Whenever serious (or, sometimes, merely frivolous) challenges to freedom of the Press arise, the watchdogs of the Fourth Estate hasten to remind us about the First Amendment and the significance of its position atop the Bill of Rights. Such prominent positioning supposedly reflects the framers’ intent to place it first and foremost in importance relative to the nine immediately-succeeding Amendments.
Journalism veterans and neophytes alike celebrate its sentiment, its economy of words and its clarity of meaning…and for good reason. It is emblazoned – four stories high – on the front of the Newseum in Washington DC. In my news-media lectures I have often referred to it (however hyperbolically) as “the most important 45-word statement ever written in American English”, postulating that from the freedoms it guarantees flow all the others
The worm in this otherwise rosy apple is that Founding Father James Madison and his Congressional colleagues who drafted the Amendments and submitted them to the States for ratification apparently had other priorities in mind. What they proposed as the first amendment had in fact to do with the number of representatives to be elected relative to the number of constituents. The second amendment proposed dealt with Congressional compensation (finally ratified as Amendment XXVII in 1992). This left our revered First Amendment running third on the list of twelve actually promulgated; it ascended to 1st place only when numbers one and two failed to make the cut.
There is not, of course, any historical document entitled “The Bill of Rights”. What remains for posterity is an original handwritten copy of “The 1789 Joint Resolution of Congress Proposing Twelve Amendments to the Constitution”, a transcript of which can be read here.