James Madison and the First Amendment

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Engraved portrait of President James Madison

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The First—and most well-known—Amendment of the Constitution 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.

This means that:

  • The U.S. government cannot establish a certain religion for all its citizens. U.S. citizens have the right to choose and practice what faith they want to follow, as long as their practice doesn't break any laws.
  • The U.S. government cannot subject its citizens to rules and laws that prohibit them from speaking their minds, besides in exceptional cases such as dishonest testimony under oath.
  • The press can print and circulate the news without fear of reprisal, even if that news is less than favorable regarding our country or government.
  • U.S. citizens have the right to gather toward common goals and interests without interference from the government or the authorities.
  • U.S. Citizens can petition the government to suggest changes and voice concerns. 

James Madison and the First Amendment

James Madison was instrumental in drafting and advocating for both the ratification of the Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights. He is one of the Founding Fathers and is also nicknamed "the father of the Constitution." While he is the one who wrote the Bill of Rights, and thus the First Amendment, he wasn't alone in coming up with these ideas nor did they happen overnight.

Key Elements of Madison's Life Before 1789

Some important facts to know about James Madison are that even though he was born into a well-established family, he worked and studied his way into the political circles really hard. He became known between his contemporaries as "the best informed man of any point in debate."

He was one of the early supporters of the resistance to the British rule, which probably later reflected in the inclusion of the right to assembly in the First Amendment.

In the 1770s and 1780s, Madison held positions on different levels of Virginia's government and was a known supporter of the separation of church and state, also now included in the First Amendment.

Madison's Journey Towards the Bill of Rights

Even though he is the key person behind the Bill of Rights, when Madison was advocating for the new Constitution, he was against any amendments to it. On one hand, he did not believe that the federal government would ever become powerful enough to need any. And at the same time, he was convinced that establishing certain laws and liberties would allow the government to exclude the ones not explicitly mentioned.

However, during his 1789 campaign to get elected into the Congress, in efforts to win his opposition—the anti-federalists—he finally promised he would advocate for adding amendments to the Constitution. When he was then elected into Congress, he followed through with his promise.

At the same time, Madison was very close with Thomas Jefferson who was a strong proponent of civil liberties and many other aspects that are now part of the Bill of Rights. It is widely believed that Jefferson influenced Madison's views regarding this topic.

Jefferson frequently gave Madison recommendations for political reading, especially from European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Cesare Beccaria. When Madison was drafting the Amendments, it it likely that it wasn't solely because he was keeping his campaign promise, but he probably already believed in the need to protect individual liberties against the federal and state legislatures.

When in 1789, he outlined 12 amendments, it was after reviewing over two hundred ideas proposed by different state conventions. Out of these, ultimately 10 were selected, edited, and finally accepted as the Bill of Rights.

As one can see, there are many factors that played into the drafting and ratification of the Bill of Rights. The anti-federalists, along with Jefferson's influence, states proposals, and Madison's changing beliefs all contributed to the final version of the Bill of Rights. On an even larger scale, the Bill of Rights built on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the English Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta.

The History of the First Amendment

Similarly to the entire Bill of Rights, the language of the First Amendment comes from a variety of sources.

Freedom of Religion

As mentioned above, Madison was a proponent of the separation of church and state, and this is probably what translated into the first part of the Amendment. We also know that Jefferson—Madison's influence—was a strong believer of a person having the right to choose their faith, as to him religion was "a matter which [lied] solely between Man and his God."

Freedom of Speech

With regards to the freedom of speech, it is safe to assume that Madison's education along with literary and political interests had a great effect on him. He studied at Princeton where a great focus was placed on speech and debate. He also studied the Greeks , who are known for valuing freedom of speech,too—that was the premise of Socrates' and/or Plato's work.

In addition, we know that during his political career, especially when promoting the ratification of the Constitution, Madison was a great orator and gave an enormous number of successful speeches. This, along with similar to the free speech protections written into various state constitutions also inspired the language of the First Amendment.

Freedom of the Press

Besides his call-to-action speeches, Madison's eagerness for spreading ideas about the importance of the new Constitution also reflected in his vast contribution to the Federalist Papers—newspaper-published essays explaining to the general public the details of the Constitution and their relevance.

Madison thus highly valued the importance of the uncensored circulation of ideas. Also, until the Declaration of Independence, British government imposed heavy censorship on the press which early governors upheld, but the Declaration defied.

Freedom of Assembly

Freedom of Assembly is closely associated with the freedom of speech. In addition, and as mentioned above, Madison's opinions about the need to resist the British rule likely played into inclusion of this freedom into the First Amendment as well.

Right to Petition

This right was established by the Magna Carta already in 1215 and was also reiterated in the Declaration of Independence when the colonists accused the British monarch of not having listened to their grievances.

Overall, even though Madison wasn't the sole agent in the drafting of the Bill of Rights along with the First Amendment, he was unquestionably the most important actor in its coming to existence. One final point, however, that is not to be forgotten, is that, just like most other politicians of the time, despite lobbying for all kinds of freedoms for the people, Madison was also a slave-owner, which does somewhat taint his achievements.

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