By Clinton Gill
Glade Sun editor
The First Amendment of the Constitution reads as follows:
"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 was written by James Madison, who was the author of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution that specifically define the basic freedoms of the individual that may not be legitimately infringed upon by the government. The first draft of the Constitution did not contain a Bill of Rights and was not ratified for that very reason. Perhaps I should step back for a moment, back to the beginning.
Our country would not look like what it does today were it not for small groups of dedicated men and women who shaped the future of a nation. Their stories are buried by the annals of history but the legacy of their struggles lives on. There are far too many to detail in this piece. Whole books have been written on the back stories of each amendment. My intent is to touch on the essence of these stories.
My beloved United States of America was birthed on July 4, 1776 when the Continental Congress severed the cord from Great Britain with a Declaration of Independence. There was a war on and many men were dying for a cause they would never realize but one their ancestors would enjoy for centuries to follow. That cause was freedom.
The Revolutionary War was won in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which recognized the United States as a sovereign state. Brave men and women earned our independence and freedom. The trick ever since has been keeping it. Originally, our government was a confederation, which is an alliance akin to each state being its own sovereign country. The Articles of Confederation united the 13 colonies under a flimsy umbrella. In a confederacy, the power of the state is strong while the national government remains weak. Historically, this structure of government does not last long for a variety of reasons, but that is a subject unto itself. The Articles of Confederation lasted from 1781-1789.
In 1787, delegations from each state assembled to establish a more stable form of government. There was much debate and derision. The country broke into two camps, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Federalism is sort of the opposite of a confederacy. In this system, the national government has most of the power. A Constitution was written based on the experiences and lessons learned from living under the crown. The first draft of the Constitution failed because it did not contain a Bill of Rights. The Anti-Federalists wanted a Bill of Rights that would guarantee certain unalienable rights that the government could not usurp. The Federalists argued that enumerating rights was dangerous because future governments could limit citizens to only those rights. More on that in a few weeks (Ninth Amendment).
Each amendment to the Constitution has a purpose and a history. The very first thing mentioned in these amendments is religion. This was not by accident. Our country was founded first and foremost on the principles of religious freedom. The First Amendment addresses religion in two clauses, the Establishment clause and the Exercise clause. The wording of these clauses has sparked debate over the intent of the founders since it was written. For instance, many would say that chaplains in the military violate the establishment clause, whereas others would say that failure to provide chaplains violates the exercise clause. In truth, there was dissent among the founders on the direction that the country should go. Some, like Patrick Henry, felt strongly that government should support religion, noting that a failure to acknowledge God would doom the chances of success from the start. Others, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, felt that established religion would give government a foothold for tyranny. At the time of its inception, most of the other countries in the world had government-established single-denomination religions that were used to oppress and persecute the citizenry.
Today, many try to argue that the founders were trying to keep religion completely separate from government because they viewed religion as bad. On the contrary, it was Madison (author of the Bill of Rights) who composed "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments" which stated "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects...that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever." Madison was not only concerned about the government using religion as a tool of oppression, he was more concerned that the government would corrupt religion. Madison ingeniously designed the language to ensure that religion could be freely practiced while including a provision in case the government should try to institutionalize it in order to expand its own power and influence. However, the weakness of the language is that it supposes a religious population. Today less than 25 percent of Americans say they go to church two to three times per month. The majority now uses the establishment clause to supersede the exercise clause and to suppress religion, which was never the founder's intent.
Despite addressing religion first, the First Amendment has become synonymous with free speech and championed by many who trample religion. Free speech was highly regarded for several reasons: it facilitates political participation, it allows people to vent their frustrations rather than resorting to violence, assures individual self fulfillment through expression, checks abuse of government power, promotes tolerance and allows for the discovery of truth. In all actuality, the First Amendment gives us the right to think freely. The spirit of the First Amendment is freedom of the mind. Without that provision, there can be no other freedoms. However, all rights have responsibilities and limits. Your freedoms originate from God but they end where my nose begins.