Civics 101: The First Amendment

J. H. Osborne • Jan 27, 2020 at 3:00 PM

Been hearing a lot of mentions of the First Amendment in the news recently? Here are a few facts to refresh your memory on the topic, all taken from the website of the U.S. Archives, home to our nation's founding documents.

What does it do?

“The First Amendment provides several rights protections: to express ideas through speech and the press, to assemble or gather with a group to protest or for other reasons, and to ask the government to fix problems. It also protects the right to religious beliefs and practices. It prevents the government from creating or favoring a religion.”

Transcript of 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."

Where is it?

It was not a part of the original U.S. Constitution, but, as its name implies, was an amendment added soon after the Constitution was approved. Most scholars say passage of the Constitution relied on the expecation of a series of amendments that would quickly follow. These would become the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights

“The Bill of Rights is the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. It spells out Americans’ rights in relation to their government. It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual — like freedom of speech, press, and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the Federal Government to the people or the States. And it specifies that ‘the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.’ ”

The Bill of Rights in the First Congress

“Few members of the First Congress wanted to make amending the new Constitution a priority. But James Madison, once the most vocal opponent of the Bill of Rights, introduced a list of amendments to the Constitution on June 8, 1789, and “hounded his colleagues relentlessly” to secure its passage. Madison had come to appreciate the importance voters attached to these protections, the role that enshrining them in the Constitution could have in educating people about their rights, and the chance that adding them might prevent its opponents from making more drastic changes to it.”

Ratifying the Bill of Rights

“The House passed a joint resolution containing 17 amendments based on Madison’s proposal. The Senate changed the joint resolution to consist of 12 amendments. A joint House and Senate Conference Committee settled remaining disagreements in September. On October 2, 1789, President Washington sent copies of the 12 amendments adopted by Congress to the states. By December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states had ratified 10 of these, now known as the ‘Bill of Rights.’ ”

Source: The U.S. Archives