Know your Constitution Series: Part 1 - The Motivation for the First Amendment

     Most of all have taken some sort of American government class at some point and time, and we all learned about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights but we really did not learn the history behind the various amendments. Every single law, and amendments are laws, are on the books for a reason. They are a reaction to an existing or past problem that intends on creating a solution. The purpose of this series on this blog is to tell the story behind the amendments. What better amendment to begin with than the first one.

"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."

     The "Establishment Clause" as its called is perhaps one of the most misunderstood rights we possess in the United States of America. Most people have probably heard the phrase "separation of church and state" in relation to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, but you will find it not once mentioned in those documents. The real source of that phrase was a letter written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson, some 11 years after the First Amendment was adopted in 1791. When the Bill of Rights was written, including the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson was not an elected official at all. He was instead minister to France, and was out of the country when it was written. He only returned the same month the entire Bill of Rights was finalized and progressed to the process of ratification. Even then, he had no influence on it, as he was a cabinet member for President Washington. So he had nothing to do with the crafting and debate on any of the rights in the Bill of Rights, something that deeply saddened the man.Yet he is probably the most influential founding father on the issue since his phrase gets brought up in about every First Amendment court case regarding religion.

   So why was there even a perceived need to keep religion and government from getting in bed with one another(how big that wall is will always be up for debate)? Well simply put the founding fathers knew their history well. They had studied the history of Europe and England. The two centuries before had seen much chaos, misery, and bloodshed because of governments getting involved in religion and vice versa. Reformation and counter-reformations spread hate and anger and lead to civil wars and revolutions in Europe in the 1500's and 1600's. As ecclesiastical leaders and politicians tried to establish their official brand of Christianity in their respective areas, wars both civil and international sprang up leading to massive casualties and suffering.
  1. German Peasants War of 1524-1525- The common people in various German lands within the Holy Roman Empire rose up in the wake of the Lutheran reformation and attempted to shake up not only the religious paradigm but the social/political structure that had been so closely tied to the old Catholic dominated system. Anywhere from 100k to 300k poorly armed and trained peasants died in this short but violent uprising.
  2. French Civil Wars (1562-1598)- A series of short civil wars erupted as the reformation that had began  with Martin Luther in the German lands spread west into the Kingdom of France breeding a new breed of French Protestants called the Huguenots. The Huguenots sought to undue the strong Catholic system long standing in France since the Frankish King Clovis I was converted to Christianity from his pagan religion in 496A.D.. Each war tended to be more violent and severe than before and as rival families tied their political ambitions to the religious factions , it took on a whole new dimension and added fuel to the fire. Thousands were slaughtered and the violence spread to the new world when the Catholic Spanish forces slaughtered an entire French Huguenot settlement at Jacksonville in 1565.
  3. 30 Years War (1618-1648)- The unresolved tensions of the Lutheran Reformation spilled over in 1618 with the famous "Defenestration of Prague" the only war ever started by throwing people out a window.  When the new leader of Bohemia attempted to start a Catholic counter reformation on his largely Protestant subjects. This resulted in the storming of a building by protestants who promptly threw the Catholic regents out of window some 70 feet high. Miraculously none of the men that found themselves defenestrated (thrown from a window) were killed. But the revolt lit the powder-keg and led to 30 years of war in continental Europe. Political leaders from many nations tied themselves to various Catholic and protestant armies and attempted to restore or overthrow the official religions in Central Europe by force. Estimates range on the toll, but some say it might have resulted in the death of 1/4 of the population of the Holy Roman Empire, a similar toll to what the Black Death took some 300 years before. Many died of starvation and disease as well as violence. Some credit this war with setting the German lands back behind France and England in development until the 19th century.
  4. The English Civil War (1642-1651)- The war that disrupted England for several decades had its roots in the reformation of Henry VIII who renounced Rome in the 1530's and declared himself not only king but religious leader of all of England. His reformation was moderate, leaving radical Lutherans and Calvinists displeased as well as the Catholics he abandoned to seek a divorce. Any that disagreed with this moderation found themselves imprisoned and often executed. When he died his young and sick son Edward took the throne and instituted a harsh push for more radical reform, but died as a teen, and like his father left his reformation unfinished. This led to a violent Catholic counter reformation by his older sister Mary, who killed so many protestants she became known as "Bloody Mary". She too died in short order before her religious paradigm solidified. Only when Elizabeth I came to the throne and ruled for 4 decades did the protestant reformation have the time it needed to solidify. England somehow had survived four radical religious changes.

         However, when Elizabeth I died in 1603 without an heir the throne passed to the Stuart dynasty from Scotland. This family had strong family ties to Catholic France and immediately tried to scale back the protestant reformation. James I was able to navigate this well, but his successor and son Charles I did not. His Catholic leanings were intense and along with his French proclivity for religion was a very Francophile taste for Absolutism. His combination of politics and religion(remember the kind was the head of the Church) galvanized protestant and parliamentarian opposition. The war lasted for almost a decade and led to the English executing their King, shocking the world a full century before the French got the idea during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution of 1789.
     The founding fathers were all learned men. They saw how when religion and government became intertwined the interest and sins of one often dragged the other into conflict. The idea that governments were able to dictate the brand and flavor of religion on their subjects caused much misery. Indeed, it was why the famous Pilgrims left England under James I. The Puritans found themselves and their more zealous brand of protestantism under attack by the moderate King. These puritans also had created a theocracy of their own that led to the suppression and persecution of any people not prescribing to their Calvinist beliefs. When the Bill of Rights was created, there were no less than a dozen brands of faith in the new nation. Having seen what happened when politics got involved in religious factionalism, the leaders of America knew that the past sins of Europe should be taken as a warning to not repeat the same mistakes.

      During all of the above and past ugliness in Europe regarding religion, the other rights laid out in the first amendment were under attack. If you printed or even owned a book that was not favorable to the current king or ecclesiastical leader you could be attacked by the state and prosecuted. If you found yourself protesting, you found yourself jailed or executed. All of these were seen as essential rights for all, just as was the notion that you could pick your own religion, or in the case of some founders, elect to have none at all (Thomas Paine). Free exercise of the mind was equal to free exercise of the soul in the eyes of the new government. For it was not only the lack of religious freedom that had caused those conflicts but a lack of freedom in general.

     While one could write on forever about the history of the First Amendment, and indeed there are complete monographs dedicated to certain amendments of the constitution, this is a pretty distilled background as to why a bunch of men decided to sit down in 1789 and address the issue. The new nation was to be a grand experiment, one that would learn from the past of the Old World and intended to free itself from those troublesome system by not making the same erros as European kings and princes did. The political structure would be new and so would its relationship with the men of the cloth. There would be no Church of America as there had been a Church of England. There would be no head of government to dictate laws of faith to the people as well as secular laws like the popes, kings and princes of Europe did. It was indeed an ambitious experiment that would eventually be attempted again in the Old World in France....but with much more violence results. But that story is for another entry on another day.

Thanks for stopping by...hope you learned something. If you enjoyed this or like history all I can say is(besides please subscribe)...

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