December 11, 2019
First Things First
Though it may be the best known, and most debated aspect of American democracy, the importance of the First Amendment to our Nation’s resilience has been enduring and unequivocal.
Prior to its creation, many delegates at the Constitutional Convention were unconvinced that amendments were even needed. However, some began to fear centralized power would suppress the rights of states and individuals.
Virginia’s James Madison was one of the Founding Fathers who accepted the Constitution as is, believing the Federal government would never become strong enough to need such protections. He also wanted the Constitution to include a federal veto on state laws “to secure individuals against encroachments on their rights,” but it failed to make the final version.
Madison had also been part of the Virginia colonial legislature in 1776 that developed a Declaration of Rights including freedom of the press and religion. During the U.S. Constitution’s ratification, several states insisted on these protections and Madison eventually became convinced that they were necessary.
Madison’s mentor, Thomas Jefferson, was particularly concerned about individual freedoms and encouraged Madison to prepare a list of rights. In June 1789, Madison introduced a series of proposed amendments in Congress, including what would become the First Amendment.
“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.
The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.
The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good; nor from applying to the legislature by petitions, or remonstrances for redress of their grievances.”
Freedom from oppression and the security of a free state also drove the need for other amendments, in particular the Second Amendment. With a history of governments taking arms from the people, Americans believed they were vulnerable to repression without access to guns for a militia. The Second Amendment was guaranteeing the permanence and durability of the First. And although it would take another two hundred years and four more amendments to the Bill of Rights (15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th), the right to vote became available to virtually all Americans.
The First Amendment remains unique and powerful and is still a goal in many parts of the world today. The wording of the First Amendment may have become more succinct, but freedom of thought and expression was the foundation of a free and open society.
Did you know… Despite gaining independence from England, Madison used two English sources to help develop the Bill of Rights? They were the Magna Carta of 1215 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689.