Besides the image of the eloquent 1,235 pound cheese being rolled up to Thomas Jefferson standing at the White House door, my other favorite visual image from this Washington Monthly piece is of young James Madison and Patrick Henry sparring in committee in the Virginia legislature. Madison would have been 33, Henry a prominent figure at 48. Henry thought he was being a moderate by proposing that the state support all religion and not just the Anglican church. Madison thought any state support of religion was a threat to religious freedom. By using tax dollars to pay for religious support, Madison reasoned, you were taking their property in order to support a faith with which they disagreed.

The titans squared off, and Henry won ? at first. Then Madison went back out in the field and helped organized grassroots opposition ? especially from the evangelical Christians ? who then turned the tide against the proposal. Just think of how much faster Madison could have worked if he could have hired Jack Abramoff to get the Indian tribes to weigh in too.

Steve Waldman

Steven Waldman, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is the co-founder of Report for America, a national service program for journalists.