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The First Amendment

Page history last edited by jordan55@... 14 years, 5 months ago



An amendment is an alteration of or an addition to a bill, motion or constitution. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was enacted on December 15, 1791, four years after the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787. The First Amendment came as part of the Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution and aimed at enunciating and protecting fundamental civil liberties of Americans. James Madison, deemed “Father of the Constitution”, drafted the First Amendment, which states: "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." It is important to note that despite such a guarantee, the First Amendment’s drafters and supporters were unsure of the potential and importance of this amendment in the new Republic. As Benjamin Franklin noted in relation to the First Amendment, “Few of us” have any “distinct Ideas of its Nature and Extent.”



Inspiration for the First Amendment can be traced to the migration of English dissenters seeking religious freedom. During this time there was no United States Constitution to amend, but the logic and reasoning for freedom of press, speech and religion developed in the minds of those suppressed by King Henry VIII during the Protestant Reformation, which began in England in 1517. Later inspiration came in the form of pamphlets and booklets. In 1644 John Milton released Areopagitica, a pamphlet arguing against prior restraint and the idea of licensing or qualifying an individual’s work or expressions. Milton' writings introduced two key concepts, “the free marketplace for ideas” and the “self-righting process of truth."



"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ." This concept suggests personal freedom to choose one's own connection to religion and that there be no religion implemented, suggested, or supported by government. In 1786 Thomas Jefferson published the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom that suggests that a “wall of separation between church and state” should exist. His arguments for freedom of religious opinion would later be applied by idealist for freedom of political opinion in developing 

the modern understanding of the First Amendment.



Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. . . .” On July 14, 1798, Federalist President John Adams signed into law The Alien and Sedition Acts, which criminalized criticism of the federal government or its officials. The Federalists contended that the law nonetheless safeguarded free expression by providing for truth as a defense and requiring that malicious intent and seditious effect be proved in a prosecution.  In 1799 James Madison published a detailed report on the Sedition Act for the Virginia State Legislature. In it Madison explains that it was illogical to assume the First Amendment to only negate prior restraints: “It would be a mockery to say that no law should be passed preventing publications from being made, but that laws might be passed for punishing them in case they should be made.” This suggests an absolute interpretation of the First Amendment --that it protected speech under all circumstances and whether it was true or false.



“Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press. . . .” Judge Alexander Addison wrote in an effort to warn Federalist colleagues in support of the Sedition Act that “writing and printing are the great directors of public opinion, and public opinion is the great director of human action. Give any set of men the command of the press and you give them the command of the country.” Although Addison’s warning was in part a suggestion to the Federalist Party to take control of the press, he knew how powerful freedom of the press and speech was and his suggestion to the Federalists party illustrates the importance in preserving the freedom of the American press and speech.


In 1798 Republican Congressmen Matthew Lyon was the first person to be tried under the Sedition Act.  Lyon published a letter in Spooner’s Vermont Journal in which he vigorously criticized President Adams and his administration, stating that  for Adams, “every consideration of public welfare ‘was’ swallowed up in a continual grasp for power.” Lyon proceeded to criticize the Adams administration with the founding of the Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truths magazine in 1798. In its first issue Lyons explained that the magazine’s objective was to “lay before the public such facts as may tend to elucidate the real situation of this country.” He added that if and when the executive powers present any opposition “injurious to my constituents and the Constitution, I am bound by oath to oppose it.” Lyons was indicted under the Sedition Act on October 5, 1798, and was later convicted, sentenced to four months in prison, and given a $1060.96 fine. This being the first trial and conviction under the alien and sedition acts, Lyons was shocked to receive such harsh sentencing. In the ten sedition trials following the Lyon's case, all were convicted. For more information about The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 follow this link.


Check out the Freedom of the Press page to learn more about the development of free press in America. And for more information about First Amendment cases and history visit www.firstamendmentcenter.org.



Annotated Bibliography

Bruce, Thomas R., Martin, Peter W. (1999). "First Amendment: An Overview." Retrieved November 6, 2008, from www.law.cornell.edu Web site:





This comprehensive website from the University of Cornell includes over 600 United States Supreme Court cases and over a decade of commentary by the New York Court of Appeals. It also includes word for word definitions of all Constitutional amendments along with scholarly articles that highlight some of the major ideals behind various amendments, including freedom of speech.



Haynes, Charles C., Policinski, Gene (Updated November 6, 2008). "About the First Amendment." Retrieved November 6, 2008, from


www.firstamendmentcenter.org Web site: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/about.aspx?item=about_firstamd



This organizational website includes historical perspectives and moments specifically related to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The website is sourced from the Vanderbilt University and includes a wide variety of court cases that illustrate the importance and difficulty in the application of the First Amendment. Along with brief case descriptions are subtopics that the site publishes in answer to frequently asked questions about the First Amendment.


Perry, B. (2006). JEFFERSON'S LEGACY TO THE SUPREME COURT: FREEDOM OF RELIGION. Journal of Supreme Court History, 31(2), 181-198. Retrieved November 29, 2008, from America: History & Life database.


Stone, Geoffrey R. (2004). Perilous Times Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York, New York: W. W. Norton and Company.  


Streitmatter, Rodger (2008). Mightier than the Sword. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.



Streitmatter’s text describes historical journalistic investigations, such as of the Tweed Ring in New York, and of the Klu Klux Klan in the South. It also describes defenders of the free press, such as Elijah Lovejoy’s editorilizng for abolition of slavery in the face of murderous opposition. These historical cases are used by Streitmatter to emphasize the importance of freedom of expression from a journalistic perspective.










Comments (1)

Elizabeth Gross said

at 7:33 pm on Dec 6, 2008

In the press paragraph, you wrote about Addison and how he was trying to persuade Federalists to take control of the press, but also how he wanted it to be free. Could you further clarify how he thought the two could be simultaneous?
The case you talk about where a man was fined for violating the Sedition Act could be closed better by talking a little about reactions to his conviction. Maybe add a link to my page about the Alien and Sedition Acts... and possibly links to information about other early cases which violated freedom of the press.
See you Monday!

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