The History of the First Amendment

James Madison and the Bill of Rights

Engraved portrait of President James Madison
President James Madison. Getty Images

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 mandate a certain religion for all its citizens. U.S. citizens have the right to choose what faith we want to follow.
  • The U.S. government cannot subject its citizens to rules and laws that prohibit them from speaking our minds.
  • 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

In 1789, James Madison - nicknamed "the father of the Constitution" - proposed 12 amendments that ultimately became the 10 amendments that make up the U.S. Bill of Rights. Madison was unquestionably the person who wrote the First Amendment in this respect. But this doesn't mean he was 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. His model for a constitutional amendment protecting free expression and freedom of conscience wasn't particularly original and its purpose was merely to honor his mentor (and to humor opponents of the Constitution.) If there is anything outstanding about James Madison's role in the creation of the amendment it was that someone of his position (he was Jefferson's protegé) was able to stand up and call for these protections to be permanently written into the U.S. Constitution.