- Historic Sites
Taking Another Look At The Constitutional Blueprint
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
I began my graduate work in history and entered the academic profession when McCarthyism, fed by postwar fear and hysteria, was at its height. Local and national legislators launched their attacks against the nation’s educational institutions and especially against their important function as free marketplaces of ideas. Among their targets were my undergraduate college and the university where I undertook my doctoral study, a fact that gave to their campaign of harassment a personal meaning. It was then that I first developed a keen appreciation for the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution, the former protecting freedom of speech on the campuses and the latter enabling those who were charged with harboring unpopular ideas to protect themselves against selfincrimination. Although these constitutional protections were flouted at that time with impunity and often proved of little comfort to the victims of the hysteria, they nevertheless were there! Their importance to the functioning of a free society remained; indeed, the passage of time has only vindicated their importance. For me, that early experience at a formative period in my life, on the threshold of my career as a historian, implanted a sensitivity toward academic freedom that has deepened over the years.
-Robert W. Johannsen J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
There’s nothing like a hard look at totalitarianism to make you praise the Lord for the First Amendment.
In China you can borrow a book from one of the few libraries only with written permission from your unit leader saying you need this particular book to help you do your job. No browsing, of course, and no borrowing outside your field. Even graduate students have limited access to university library books.
A media campaign in China promotes invention. Thomas Edison is a hero; schoolchildren learn his story. It’s hard to see how any inventors—or any other creative thinkers—can arise outside the free flow of information. You never know what you’ll need for an idea. The First Amendment not only guarantees our freedom, it also keeps us thinking up new ideas.
-Annie Dillard Author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the forthcoming An American Childhood.
I like best Amendment I for obvious reasons: any writer would root for the right to free speech, especially in these days. In a lighter vein, it has been suggested that one might elect a combination of Amendments III and XXI. No doubt you have them both by heart, but let me refresh your memory. According to Amendment III, no soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law. Amendment XXI, of course, repeals Prohibition. Think of the two together. If the government violates the first and you find your house full of soldiers, you can at least give them a drink.
-Emily Hahn Staff writer, The New Yorker Author of, most recently, The Islands.
To suppress the powerful efforts of religious chauvinists to despoil our freedom with their own special pieties—including such entering wedges as school prayer—let us spell out for them in large letters the absolute separation of church and state, since the injunction already implicit in the Constitution eludes them.
-W. A. Swanberg Author of, most recently, Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....” Those sixteen words have done more than any phrase in any other national constitution to assure freedoms, start arguments, and provide for dynamic relations between the civil and religious realms. Given the variety of America’s interests and interpretations, it is hard to see how we can ever settle much of anything in respect to “church and state.” George Santayana once said that American liberties came partly from the rabid and pensive apostles of liberty who cared only for their own freedom and partly from the compromising spirit of Anglo-Saxon law. This amendment helps promote “free exercise” for those apostles. If we are a bit patient with each other, we citizens might also find that in the spirit of compromise the “no establishment” clause might help keep fanatic religious forces at bay while still encouraging the courtly spirit of “benevolent neutrality” toward religion.
-Martin E. Marty Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Modern Christianity, University of Chicago.
It is well to assume a conservative posture when it is suggested we tinker with the Constitution. It sure ain’t broke.
A more pressing need than any change in the text is a change in attitude toward an existing clause. I refer to the First Amendment, which needs to be treated with more respect—by its proponents.