On September 25, 1789 – 228 years ago – Congress sent 12 constitutional amendments to state legislatures. The states ratified 10 of them. These amendments became the Bill of Rights.
Even though the Constitution was still being ratified when the Bill of Rights was introduced, many founders were concerned the document gave the federal government too much power.
James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights to rectify those grievances and protect people from government power. Madison’s passion for restraining government was evident in his essay, Federalist 51, in which he famously wrote,
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Because human nature is imperfect and people are prone to abuse power, the government needs to be restrained. History shows that unlimited government power leads to corruption and violence. A free society needs to have safeguards protecting individuals from such oppression.
The Primacy of Free Speech
The Bill of Rights is just as relevant today as it was more than 200 years ago, especially the First Amendment, which protects the right to religious liberty, association and speech.
A free society cannot exist without free speech. People must be free to share their ideas without fear of reprisal. Otherwise, it would be impossible to hold the government accountable or bring about positive change.
An Early Challenge to Free Speech
The United States’ commitment to free speech was tested soon after the Bill of Rights’ passage. In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Acts were passed under the pretext of protecting the young nation from subversive ideas as it went to war with France.
Under the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Adams administration prosecuted and condemned political opponents like pamphleteer James T. Callendar. Callendar received a $200 penalty and nine months in jail for his crime of criticizing Adams and the Federalists for corrupt practices.
Callendar’s sentencing under the Alien and Sedition Acts is a reminder of the necessity of the Bill of Rights. If the United States lost sight of its ideals so soon after its founding, how much more vulnerable are those ideals today, two centuries after the hard-fought gains of the American Revolution?
Free Speech: The Antidote to Tyranny
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 offer Americans an important lesson: Governments hate free speech because it can be used to keep them accountable.
Madison wrote, “Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” History shows that freedom of speech is the best antidote to government tyranny because it gives voice to dissent and empowers people to enact change. That’s why free speech is paramount to a healthy republic.
By defending free speech, we honor the legacy of the framers and the thousands of troops who laid down their lives to defend our fundamental liberties. Becoming a “more perfect union” starts with realizing one of government’s most important duties is to protect the free expression of ideas.