The Bill of Rights: the Story Behind the Amendments

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Part 2: The First Amendment

Article V of the Constitution gives the government and the states the power to amend, or "alter," the Constitution. So a number of delegates, James Madison chief among them, came up with 10 amendments that they wanted added to the Constitution.

It wasn't easy. Federalists, those delegates who believed that a strong central government could be trusted, didn't necessarily want the Bill of Rights. But in the end, when Madison and other champions of the 10 Amendments stood their ground, the two sides reached a compromise: the rights protections wouldn't go in the Constitution itself but would make up the first 10 amendments.

Now, let's look at each amendment in detail and see where it came from and why it was adopted.

Amendment I
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.

These freedoms were especially to the American people because they didn't have those freedoms under the British government.

  • The official religion of Great Britain was Anglicanism. Other religions were tolerated, but only one was "official." Further, people who practiced a religion other than Anglicanism were not always treated as well as people who did.
  • Americans who spoke out against the government, either vocally or in newspapers or pamphlets, were thrown in jail.
  • Americans who tried to gather to protest government policy were routinely harassed and many times jailed.
  • Americans who tried to get the British government to listen to complaints routinely met with stony silence or outright violence.

For all these reasons, the First Amendment was very specific in including all these things.

Next page > Amendments II, III, and IV > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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David White