The Bill of Rights’ Greatest Gift: Freedom to Dissent.
Stronger through our differences.
70 percent of our country’s population are Christians.
Who needs the First Amendment’s promise of free exercise of religions? Not Christians — they comprise a majority of the voters and elected officials. No sect can challenge their religious practices. It is precisely the 30 percent of non-Christians that are the most vulnerable — and the Constitution most jealously protects.
Similarly, freedom of speech guards dissent from an ardent majority. Freedom of speech meant little for war hawks after 9/11. Naturally, they could voice their consciousness — everyone backed them!
The Bill of Rights does not leave it up to the people to determine what views or faiths deserve protection. Instead, it cast a wide net: all beliefs, no matter how contrarian, are guarded against majority suppression.
There is no doubt that a society with a supermajority of any view would try to thrust its paradigm to the minority. In 1478, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile established the Spanish Inquisition, which stamped out any heretics. From Stalin to Mao, demagogues have been able to extinguish dissenting views.
The First Amendment, precisely the one protecting speech, would not have been existed had the founding generation not placed a premium on free exchanges of ideas.
After the Constitution was published on September 17th, 1787, colonists up and down the continent debated and disagreed over its ratification. Unlike the Magna Carta, the Constitution would be put to a vote. Eight out of the thirteen colonies lowered or abolished their property prerequisite (two had none to begin with). Viewed from the lenses of 2021, the referendum was no doubt obscenely exclusive. Yet, compared with 1786, this special election was noticeably progressive.
A wider voting population is no doubt a good thing, except it strengthens the opposition to the ratification. The exact groups that benefitted from the lowering in property qualification — the lower and middle class — were most zealous in their opposition to a powerful federal government.
The vote was close in some states. Massachusettsbarely edged ratification with a vote of 187–168 for the Constitution. Rhode Island initially rejected the document in a popular referendum, 2708–237!
Eventually, the Constitution got ratified, and the magnificent enterprise of the American government rose from an epic tale of free debate and elections. Except, the story doesn’t end there.
When the Constitution was presented to state legislatures and voters, there was but one question on everyone’s minds: where were the rights? State constitutions enumerated rights, and it only made sense for the federal Constitution to echo the Lockean vision of natural rights.
The Anti-Federalists — opponents of ratification — were not censored, shunned, or ignored. They were listened to. The Bill of Rights quickly passed as a rein against federal despotism. In retrospect, this was a prudent decision.
The very process in which the Bill of Rights was adopted was induced by epic free speech and disagreements. Our government took a step in the right direction, and we owe our thanks to the lament of the Anti-Federalists.
So yes, we should never suppress minority speech. We need to go beyond that. Listening to the dissenters — not just ignoring them — is our best hope for a more perfect union.
Let’s cherish our differences. If you need any reminder on the need of disagreeing without being disagreeable, this interview with Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be a joy to watch.