U.S. Constitution, Amendment I

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U.S. Constitution, Amendment I


By: James Madison

Date: 1789

Source: "Amendment I." The Constitution of the United States of America, 1789.

About the Author: James Madison crafted much of the text of what would become the Bill of Rights for the United States Constitution. Madison helped to create the Democratic party in the 1790s and went on to become the fourth president of the United States.


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was written as part of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment is best known for addressing freedom of religion, free speech, a free press, the right of people to assemble, and the right to appeal to the government with grievances. In drafting the initial version of the Bill of rights in 1789, James Madison was influenced by the 1689 English Bill of Rights and the 1776 Virginia Bill of Rights, written by delegate George Mason. The inclusion of a Bill of Rights patterned after the two previous documents was the source of agreement and argument for the founding fathers.

The Revolutionary War against the colonial power of Britain had been sparked in large part by decisions made by King George III and the British Parliament, decisions which the colonists could not readily influence through any legal or political process. A Bill of Rights, proponents argued, would strip any future leader of the United States of absolute power; granting the people human liberties in the founding documents themselves would preserve the republic being formed and shaped in the late 1780s and early 1790s. The drafters were not unanimous in support of a Bill of Rights; Alexander Hamilton argued that ratification of the Constitution without a Bill of Rights was appropriate and just, for the people did not relinquish their natural rights by entering into a contract with a government; codifying those rights was unnecessary, in Hamilton's opinion, because the government had no inherent right or power to abridge natural rights.

The First Amendment incorporated rights that had been abridged directly by the British power in previous decades; the amendment protects these rights from legislation by Congress, and the court system interprets the Constitution based on these enumerated rights. The First Amendment, crafted to protect a wide array of rights, has become a cornerstone in American democracy and in shaping civil society.


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 First Amendment, in U.S. society, is associated with the concept of freedom of expression, be it in the form of religion, speech, the press, or through physical or media protests. The "establishment clause" in the First Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing a state religion or showing preference for one religion over another. The "separation of church and state" concept stretched into public schools in the 1963 Supreme Court case Murray v. Curlett, which found that mandatory prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, in violation of the First Amendment. Eight years later, in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Lemon v. Kurtzman that public school systems funds could not be spent to send students to religious schools. Public schools, as a government institution, must remain secular and funds must be spent on secular interests. The freedom of religion in the First Amendment is often interpreted as freedom from religion; the establishment clause prevents the government from creating a state religion, while individuals are free to worship in their religion of choice as long as their actions related to religion do not violate the rights of others or established law.

Freedom of speech and of the press faced an early challenge: the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Signed into law by President John Adams, the Sedition Act included a provision that made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the federal government or any elected or appointed official. The Acts angered colonists, who viewed such moves as an encroachment on the new rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson won election to the presidency in 1800 in part because of anger at Adams for signing the acts into law. While courts have limited some speech, such as hate speech or sexually explicit conversation in the workplace, free speech protections have shaped a society that permits a wide range of opinions to be expressed and published—even those opinions that run counter to the political party in charge in the White House or Congress.

Historically, the Supreme Court has interpreted the extent to which individuals can exercise the rights expressed in the First Amendment. In addition, while the amendment states that Congress cannot abridge the rights of the people, the Supreme Court has interpreted the amendment to include the federal government as a whole. Supreme Court cases addressing various aspects of the First Amendment include the 1963 case Edwards v. South Carolina, which protected the rights of African-American high school students to peacefully assemble and protest; the 1966 case A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, which examined questions of obscenity in printed material versus free speech; and the 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, which restricts the First Amendment rights of all federal employees when notifying managers about wrongdoing or problems on the job.

In crafting the First Amendment, James Madison and his colleagues worked to create a society in which free expression would be guaranteed for all citizens, with a judicial mechanism for weighing the rights of the individual against the rights of society. As this eighteenth-century document is applied to twenty-first-century norms, the First Amendment continues to provide guidance in shaping the personal, the political, and the public in American society.



Abrams, Floyd. Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment. New York: Viking Adult, 2005.

Breyer, Stephen. Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Nelson, Samuel P. Beyond the First Amendment: The Politics of Free Speech and Pluralism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

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U.S. Constitution, Amendment I