The First Amendment of the United States was ratified, along with nine other amendments to the Constitution of the United States making up the Bill of Rights, on December 15, 1791. The text of the First Amendment reads:
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.
These forty-five words encompass the most basic of American rights: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of assembly, and the right of petition. But what do those words mean? The meaning was not clear in 1791 and still is the subject of continuing interpretation and dispute in the 21st Century.
The First Amendment was not important in American life until well into the 20th Century. Yes the words were there, but the first word of the First Amendment restricted its sweep to the federal government: “Congress shall make no law . . .” And even in its 18th Century origins, despite democratic stirrings and impulses to expanding freedom among some leaders, there is reason to believe that the Bill of Rights was offered as an 18th Century political compromise, a hollow gesture in comparison to the sweeping words. When the Federalists—those favoring the centralized government proposed by the draft Constitution of 1787---feared that opposition by the Antifederalists would stop adoption of the second “Frame of Governnment” (to replace the Articles of Confederation).