America’s True History of Religious Tolerance | History | Smithsonian
The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill” was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political.
Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.
Throughout the colonial era, Anglo-American antipathy toward Catholics—especially French and Spanish Catholics—was pronounced and often reflected in the sermons of such famous clerics as Cotton Mather and in statutes that discriminated against Catholics in matters of property and voting. Anti-Catholic feelings even contributed to the revolutionary mood in America after King George III extended an olive branch to French Catholics in Canada with the Quebec Act of 1774, which recognized their religion.
Future President James Madison stepped into the breach. In a carefully argued essay titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” the soon-to-be father of the Constitution eloquently laid out reasons why the state had no business supporting Christian instruction. Signed by some 2,000 Virginians, Madison’s argument became a fundamental piece of American political philosophy, a ringing endorsement of the secular state that “should be as familiar to students of American history as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” as Susan Jacoby has written in Freethinkers, her excellent history of American secularism.
Madison also made a point that any believer of any religion should understand: that the government sanction of a religion was, in essence, a threat to religion. “Who does not see,” he wrote, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” Madison was writing from his memory of Baptist ministers being arrested in his native Virginia.