Happy Independence Day! That’s the official name of the Fourth of July holiday, although you don’t hear it too often in these days of people wishing for more dependence on government. Today is when we celebrate America, hold picnics and watch fireworks. But most importantly, it’s a day when Americans celebrate our freedoms.
Sadly, too many today think it’s smart and sophisticated to give up freedom in exchange for government promises of security. As the great philosopher Joni Mitchell once said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.” That’s why the Founding Fathers took such care to lock our most important rights safely within the First Amendment to the Constitution. There are more freedoms guaranteed in that one short sentence than people in most nations can even dream of. That’s why for centuries now, so many people around the world have risked their lives to come to America. The Founders understood that freedom really is that precious.
When the framers of the Constitution first met in 1787, many were afraid that if they created a strong federal government, it would soon be trampling the rights of the people, just like the British king they’d recently fought to break free of. So to make sure the people’s rights would always be protected, they added 10 amendments …although George Mason thought they were so important, they should come first, as the preface to the Constitution. And now, in case, you’ve never heard it, or maybe just forgotten, here is the First Amendment in its entirety:
“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.”
And that’s it. This was back before government needed 2,000 pages just to screw up health care. Just 45 simple words protect your freedom to speak freely without fear of government retribution. Your freedom to publish those words so that other Americans can read and debate them (even on college campuses). Your freedom to band together with like-thinking Americans, and protest peacefully without fear of arrest. Your freedom to petition your leaders to complain about their policies, and your right to be free from having an official state religion forced on you, but also from government interference with the expression of your personal religious beliefs. A lot of people celebrate the first half of that last right and pretend the second half doesn’t exist.
The First Amendment is almost like a gift bag crammed full of rights that together make up the foundation of what it means to be an American. The Founders thought those rights were all so important that they found a way to list every single one of them first.
And then, they made sure the right to bear arms was listed second, just in case anyone ever tried to steal the First Amendment.