said.
Camden will take Madison’s manuscript back to the lab in May, where it will be placed in a treatment and ultimately, a specialty linen holder. In the meantime, Camden will begin a campaign to have the piece “adopted” by the university, persuading alumni to cover the preservation costs.
Faidley is eager to compare the draft to a finalized copy held by the Library of Congress.
“The Library of Congress copy is fairly clean. It doesn’t have much struck out, if anything, whereas our copy actually has text that’s been crossed out,” he said. “It’s interesting to see firsthand the founding fathers as they’re working through basically what the American government will look like. To see that being worked through in draft form, I think that’s pretty amazing.”