Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, of the press; of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Our first amendment to the Constitution demonstrates the importance of the rights therein. Most of us are aware of the first amendment privileges, but how many of us understand what events led to our forefathers to place such importance on these issues.
The freedom of religion was developed very slowly by the many sects that had developed. Some sects imposed laws and taxes on the colonists. By the time the Constitutional Congress had met, many religious doctrines prevailed. None dominated. In spite of the intolerance exhibited by the early colonist, religious tolerance was on the rise and was underscored by the Toleration Act of Maryland. England exercised loose control over religion that it later attempted to tighten. But that attempt failed as religious colonies. Eventually, the first Congress saw the need to protect this unique freedom.
In 1734, John Peter Zenger, a poor German printer and editor of the “New York Weekly Journal,” was brought to trial for publishing articles which criticized the governor of New York (appointed by the King of England). The jury found that his statements were not libelous and he was acquitted. This was the germ that was soon to become the partial framework for the very first amendment to our new Constitution, including freedom of the press.
It is somewhat paradoxical that while the Constitutional Congress met to develop a stronger more centralized government, strict rules of secrecy were enforced. No press was allowed to attend or report on the proceedings that eventually developed the foundation of the Constitution. Some statesmen acknowledged that the secrecy of the proceedings were what made the final document possible.
After the Constitution was drafted, it went to the states for ratification. Some that were opposed to the new Constitution noted that it contained no Bill of Rights. In 1788, the new Constitution went into effect for eleven states which had already ratified it. North Carolina joined the Union after the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. Rhode Island soon joined also so as not to be treated as a foreign power subject to tariffs. Today, we have our first amendment rights as they stood over two hundred years ago. With care, perhaps we can continue for two hundred more.
-Michael W. Therrien