Louisiana (the US state) recently passed a law requiring the biblical Ten Commandments be posted in every single classroom that is part of a school that receives public funding, including universities. Part of the justification for the law is the assertion that the original founders of the US thought the Ten Commandments were important.

In particular, according to the BBC,

In the law, Louisiana legislators quote the fourth president, James Madison, as saying: “We have staked the whole future of our new nation … upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the 10 Commandments.”1

However, a lawsuit has been filed against the law and the suit argues that Madison never said or wrote that.

Is that an actual quote from James Madison?

  1. The text of the bill does include the quote on lines 11-13 on page 2: https://legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1382697
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    I'm looking for a better source: According to this web site, editors of The Papers of Madison wrote a letter about this quote saying, "We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us. In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison's views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private." I hope a copy of this letter may be available online somewhere, but haven't found it. Also the reputation of those editors is a question. Commented Jun 26 at 0:32
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    FWIW, it seems unlikely that the result of the lawsuit will hinge on whether the quotation is correctly attributed to Madison. It looks a little embarrassing for the Lousiana legislature, but heck, Indiana once came embarrassingly close to passing a law defining Pi to be exactly 3. Commented Jun 27 at 14:02

2 Answers 2


Wikiquote lists this quote as "Misattributed", saying that it is

Attributed to Madison by Frederick Nymeyer in Progressive Calvinism: Neighborly Love and Ricardo's Law of Association, January 1958, p. 31. The source is given there as the 1958 calendar of Spiritual Motivation. It subsequently appeared in Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), p. 541; Jerry Falwell, Listen America! (1980), p. 51; David Barton, The Myth of Separation Between Church and State (1989); and William J. Federer, America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (1994) p. 411. David Barton has since declared it "unconfirmed" after Madison scholars reported that this statement appears nowhere in the writings or recorded utterances of James Madison.[4] It appears to be an expansion and corruption of Madison's reference (Federalist Papers XXXIX) to "that honourable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government."

The additional source given there links to the site The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State. To quote:

But to church-state separationists and historians of the post-colonial period, something about this Madison quote has never felt quite right. It seemed unlikely that the same Madison who advocated "total separation of the church from the state" and battled to disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia would say it.The sentiment appeared to clash with his well known advocacy of a healthy distance between religion and government.

And, probably most importantly,

Now the major purveyor of the quote, Texas-based Religious Right propagandist David Barton, has admitted it's bogus. Last year Barton's group, WallBuilders, issued a one-page document titled "Questionable Quotes," a list of 12 statements allegedly uttered by Founding Fathers and other prominent historical figures, that are now considered to be suspect or outright false. Madison's alleged comment about the Ten Commandments is number four on the list and is flatly declared by Barton to be "false."

This document seems to be on WallBuilders and does indeed say

Despite other quotations consistent with the emphasis of the one in question above, this specific quotation remains unconfirmed, and it should not be used unless it can be verified in an original primary source document. [emphasis mine]

The site does argue that other quotes from Madison speak favorably of Christianity and that it would be consistent that he would view "God's standards"/The Ten Commandments favorably as a measure for governance, but for the purpose of this site, this is not relevant.

  • This is the 1958 source: google.com/books/edition/Progressive_Calvinism/… very similar but not exactly the same quote.
    – DavePhD
    Commented Jun 26 at 18:21
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    @Graham According to this history professor, many of them were not Christian: masters.edu/master_tmu_news/the-faith-of-the-founding-fathers
    – nasch
    Commented Jun 27 at 14:43
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    While Madison did strongly advocate for separation between church and state, in most of his other strongly held views you can find him making strong arguments for both sides, depending on the exact circumstance. (E.g. whether states can contravene federal acts.) It would not be at all inconsistent for Madison to praise some religious element as foundational, and also campaign hard to avoid entanglement with that religion.
    – fectin
    Commented Jun 27 at 15:06
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    The digitized papers of James Madison at rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/JSMN.html contain only three references to "commandments," and all are in letters to him, not his actual writing. Doesn't sound like a strongly held perspective if he held it at all. Commented Jun 27 at 16:58
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    @Graham They can agree there are ten, but which ten are they? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Commandments lists eight different traditions on how to divide up the verses.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 28 at 3:53

The origin of the supposed quote is somewhat older than the 1958 date mentioned in another answer.

On Wednesday 18 October 1950 Clarence E. Manion, Dean of Notre Dame Law School, gave a speech titled "Key to Peace" as published beginning on page 21 of the November issue of the Cleveland Bar Association Journal (volume 22). In the speech Manion said:

...one of the most erudite of the Founding Fathers, James Madison, said that "we have staked the whole future of our American Political Institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self government"

This corresponded to the actual Madison quote:

...to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government...

Over the next 4 years, Manion gave various speeches that were widely published connecting the Madison quote to the Ten Commandments. Some examples of his speeches are below.

03 April 1951 addressing the Pennsylvania General Assembly Manion said (emphasis added):

self government means and was meant to mean, the ability of the individual citizen to govern himself, under the Ten Commandments of God, and that was precisely the type of self government that James Madison had in mind when he said that “We have staked the future of all of our American institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self- government.”

In a 10 November 1953 speech, published in Addresses and Reports of the American Petroleum Institute, Manion said (emphasis added):

James Madison truly said, that the future of our constitutional system depends on the "capacity of mankind for self-government." That doesn't mean merely voting or politicking. Self-government means self-control, self-restraint, under the moral laws of God. That's where the Ten Commandments come in. Moral self-government under God's commandments is the very predicate of our system of strictly limited civil government.

The same was also published in the Kentucky State Bar Journal and published in the 28 January 1954 Congressional Record.

Then in April 1954 Marion gave a speech titled "Our Spiritual and Moral Resources" which, as published in Proceedings of in of the Eighty-Seventh Convocation of The University of the State of New York said, quoting (emphasis added) from page 274 of the proceedings:

But more than the truth about the supremacy of God and the consequent subordination of government must be learned if our moral and cultural, and in the last analysis, our material resources are not to be exhausted. Not merely the fact of God, my friends, but the fact of God's Commandments, and their consequent obligation of service to God must be taught as an essential complement to our Constitutional system.

In the very beginning of our history James Madison put a very significant statement in writing. Madison said, "We have staked the whole future of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government."

A thoughtless future generation has interpreted self-government to mean the democratic process of electing officers and selecting your own public servants. That is not what Madison said. Madison said that the future of our political institutions depended upon the capacity of mankind to govern himself, to control himself, to restrain himself according to the moral laws of God.

The future of our American civilization, in other words, depends upon our continued respect and observance of God's Commandments, which, from the day they were given to us until this, are the best formula for self-government that has ever been written.

So Clarence Manion was responsible for connecting the Ten Commandments to Madison, but without claiming a direct quote by Madison about the commandments. Later, others changed what Manion said such that larger portions were a supposed Madison quote.

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