The 1st amendment to the US constitution provided for very broad freedom of the speech and freedom of the press. At the same time the 18th century wasn't particularly known for tolerating dissent towards government officials and even in the US the right to vote was limited to white men who owned property.

So how did the 1st amendment work in practice in the immediate decades after it was adopted? Did newspapers openly criticize the President and members of Congress?


Consider the Alienation & Sedition Acts; clearly the answer was "no". Remember that the first person to criticize the government was Jefferson, who while employed a government minister, employed as a French translator in the State Department a man who spoke no French - the man's sole job was to publish a newspaper criticizing Alexander Hamilton - the first case of Federal job fraud.

If you read Pauline Maier or M. Klarman, it is pretty clear that:

  • The Constitution was established to limit democratic trends in the Articles of Confederation
  • It was important to have a Bill of Rights, but it was not important to use it. The Bill of Rights wasn't really terribly important for a century or so.

Criticism of government was widespread in the 1780s. That's because there was a precarious balance of power between the central and state governments under the Articles of Confederation. The central government was weak, and therefore subject to heavy criticism by leading men of the various states, and the states had little power to suppress criticism on their own.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, "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." ensured that when power was concentrated in a Federal government, that government would not use that power to suppress rights of religion, speech, press, or assembly.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.