What does the First Amendment say?

Posted on May 20, 2015. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our series on the Bill of Rights. We’re moving into the First Amendment here. It’s the celebrity Amendment in the Bill of Rights. “First Amendment rights”, “my First Amendment rights”—these phrases are like “Washington crossing the Delaware” or “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”: famous, oft-repeated, but often difficult for the people saying them to really explain. What are our First Amendment rights?

Let’s read the text of the amendment:

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.

What is “an establishment of religion”? A state religion. The FA says that Congress (the legislative branch of the federal government) cannot make any religion the official state religion of the United States. A state religion is supported financially by the federal government of a nation, which also puts barriers in the way of other religions to prevent them from gaining traction. In the 18th century when this amendment was written, every kingdom in Europe had a state religion. Britain’s was Anglicanism. The Anglican church received tax support and if you were a member of another church it was hard to get a job in the government. Go back a century to the 1600s and it would be illegal to be a member of any other church. “State” religion is endorsed by the government, and so the head of the government—the monarch—is the head of the church. Henry VIII created the Anglican church when he made himself, not the Pope, the head of the Catholic church in England. An English person who rejected Anglicanism was rejecting the authority of the monarch, which is treason, which is a capital offense. The Puritans and Pilgrims left England because they could not accept the Anglican church without major reforms, and refused to worship in it as they were told to. This was political treason and made them criminals.

By rejecting the concept of a state religion, the concept of the head of state (our president) being the head of a church, and the concept of forcing people to either belong to the state-approved religion or stand trial for treason, the Framers were making a bold and revolutionary stand that went directly against everything the great European powers had fought for during the Thirty Years’ War. We tend to think of a state religion as obviously contrary to democracy, but European powers would not reach this conclusion for over a century, and in Europe the old state religions are still powerful. In France, non-Catholics are rare. In Britain, Anglicanism is the norm. Even people who don’t practice their religion are born into its culture, which by now is indistinguishable from the socio-political culture to them.

Finally, this statement is saying the U.S. government will be completely civil. There is complete separation of church and state. The federal government will play no role in the religious life of the country, and no religious beliefs can shape our laws.

Why is “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” tacked on to the first statement? Of course this is all one sentence, and makes more sense as one sentence, but we had to pull it apart to discuss state religion. This phrase is important on its own, though: it doesn’t just reiterate the main message that there is no state church, but also forbids the federal government to outlaw any religion. Again, this was radical for the time. In Europe practicing any religion other than the state religion was heresy and treason. The U.S. is not only saying it won’t impose religious uniformity by adopting a state religion, it’s saying it will not just allow but protect by law the proliferation of religious practices.

This was a big deal in a country that mostly hated and feared Catholics. If Congress had decided to outlaw Catholicism in 1787, most Americans would have been very supportive. But the Framers are making an enormous commitment to true democracy by saying no religion will be outlawed in the U.S.

What does it mean to say Congress will not abridge the freedom of speech, or of the press? This is the most famous part of the celebrity Amendment. Freedom of speech—if you asked Americans to name one phrase that sums up all our freedoms, this might be it. It’s so important that the concept and definition of “speech” has been expanded over the centuries to include clothes, tattoos, parades, art, and other non-mouth-moving activities. In 1919 the Supreme Court decided that some kinds of speech are indeed illegal; any speech that endangers other people is not protected (this was the case that gave us the famous example of shouting Fire! in a crowded theater when there is no fire; someone who does that will be arrested). But that decision was overturned 50 years later because Americans have identified themselves so completely with freedom of speech that we found a way around the problem of endangerment (that ruling said that only speech that creates a dangerous situation faster than the police can arrive to mediate it is illegal).

Again, this amendment is radical. No kingdom in Europe allowed its citizens to criticize the monarch, the government, or the state religion, without punishment. After nearly two centuries of religious war and civil war, Europe cracked down hard on anyone who tried to stir up trouble. But the Framers believed Americans could have freedom of speech without abusing it. Libel laws were maintained, of course; we never said you could lie about someone and not be punished if they choose to prosecute. But expressing an opinion would never be illegal in this country.

Isn’t “the press” synonymous with speech? It’s just speech that is printed rather than spoken aloud. But the Framers specifically included the press so they could protect actual printers. Again, the way to start trouble in Europe for nearly 200 years had been to print pamphlets and broadsides criticizing the government and/or church. And for nearly 200 years European powers had punished rebellion by punishing not just the authors of these documents but their printers—men hired to put paper through a printing press who had nothing to do with what was written. The Framers were protecting printing presses, publishers of books, pamphlets, and broadsides as well as newspapers, as well as the authors of all these items. In an age where a book that displeased the government could get not just its author but its printer arrested, this was an important addition to the amendment.

Why protect the right of the people peaceably to assemble? Once more we think of the time the Constitution was born in. In pre-modern Europe, people did not gather in large groups. It just didn’t happen in the course of normal human events. The vast majority of people lived in small villages, where there weren’t enough people to make up large crowds. The only way a large crowd could gather was if there was trouble: someone stirring up the people and urging them to leave their villages and meet in one place, usually to protest the government. These gatherings quickly turned into mobs, and were usually violent. In the cities, people could gather in large crowds but were prevented by the watchful eye of royal authorities from doing so, for the same reason. There was just no acceptable reason why any large crowd would gather in that period. The Reformation period was characterized by mob after mob after mob being put down violently by government forces, causing almost incalculable losses of human life and capital.

So when the Framers said Americans had the right to gather in large groups, they looked like they were inviting trouble. That’s why this part of the amendment is the only one with a caveat: the people must assemble peaceably. Colonial America had a terrible record of mob violence, often sparked for no good reason (see our post The Boston Tea Party and a tradition of violence for more on this). It seemed like the last place where you would be safe allowing people to gather in large groups. But part of freedom of speech is freedom of assembly—people have to be allowed to talk together. Knowing the fondness for mob violence that Americans had, the Framers offer the one condition in the amendment by saying Americans can gather together but only if they are not violent. They didn’t say speech was free as long as it didn’t criticize; they didn’t say printers could print anything as long as it didn’t call for violence. But they did restrict public gatherings to peaceful purposes.

What is petitioning the Government for a redress of grievances? This means that Americans can criticize the government, and as you understand by now, this was not on the table in Europe. At a time when Europe was trying to end its centuries of strife by cracking down hard on any public expression, America was inviting its citizens to talk to their government and even make complaints. A redress of grievances is making something wrong right. If someone has injured (grieved) you, they must make it right somehow (redress it). If the government does something wrong, if it violates the Constitution, Americans have the right to demand that the government stop that violation and then make up for the damage it has done. This is two rights in one: the right to demand that the government obey the Constitution, and the right to demand repayment for any violations of the Constitution. This keeps the government honest, and sharpens people’s love for and commitment to the Constitution.

That’s a lot! But then this is the star amendment that, for most Americans, completely sums up who we are and how things here should be. You wouldn’t think another amendment could rival the First in importance, and for about two centuries none did. But in the late 20th century, the Second Amendment was wrested out of obscurity and thrust into the spotlight, and we’ll go over that amendment next time.


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