The First’s First 15 Words

If one asked most U.S. citizens what rights the First Amendment gives us, the most likely answer is “freedom of speech.” While that is true, it is just one “right” of five.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States 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 to peaceably assemble; and to petition the government to address a grievance.”

In the first 15 words, the writers of the Constitution prevented the government from establishing a national religion AND enabled any resident of the country to practice whatever religion they preferred. This had never been done in modern history.

At the time these words were written in 1787, each major European powers had a national religion whose leaders had significant influence on its government, society, and culture. England had its Church of England. France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire were Catholic. Russia had its Orthodox Church. But here in these new United States of America, there was not going to be a “national” religion.

But it was almost not so. Many delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted the state religion be Anglican. While the proponents of a national religion would agree to allow Catholics, Jews, “Mohamadans” and other religions to practice their religion freely, they would have to pay a tax to the government. The money collected would be turned over to the national church.

Unfortunately, the proponents of a state religion focused on the Thirteen Colonies’ Jewish population as an example for the need for a national religion. Our Founding Fathers came from European cultures where anti-Semitism, taxes and restrictions on what professions Jews could enter were state sponsored in every country except The Netherlands.

Anti-Semitism raised its ugly head during the debate over the words in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those delegates pushing a national religion seemed to forget that much of the funding for the Continental Army and Navy came from the Colonies’ Jewish community.

For example, during the Yorktown campaign, Washington did not have the funds to buy food for his army pursuing Cornwallis. Desperate, he wrote, in a letter to members of the Continental Congress and couriered to Philadelphia, “to tell Hyam Salomon to raise the money.” Wealthy Jews in New York and Philadelphia bought bonds or made donations to meet Washington’s requirements and the rest is history.

Much of the opposition to prohibiting a religious test or a state religion was centered in Massachusetts and Connecticut and led by John Adams who would become our second president. Two examples from the writings of the time suffice to express the fears of what freedom of religion might bring.

One is in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in which James Madison wrote, “one of the objections in New England was that the Constitution, by prohibiting religious tests, opened a door for Jews, Turks and infidels.” The second is taken from an essay in the Worcester Magazine opposing ratification of the Constitution. In it, the writer stated, “there is a door opened for the Jews, Turks and Heathens to enter into public office and be seated at the head of the government of the United States.”

These a just of few of the comments that have survived. Yet when the Massachusetts legislature voted for ratification of the Constitution, it was on the condition that the Bill of Rights – the First Ten Amendments – as written be adopted immediately.

While writing the Constitution, Madison and Jefferson and the leaders of the Democratic-Republican party came together with the opposition – the Federalists. Led by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists insisted that the First Amendment (and other limitations on the power of the government) be accepted as it was written.

The point of this post is that the men who wrote the Constitution were adamant in giving every citizen the right to choose their religion. The U.S. was the first country to do so in modern history. We take this right for granted, but much of the world still does not enjoy freedom of religion.

Images is that of Hyam Salomon, one of the financiers of the American Revolution.


  1. Susan Cohrs on January 22, 2022 at 7:06 am

    Anti semitism continues to be an obstacle in moving civilization forward…I never get a clear answer as to why such blind hatred exists in light of the centuries of achievement garnered by Jewish scholars of every category. Jealousy, I believe, lies at the base of such behavior.

    • Marc Liebman on January 22, 2022 at 12:28 pm

      I think you used one of the key words and it is jealousy. It has nothing to do with religion per se, but through the centuries, Jews have been very successful despite the obstacles that have been put in their place. They also, in many countries, wealthy and insecure rulers feared them even though they borrowed money from Jewish money lenders (what bankers were called before the 18th Century) to keep their regimes in power. For example, Ferdinand and Isabella’s war against the Moors was largely funded by money lent to them by Spain’s Jewish community because they were reluctant to increase taxes on their citizens. Cromwell reopened England to European Jews after Edward II kicked us out because he wanted to revitalize the economy and saw that the Dutch/Dutch East and West India Companies, were making the Dutch Republic (we now call The Netherlands) wealthy. And yes, many of the managing directors of the two Dutch companies were Jews who emigrated from the Mediterranean (mostly Spain and Portugal) to the Dutch Republic. I can go on and on, but I think the other word I would use is fear brought on by the communities’ wealth compared to the general population.

      However in Eastern Europe, I also think by living in ghettos with different customs/traditions, we brought anti-Semitism onto ourselves. In Tsarist Russia, they used the differences to stir up an uneducated population against its Jewish community. Anti-Semitism was under the Tsars and still is endemic in Russian society.

      For centuries, Jews around the Mediterranean littoral controlled what we would now call international trade. Here are two books that will help you understand this influence and why it fosters jealousy. One is Jewish Prates of the Carribean by Edward Kritzler and the other is The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonathan Kaufman.

      I can go on and on, but I think the other word I would use besides jealousy is fear. In Western societies, money begets power, and many rulers feared that Jews would overthrow their governments, particularly if they understood the underpinnings of the religion and its principles. Yet, since the Middle Ages there is not one single example of a coup led by Jews. While the Russian Revolution is close but doesn’t make the grade. It was initially led by the Menshaviks (many of whom were Jewish) as were the Bolsheviks who threw the Bolsheviks out.

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