The Founders Intent for the First Amendment - Pt II

By Daniel Hubert


Without the principles of the First Amendment, revolution would be impossible.
With the First Amendment, revolution is unnecessary.

In our part-one article on this amendment, the case was made that the first amendment was intended not as four independent liberties, but four interdependent liberties that assured the People could be protected from the Government through their own choice in faith, association, speech and protest, and the freedom to file grievances. This was a distinct protection not enjoyed under England’s rule. They assured peaceful revolution would always be possible, and tyranny almost impossible. Any without all would prove toothless in the path of true tyranny.

The Founders understood how the revolution dramatically changed the political landscape from King George’s England; if Americans could break off from the Church of England, why not England itself?[i] Politically, the states needed assurances the national government they created could not reverse the new spiritual freedoms now practiced on farms and plantations. The Virginians, Madison and Mason helped shepherd the creation of some amendments to the young Constitution. They wrote:

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.


Madison and Mason lived through the end of the Great Awakening and the entire Revolution. They must have learned a critical lesson: government is downstream from culture. Taxation without representation is correctly viewed as the impetus for the American Revolution. At the same time, they knew the Revolution likely would not have occurred without the Great Awakening.[ii]

The political aspects of the Revolution cannot be separated from the religious. The Great Awakening in the colonies in the first half of the 18th century fractured the King’s control over a centralized, national religion. By the Revolution, approximately two-thirds of the white population[iii] were dissenters from the Church of England. Although not political, the Great Awakening held deep political ramifications.

The Virginians were the first to articulate the principles of the First Amendment, but the elder statesman from Pennsylvania had already practiced them for years. Without realizing, Benjamin Franklin and his Philadelphia press demonstrated the practical use and logical outcome of putting government downstream of culture;[iv] a government of the people.

Pennsylvania’s pluralism already promoted the first goal of the First Amendment: disestablishment. The colony had no official State religion. At the same time, the public donated money to build a hall specifically reserved for preachers of all faiths.

George Whitefield noted,

“The House and Ground were vested in Trustees, expressly for the Use of any Preacher of any religious Persuasion who might desire to say something to the People of Philadelphia…”


If transported to modern culture, Whitefield would be a household name. He would be the most widely known preacher in America. He would be a pioneer on social networking sites, possibly a commentator on a Fox News morning show, have a blog, and have an hour blocked off on Sunday morning television. Think Billy Graham meets Mark Zuckerberg.[v] Everyone knew him. And Whitefield was impressed that Philadelphia would pay for a pulpit for preachers of all religions.

Publicly funding a hall for preaching would certainly be viewed as a violation of First Amendment principles today. No doubt, secularists would assert the principle of “separation of church and state.”[vi] This phrase as understood today would have been completely foreign to Franklin, Madison, and Mason. While they sought to keep a national government from mandating a national religion, they did not seek to prevent religion from influencing government.

Whitefield and Franklin met in Philadelphia in 1739. Around the same time Whitefield came to Philadelphia, he began printing journals and a monthly periodical.[vii] Although unproven, it is believed Franklin and Whitefield grew wealthy in large part to Franklin publishing Whitefield’s stories.

Famously, Franklin and some friends from his Junto club attended a Whitefield sermon in Philadelphia. He had resolved not to donate any money to an orphanage Whitefield planned, but by the end of the sermon, emptied his pockets. Another fellow had anticipated the overwhelming urge to donate, and had removed his money before coming to the sermon. He turned to a friend for a loan, but was rebuffed. “At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely; but not now; for thee seems to be out of thy right Senses,” he said.


Franklin is not viewed by history as a revolutionary. He was loyal to the Crown. He arranged for his illegitimate son to become Governor of New Jersey. Sent to London by his fellow Pennsylvanians, his initial task was to convince Parliament to make the Penn’s pay their fair share of taxes. He remained in Europe, and after the French and Indian War, Britain attempted to pay for the war via the Stamp Act. The House of Commons summoned Franklin and demanded an explanation of why the colonists would not pay the taxes. Franklin stood in the House of Commons during questioning. Now age 60, Franklin’s gout would have put him in excruciating pain. This may have been the final insult. Franklin was the most well-respected colonist America had to offer, yet the House would not permit him to sit in their presence. From then, Franklin was one of the most effective forces for freedom.

Franklin’s premise in the House of Commons was that the colonists were willing to lay taxes on themselves. Instead, they were being taxed without having a true say in the matter. It was taxation without representation. Franklin said in part,

“The assemblies have only peaceably resolved what they take to be their rights; they have taken no measures for opposition by force, they have not built a fort, raised a man, or provided a grain of ammunition, in order to such opposition. The ringleaders of riots, they think, ought to be punished; they would punish them themselves if they could….The Colonies raised, paid, and clothed near twenty-five thousand men during the last war — a number equal to those sent from Britain, and far beyond their proportion; they went deeply into debt in doing this, and all their taxes and estates are mortgaged for many years to come for discharging that debt.”

Franklin lived each point and principle of the First Amendment before it existed; the choice in faith, assembly, speech and protest and grievances.

Disestablishment, as a principle, guaranteed religion (faith) would impact the broader culture without government control, which was the forward protection of individual liberty.

Without free speech and free press, the words spoken by the evangelists could not have been heard or disseminated across the nation. Without the right to peaceably assemble, those longing for spiritual freedom could only find their hope at the feet of a preacher told by the State what to say. And without the right to petition for a redress of grievances, no citizen could attempt to fix wrongs by peaceful, non-revolutionary means.

What is the Founders Intent for the First Amendment? In short, the First Amendment guarantees revolution would only be a last resort against a tyrannical regime, and if preserved by the people and exercised, assures it would never be needed.

[i] The Great Awakening was by no means intended to be political, as today’s “Liberation Theology” professes.
[ii] I can hear the laptops shutting across America. Fear not! I am no ghostwriter for David Barton.
[iii] A. James Reichley, Faith in Politics, 85.
[iv]I do not assert Franklin as the mastermind behind the First Amendment, nor do I suggest against historical evidence Franklin was a revolutionary. I merely point to Franklin because most Americans have some framework with his body of work, and his life touched on every First Amendment principle. Finally, I do not assert the First Amendment was in place when Franklin began his work.
[v]Only with more investors.
[vi] Which appears nowhere in the Constitution. Jefferson supposedly wrote the phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptists some time after the Constitution was written. Jefferson, serving overseas during the debate over the Constitution and its Amendments would have had very little influence on its terms.
[vii]See page 15, FN 1 of the following link. http://www.quintapress.com/files/whitefield/Journals.pdf