A New Perspective: Part 2
A few posts back I stated that I would be delving into the matters of the First Amendment. I promised to perform this task in three separate post to help explain a little more of my opinion on this Amendment in addition to relating it to current topics such as gay rights, women’s rights, and the SCOTUS’s new stance on corporation and their own freedom of speech. It has been a very troubling debate on both sides and it will continue to be the heart of the debate for a long time. For this particular posting, I will be turning our eyes back to the historical context of the First Amendment. This will include a brief overview of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who both played a role in the interpretation of the First Amendment.
In the late 1700s, the colonies had come to understand the struggles of their own forefathers who had brought them to the New World. To these colonists, there was some distant authority claiming the power to tax and to direct the lives of the colonies without a single chance to represent their voice. The separation of the colonies from England formed the basis of the coming Revolution and the establishment of a new kind of democracy that would change the world. At the roots of this coming conflict were the ideas on the freedoms of speech and of religion.
This notion had brought the first colonists across the ocean to settle as pilgrims or Calvinists from England. They were looking for a land that would allow them to escape the persecution from the Church of England. We often looked to this group as the seed of the revolution that the colonists would fight one day. Their desire to have liberty to choose a life where they could worship as they wanted was essential. They wanted a freedom to speak their voice without fear of prosecution. That spirit continued to grow until 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was finally signed and presented to the King of England.
The idea of free speech has a very long history, but for this reflection, I will narrow it down to the context that we are addressing. Speech had been regulated and censored by the governors appointed for the colonies by the King. The suppression of the press and the right to speak out against injustice allowed the thought that the colonists were suffering from ‘taxation without representation.’ The stir to have a voice set the spark that all should have the right to free speech. The friction was building. It would have to be dealt with in a defining moment.
Along with this, the powers across the sea also held great sway over the established churches in the colonies. Not all of the colonies had arrived with the freedom to choose. The Puritans were still linked to the Church of England. In Maryland, the establishment of a Catholic colony was granted by England’s throne, but later, it was revoked. The colony was reestablished as under the authority of the Church of England. This authority barred Catholics from office and disenfranchised them. It was not always enforced, but the practice was in place. In Massachusetts, the church of the state was a combination of Puritans, Calvinists, and Protestants.
It is clear that these colonists were seeking to be free so they could practice their own religions without some government or large organization ruling over them. The Reformation, a few centuries before, had set a precedence that supported the spirit resting in the hearts of these colonists. They wanted to be free to worship as they believed.
This is the context within which Jefferson and Madison had come to the table. Each brought several wordings of the First Amendment, but most were rejected by the others as being too narrow when it came to the clause pertaining to the religion. With the wording that set the establishment of free speech, the authors of the First Amendment wanted to guarantee that the government being created would not be allowed to set one religion above the others or prohibit any religion. This was the simple phrase that would become the source of great debate in the centuries that followed.
Now, that the context of the First Amendment is understood and the players in our little country’s history are in place, we can explore how all this applies to our current policy debates. It is obvious to me that while we may have come from that rebel’s cry for a government that was meant to serve the people; some in the government have decided that they will only serve a few people. It is time that we all use our free speech to remind the lawmakers that they serve the majority rather than the minority.
So, I will leave this topic for now. The next part will allow us to drive right into the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment. We will not explore the beginnings of the ideal, but we will allow the context that I have established here to support the matters of our current policy debates.