James Madison, The First Amendment, and The Bill of Rights

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"All power in human hands is liable to be abused." — James Madison

James MadisonAlthough James Madison is often referred to as the "Father of the Constitution" for his success in shepherding the document through its various stages to ratification, he was also wary of the powers this document granted to the newly formed government. Madison, along with Thomas Jefferson, wanted to protect fundamental human liberties that he believed could be abridged by the government. This month, EDSITEment focuses on Madison's Bill of Rights, a series of amendments that secure human liberties and impose further checks and balances upon the power of the federal government.

One such fundamental liberty of concern to Madison and others—freedom of speech—is the subject of an EDSITEment lesson, The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country?. Besides studying the text and learning about the historical context of the First Amendment,  students compare Supreme Court cases, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Oyez, Oyez, Oyez: Supreme Court WWW Resource, in order to distinguish between instances of free speech that are and are not protected by the Constitution. You and your students can also learn about the First Amendment and about the Bill of Rights, in general, by reading a paper written by Ira Glasser, The Bill of Rights: A Brief History, available through a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed site, CongressLink. Another excellent online article, A More Perfect Union: The Creation of the U.S. Constitution, is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Digital Classroom from the National Archives and Records Administration.

James Madison's inspiration to write a bill of rights was the anti-Federalists, a group of men who opposed the Constitution. He agreed with the famous patriot Patrick Henry and other anti-Federalists who argued that such a bill was necessary to protect citizens from the tyranny that the colonists experienced under the rule of King George III and to state the limitations of the government's power; one reason the First Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights was that, during the American Revolution, George III had prevented the publication of newspapers criticizing his rule.

The American colonists' response to this and other oppressive aspects of British rule, as well as the effect of that response on the eventual shape of the Constitution, is the subject of another EDSITEment lesson plan, Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances. This lesson helps students understand the conflicting impulses that the framers of the Constitution sought to balance: on the one hand, they attempted to limit the arbitrary exercise of power that the colonists had experienced under British rule; and, on the other, they addressed a perception, which had become widespread by about 1787, that the Articles of Confederation had produced a federal government too weak to effectively rule the new nation. To learn more about the ways in which the Constitution sought to counter the perceived inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, written in 1781 in reaction to years of British rule, see the EDSITEment lesson plan, The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union?

Virginian delegate James Madison believed that the Bill of Rights would ensure the acceptance of the Constitution by both the Federalists and anti-Federalists. Moreover, he believed the Bill would inspire citizens to unite against any future attempts of government to infringe upon natural rights. On October 31, 1788, Madison wrote that the Bill would be "a good ground for an appeal to the sense of community" and would "counteract the impulses of interest and passion." Today, this bill serves not only as a protector of American rights but also as a source of controversy as citizens continually attempt to stretch its limitations to include a wider range of freedoms.

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ABOUT THE IMAGE

James Madison (1751–1836).
Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.