History matters. It especially matters in the context of interpreting the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Since nearly the founding of the republic, jurists and commentators have recognized that the historical understanding of the Establishment Clause should guide contemporary interpretation. James Madison, in one of his final statements on church-state relations, acknowledged that debate on the topic was properly illuminated by history. “[O]n this question,” he wrote in an 1833 letter, “experience will be an admitted umpire.”

Madison’s reliance on history is instructive not merely because of his influence on constitutional matters, but also because he wrote in an era that bears marked similarities to the modern debate on the Establishment Clause’s mean- ing. Madison’s letter was addressed to Reverend Jasper Adams, an Episcopal minister. Adams had recently delivered a sermon to his fellow clergymen arguing that religion, particularly Christianity, was a fundamental pillar of civil society and government and that religion could not flourish without government support. The sermon was largely a foray into a decade-old debate between Thomas Jefferson and Justice Joseph Story. Jefferson had attempted to dismantle the then widely held assumption that Christianity was a part of the received common law; Justice Story offered the main rebuttal. Relying on Story’s Commentaries, Adams argued that “establishment,” as used in the common law of England and the colonies, meant “the preference and estab- lishment given by law to one sect of Christians over every other.” Consequently, the reference to “establishment” in the First Amendment also had a non-preferential meaning. In Adams’s estimation, the disestablishment language in many states’ constitutions only intended to “disclaim all preference of one sect of Christians over another,” and the First Amendment “leaves the entire subject [of religion] in the same situation in which it found it.”