Overlooked document sets stage for country as we know it
NATCHEZ — Without the First Amendment, you could say what you want — but you might end up saying it in a prison.
The five basic rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights — the freedom of speech, press, religion and the rights to petition the government and peaceably assemble — are often taken for granted.
Without those rights, Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor Jim Wiggins said living in the United States would be nothing like we know it.
“There must be a concentration of power, or government, because it can serve a great purpose,” Wiggins said. “But without some means of control, like the bit and reigns on a stallion, you put yourself at the mercy of that concentration of power.”
Whether it is military, corporate or government power, human nature tends to lead many people to be corrupted by the power, Wiggins said.
“When there are great concentrations of power, there is always the possibility that it will be abused,” Wiggins said. “The purpose of the First Amendment is to restrain the power of government.”
Speech and press
The First Amendment was ratified along with the rest of the Bill of Rights in 1791, though not without some disagreement among the founding fathers over which is more important — state or individual rights.
By 1798, when the U.S. was in an undeclared war with France, many people did end up in prison for writing editorials that disagreed with then President John Adams’ policies.
“The Bill of Rights had just been ratified in 1791, and seven years later they are already disagreeing about what the Freedom of Speech means,” Wiggins said.
“They purposely left the terminology broad, taking for granted that people knew what the rights meant.”
Adams created the Sedition Acts, which made it illegal to express views against government policy.
“Adams said that national security trumps free press and speech because they create dissent in the nation,” Wiggins said. “Adams felt that if the dissent brought down the nation you have no other rights, and many of the other founding fathers, such as Alexander Hamilton, agreed.
“James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others, on the other side of the issue, felt that if you didn’t have the right to free speech, you had no rights.”
Franklin claimed, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
Two clauses outline the freedom of religion. The first is that congress cannot establish a national religion. The second clause prevents the government from interfering with a person’s religious practices.
Wiggins said some believed that establishing an official religion would purify the state, but the founding fathers believed that the opposite would occur.
“Madison, who is one of the fathers of the constitution, shied away from an established religion,” Wiggins said. “It was not to protect politics from religion but to protect the church from corrupt politicians.”
While certain rituals, such as animal or human sacrifice are banned, the government has no right to create laws discouraging or encouraging any particular denomination.
Assembly and petition
The founding fathers added assembly and petition to the Bill of Rights because they realized that freedom to exercise speech alone isn’t enough when it comes to addressing the government, Wiggins said.
“You can stand up and yell at the top of your lungs until you are blue in the face,” Wiggins said. “But if your goal is to change government policy, then screaming at the top of your lungs is like beating your head against a brick wall — you are not accomplishing anything.”
One person only has so much influence, but if that person can gather with others of a like mind then there is more power to the freedom of speech.
The ability to petition also gives more power to the group’s voice, as it allows a group to organize a signed notice to the government that shows just how much dissent there is against policy.
Wiggins said without the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution might have never been ratified.
The Bill of Rights were submitted together in 1789 and ratified in 1791. Three-fourths of the then 14 states had to pass the Bill of Rights.
The Constitution was ratified in 1788, 11 years after the War of Independence began. This was five years after the British government officially acknowledged the U.S. as a nation.
“Before the Constitution, we had the Articles of Confederation,” Wiggins said. “One of the arguments against the Constitution was that it does not include a list of basic rights.”
Some founding fathers opposed the Constitution because it took power away from the states and gave it to a centralized power, the federal government. Many worried that this power could take away rights guaranteed to people by the individual states, which were the major holders of power in the Articles of Confederation.
“Soon after the Constitution was ratified they added a list of rights to make sure the national government could not take away rights,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins said knowledge that the Bill of Rights would come satisfied the majority and it allowed the U.S. to become what it has become today.