During the COVID-19 crisis, many Americans felt a renewed call to study and uphold their First Amendment rights. These rights are so vital to American life and liberty that Founding Father George Mason, a writer of the U.S. Constitution, refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t have these guaranteed “basic freedoms.” Fittingly, Mason later became known as the father of the Bill of Rights, which is an empowering set of basic laws that have helped to keep America free for more than 230 years.
First Amendment rights are rooted in the Declaration of Independence, the 1776 document penned mostly by Thomas Jefferson which laid out principles that serve as the foundation for the U.S. Constitution. For example, we know that “All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness…”. This principle is found in the Declaration but resides permanently in nature itself. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton said that unalienable rights cannot be found in old papers and musty records because they are written into human nature and can never be erased by governments. John Adams said that unalienable rights precede earthly governments. Constitution-signer John Dickinson said that our unalienable rights are born with us, exist with us, and cannot be taken from us without taking our lives.
When creating the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the founders worked from the basic idea that unalienable rights aren’t given to us by governments, and therefore governments cannot regulate them.
The First Amendment states it this way, and for purposes of clarity, let’s put it in modern terms: “Congress may not make any law that sets up any religion, or interferes with any religious practice. Congress may not make any law that restricts freedom of speech, or the freedom of the press or the right of the people to assemble peacefully, or the right of the people to petition (request) the Government to make things right if it has caused them harm.”
Five profound freedoms found in the First Amendment make the people of the United States the freest people in the world. Let’s look briefly at each one:
1st– We have the freedom of religion which is the freedom to live out our own chosen faith or no faith at all. We must respect the rights of our fellow Americans to live out theirs as well. This has major ramifications for how laws are made — and which laws are allowed to stand — at every level of government including cities, counties, states and the federal government.
2nd– We have the freedom of speech which means we can say whatever we want even if it’s not popular at the time.
3rd– Freedom of the press means we enjoy a free market of news outlets rather than a state-controlled media.
4th– We have the right to assemble together to speak out against the actions of the government when we disagree, or to assemble to worship as we choose.
5th– The right to petition our government can take the form of a letter to a congressman or to the editor, or joining a political activist group or participating in a local march or rally. John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, believed so strongly in the right to petition that he would present petitions to Congress even when he disagreed with them!
As we can see, the First Amendment was so important that the Founders put it first! When crises or political goals cause some leaders to try to encroach on these liberties, Americans have a way of embracing their founding principles and documents again, guaranteeing that we hand the same set of freedoms to our children.