Who wrote the First Amendment?

Bust of James Madison
Bust of James Madison, fourth president of the United States and author of the Bill of Rights. Photo: Library of Congress.

Question: Who wrote the First Amendment?

Answer: In 1789, James Madison--nicknamed "the father of the Constitution"--proposed twelve amendments that ultimately became the ten amendments making up the U.S. Bill of Rights. In this respect, Madison was unquestionably the person who wrote the First Amendment.

But he wasn't the one who came up with the idea, and there are several factors that complicate his status as author:

  1. Madison initially stood by the unamended Constitution, viewing the Bill of Rights as unnecessary because he did not believe that the federal government would ever become powerful enough to need one.
  2. Madison's mentor Thomas Jefferson was ultimately the person who convinced him to change his mind and propose a Bill of Rights. The freedoms described in the First Amendment--separation of church and state, religious free exercise, and freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and petition--were of particular concern to Jefferson.
  3. Jefferson himself was inspired by the work of European Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Cesare Beccaria.
  4. The language of the First Amendment was inspired by similar free speech protections written into various state constitutions.
So while Madison unquestionably wrote the First Amendment, it would be a little bit of a stretch to suggest that it was Madison's idea.
He proposed it more to honor his mentor and humor opponents of the Constitution than anything else, and his model for a constitutional amendment protecting free expression and freedom of conscience was not particularly original. What was original was for someone of Madison's clout to stand up and call for these protections to be permanently written into the U.S. Constitution.