Who Wrote the First Amendment?

James Madison and the Bill of Rights

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.

This is the amendment to the Constitution that protects your freedom to follow the religion of your choice and to speak your mind, among other things. It reads: Constitution that protects your freedom to follow the religion of your choice and to speak your mind, among other things. It 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." 

The U.S. government cannot mandate a certain religion for all its citizens. We have the right to choose what faith we want to follow. The First Amendment also protects our freedom of speech. We cannot be subject to rules and laws that prohibit us from speaking our minds. Our press can print and circulate the news without fear of reprisal, even if that news is less than favorable regarding our country or government. And we have the right to gather toward common goals and interests without interference from the government or the authorities. We can even petition the government to explain that we don't like what it's doing and that we want change. 

Who Wrote the First Amendment?

In 1789, James Madison - nicknamed "the father of the Constitution" - proposed 12 amendments that ultimately became the 10 amendments making up the U.S. Bill of Rights. So Madison was unquestionably the person who wrote the First Amendment in this respect.

 But he wasn't the one who came up with the idea. Several factors complicate his status as an author:

  • 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.
  • 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 the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and petition – were of particular concern to Jefferson.
  • Jefferson himself was inspired by the work of European Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Cesare Beccaria.
  • 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 bit of a stretch to suggest that it was solely his idea or to give him the entire credit for it. He proposed it more to honor his mentor and to 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.