Pickney's Promise

Two Hundred and Thirty Years Ago, An Obscure Founding Father Put Something Very Important Into The U.S. Constitution

By Simon Brown

In the spring of 1787 at Mary House’s boarding house in Philadelphia, Charles Pinckney, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from South Carolina, and other soon-to-be framers of the U.S. Constitution, may have come up with a radical idea during their after-dinner conversations: No one should be disqualified from running for public office in the new United States based on their religious beliefs.

Dozens of delegates from the 13 states then in existence gathered in Philadelphia that year to mold America’s founding document. But before the proceedings officially began in May, a number of delegates arrived early – if nothing else to reserve rooms in some of the nicer inns, like Mary House’s. Among them was Pinckney. And while he did not actually rent a room from House, he was heavily influenced by one of House’s clients: James Madison, the primary architect of the First Amendment, an ardent advocate for church-state separation and a future U.S. president.

Despite Pinckney’s part in bolstering church-state separation in the United States, you probably haven’t heard of him; while he was a prominent citizen in his day who served in the Continental Congress, as governor of South Carolina and as a member of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, he is now largely forgotten.

And further obscuring Pinckney’s legacy is the fact that scholars have not yet uncovered the definitive reason behind his decision to push hard for a constitutional clause that prohibits religious discrimination toward anyone seeking public office. As we approach the 230th anniversary of the writing of the Constitution, however, it is worth paying tribute to Pinckney and his work in ensuring that religious freedom won a place in the Constitution – years before Madison penned the First Amendment.

Like most 18th-century aristocrats, Pinckney is a complicated figure. As historian Marty D. Matthews, author of Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney, explained, “Charles Pinckney was a man and product of his time and place. As a southern planter, the benefits, rights, and opportunities he believed to be indispensable to white men were not applied to women nor to the slave labor force that supported him and his society. Women would have their place in Pinckney’s vision, but it was limited to the domestic arena in which they traditionally operated during the time period. And there was only one place for blacks during Pinckney’s life: bondage.” 

Pinckney’s views on race and gender were products of his time. His views on religious liberty were far advanced. What do we know of this enigmatic figure?

Born in Charleston (then called “Charles Town”) on October 26, 1757, Pinckney was the eldest son of a lawyer and plantation owner, Col. Charles Pinckney, who was more or less the Warren Buffett of 18th century South Carolina. When the elder Pinckney died in 1782, he left three plantations to be split among his wife and children. Charles alone inherited a mansion in Charles Town, as well as other property in the city. To pay Col. Pinckney’s debts, property worth approximately $10 million in today’s money and 60 slaves were to be sold. (To put this in context: In 1860, less than 1 percent of southerners owned more than 50 slaves.)

Tragically, Pinckney made clear just how important upholding the institution of slavery was to him a mere five years after gaining his inheritance. During the Constitutional Convention, he fought through Northern resistance to gain passage of Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Con­stitution, which was known as the “Fugitives From Labor Clause.” It required that escaped slaves who fled to another state must be returned to their owners. (That clause was later repealed, of course.)

Despite his position as a slaveholder, Pinckney was nonetheless a champion of ideological freedom. As originally written, the Constitution contained no guarantee of religious liberty. That would come a few years later, with Madison’s Bill of Rights.

But thanks to Pinckney, the Constitution of 1787 wasn’t entirely silent on religious freedom. His contribution to America’s founding document is nearly as important as the First Amendment and handily debunks the “Christian nation” myth of America’s founding.

The end of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which Pinckney is responsible for, states that elected officials and judges “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

How did this stipulation end up in our founding document? The answer to that is fairly straightforward – but that doesn’t mean the process was easy. On Aug. 20, 1787, the 29-year-old Pinckney submitted to the Constitutional Convention’s Committee of Detail what Matthews called “a small bill of rights.” Although most of those rights would not make their way into the final version of the Constitution, the “no religious tests” idea did – but no thanks to the committee.

When Pinckney introduced his anti-religion test proposal to the convention, the Committee on Detail    ignored it. But, ever persistent, Pinckney found another way by intro­ducing the proposal again on the convention floor. Upon presenting his idea, he told the assembly that his measure was “a provision the world will expect from you in the establishment of a System founded on Republican principles and in an age so liberal and enlightened as the present.”

Madison later wrote in his diary that once on the floor, the South Carolinian’s idea was attacked by Roger Sherman of Connecticut.

“Mr. Sherman thought it unnecessary, the prevailing liberality being a sufficient security agst. such tests,” Madison wrote.

But Pinckney, apparently, had allies: The measure was seconded by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and drew support from Charles Cotes­worth Pinckney of South Carolina (Charles Pinckney’s first cousin once removed) as well. The proposal was thus “adopted by a very great majority,” as Luther Martin of Maryland put it in his report to the Maryland legislature about the convention’s proceedings.

As Matthews noted in his book: “On the issue of religious tests and separation of church and state, Pinckney proved himself to be a champion.”

