The First Amendment: A Deep Dive into the History Behind It
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
The First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
To understand the weight and significance of the First Amendment, let’s take a look at its history.
The Revolution was a culmination of anger due to years of living under tyrannical rule of law. It only makes sense that the First Amendment would address some of the colonists biggest grievances.
From the 1760’s right up to the Revolution, King George III exercised power arbitrarily and capriciously. He would periodically suspend colonial assembly, albeit only temporarily to express his displeasure with their actions. The King would ban the assembly from meeting in the capital of the city, and instead force the assemblymen to meet in a rural, remote area. This was done as a form of harassment to make holding sessions difficult and to prevent the colonies from passing any type of legislation. Thomas Jefferson cites these issues in the Declaration of Independence, noting “He [the King] has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the repository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”.
Thus, the Founders deemed it essential to include language in the Constitution that guaranteed Americans the right to assemble and address grievances since the King had prevented all such instances.
The religious freedom clause stems from the fact that the British believed in the Divine Rights of King. Essentially the King was bestowed his power from God, and therefore practicing any other religion was wrong and also illegal. However, freedom of thought, and consequently freedom of religion, is crucial to creating diversity and allowing men to be free.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense highlights the importance of religious freedom, with Paine writing “As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all governments to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith… For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us: it affords a larger field for our Christian kindness.”
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech, perhaps the most important clause of this amendment, stems from the Founders belief that a properly functioning constitutional republic is one ruled by the people.
In December of 1791, James Madison wrote “Public opinion sets bounds to every government”. While other democracies around the world limit free speech, the United States is unique in that we are a constitutional republic. The success of a constitutional republic rests ultimately upon free, public discourse. While the Constitution sets limits for the government, it is the people, in essence, who rule. Without free speech, the people lose their ability to communicate concerns, grievances, and dislikes, and thus remains ineffective in bringing about any change.
Of course, there are current restrictions on freedom of speech, such as disclosing someone else’s financial information, or leaking national security secrets. However, the freedom of speech that the Constitution refers to is freedom of opinion on politics, politicians, and the fate of the country.
This belief was affirmed by Thomas Jefferson in 1798 when Congress passed the Sedition Act, which allowed the imposition of fines or prison time for anyone who published false or malicious statements about the government. Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response, which essentially told states to ignore laws that clearly violated the Constitution. Jefferson and Madison argued the Sedition Act allowed the federal government to overstep its boundaries and violated both the First Amendment and Tenth Amendment, which says certain rights were reserved for the states.
The First Amendment gives Americans a unique opportunity; one that separates us from other nations. The very essence of this amendment commands freedom of thought and practice thereof.
It’s our civic duty as Americans to exercise our First Amendment right each and every day.