Although just one of Pinckney’s ideas for safeguarding church-state separation ultimately became enshrined in the Constitution, it seems he had grand plans beyond Article VI that were not immediately realized.

Church­­-state scholar Anson Phelps Stokes wrote in his massive 1950 three-volume work Church and State in the United States that Pinckney also proposed a provision mandating that “the legislature of the United States shall pass no law on the subject of religion.” Additionally, he pushed for a provision protecting the right of Quakers to refrain from swearing oaths and advocated for the creation of a national university free from religious control.

Why Pinckney championed separation is harder to discern, but his ideas clearly echo concepts promoted by Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Mat­thews said Madison likely influenced Pinckney, which could explain the South Carolinian’s zeal for religious freedom. Other than Jefferson, who was Madison’s mentor, no other Founding Father was as staunch in his defense of the church-state wall than was Madison. We have devoted considerable space to Madison in past issues of Church & State, but it’s worth remembering that the future president wrote perhaps the greatest argument against state-sponsored religion ever penned.

“[E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation,” he wrote in “Memorial and   Re­­mon­strance Against Religious Assessments.” “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Of course, Pinckney’s work could have been for naught had the states not ratified the Constitution. Pinckney’s handiwork sparked some controversy during this debate; delegates in North Carolina seemed especially offended by Article VI. During North Carolina’s ratifying convention in 1788, Henry Abbot worried “that if there be no religious test required, pagans, deists, and Mahometans (Muslims) might obtain offices among us, and that the senators and representatives might all be pagans.”

But none other than Madison leaped to the defense of Article VI in the Federalist Papers, calling it one of the highlights of the proposed Constitution. The provision, of course, would remain intact.

Why else might Pinckney have been so intent on securing religious liberty in the new nation? Perhaps it was in reaction to his perception of problems within Great Britain. During a 1788 speech to the Confederation Congress, the country’s governing body from 1781-89, he blasted the British system of state-established religion, saying it disenfranchised millions.

“In reviewing such of the European states as we are best acquainted with, we may with truth assert that there is but one among the most important which confirms to its citizens their civil liberties, or provides for the security of private rights,” Pinckney asserted. “But as if it had been fated that we should be the first perfectly free people the world had ever seen, even the government I have alluded to withholds from a part of its subjects the equal enjoyment of their religious liberties.”

Continued Pinckney, “How many thousands of the subjects of Great Britain at this moment labor under civil disabilities, merely on account of their religious persuasions! To the liberal and enlightened mind, the rest of Europe affords a melancholy picture of the depravity of human nature, and of the total subversion of those rights, without which we should suppose no people could be happy or content.”

Still other researchers have offered additional insights into Pinckney’s mind. In his 1978 work, A Founding Family: The Pinckneys of South Carolina, Frances Leigh Williams posited that this Founding Father’s ideas may have been the result of “a flowering of the old liberal Whig philosophy held by England’s best in his formative years,” which could mean that he was struck by that party’s belief in universal rights, its desire to reform the traditional relationship between church and state and its tolerance of non-conformist Protestants, such as Presbyterians.

Another historian said Pinckney’s ideas may have come from his desire to break with the South Carolina Constitution of 1778. In his Ph.D. dissertation, “The South Carolina Delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787: An Analytical Study” completed at Duke University in 1956, Shirley Sidney Ulmer wrote: “The degree to which Pinckney’s religious tolerance deviated from the climate of opinion in South Carolina may be derived from the knowledge of certain provisions in the state constitution at that time. The constitution declared that ‘The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State. That all denominations of Christian Protestants … shall enjoy equal religious and civil privileges.’”

Unfortunately, it is likely we will never know for sure why Pinckney felt church and state should be separated.

“[T]he manuscripts that we’ve collected and are in the process of publishing so far just don’t speak to Charles Pinckney’s religious beliefs or sensibilities,” Bob Karachuk, associate editor of the Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen at the University of South Carolina, told Church & State.

Today, Pinckney’s contributions toward the establishment of religious freedom in this country are largely overlooked. This may explain why many Americans seem to have imposed a de facto religious test for public office. Indeed, a 2015 Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of Americans said they would not vote for an atheist political candidate.

While voters are free to impose such tests in their minds, a number of states still have laws on their books stating non-believers have no right to public office. A total of seven states – North Carolina, Maryland, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas – prohibit atheists from holding public office to this day. An oddly worded provision in Pennsylvania’s Constitution also bars non-believers, some assert. (Fortunately, a 1961 Supreme Court case, Torcaso v. Watkins, made all of these statewide bans unenforceable.) 

Forgetting history is always a risky proposition, and the consequence of forgetting Pinckney’s contribution to the foundations of church-state separation is that otherwise qualified candidates will not be elected in the United States as long as such a large percentage of voters apply their own form of religious test to those seeking office. But if more Americans would look at the intent of the Founding Fathers – including men like Pinckney – and remember that they wanted church and state to be separate, perhaps religious prejudice would be dealt a fatal blow and candidates would be chosen based on their qualifications rather than their faith.