The six-in-one special

Four Freedoms -- Freedom of Speech

By Bob Eschliman


Common Sense LogoNo single state had more impact on the foundation of the United States of America as Virginia. That’s not to marginalize the efforts of the other 12 colonies, but the facts speak for themselves.

  • George Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which were copied by most of the other colonies, and later were a substantial influence over Thomas Jefferson’s draft for the Declaration of Independence.
  • Edmund Randolph helped draft the Virginia Plan, which suggested the creation of a new form of government to replace the failing Articles of Confederation, which became the basis for the U.S. Constitution.
  • George Washington led the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and was unanimously elected the first President of the United States.
  • Thomas Jefferson wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, founded the Democratic-Republican Party, and was elected the third President of the United States.
  • James Madison was the principal author of the Virginia Plan, along with Randolph, was the author of the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution — and was elected the fourth President of the United States.
  • James Monroe, elected the fifth President of the United States, still continues to impact American foreign policy today; he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, the Florida Purchase, and the treaties of 1818 and 1819 that established the U.S. would stretch “from sea to shining sea,” and imposed the Monroe Doctrine.

There was also Patrick Henry (“Give me Liberty, or give me death!”), and Richard Henry Lee (“These united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states…”), but this isn’t meant to be a historical perspective on the Founders and Framers. So, let’s just get to my point.

Virginians were a special breed who ascribed to two doctrines: Natural Law and Natural Right. And I’m not just talking about the Virginia Founders and Framers, or even the political class. Average, everyday Virginians, in general, were big on liberty.

Natural Law was, quite simply (and, as Jefferson put it) “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” Natural Rights, then — rights that were simply “inherent and endowed by our Creator” (to borrow from John Adams) at the moment He gave us life — were an extension of Natural Law.

There were six Natural Rights, in the minds of Virginians:

  • Freedom of conscience,
  • Freedom of communication,
  • Freedom from arbitrary laws,
  • Right to property, and
  • Right to self-government — including the right to expatriation (which Virginians exhibited in 1861) and to change the form of government.

We’ve seen all of these Natural Rights have a momentous impact on American governance. In particular, the first two are what I would like to talk about today.

With regard to freedom of conscience, Jefferson stated:

“Our rulers have authority over such natural rights, only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God.”

Freedom of communication was an extension of the freedom of conscience. And together, they formed the basis of the First Amendment. And while most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights are specific to only one particular right, the First Amendment is a six-in-one special.

The rights conveyed in the First Amendment are:

  • The Establishment Clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” — literally, government can’t establish a state religion or sect;
  • The Free-Exercise Clause — “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — literally, government can’t tell you how or who to worship;
  • The Free-Speech Clause — “or abridging the freedom of speech” — pretty much speaks for itself;
  • The Free-Press Clause — “or of the press” — literally, the government cannot interfere in the operation of the media;
  • The Free-Association Clause — “or the right of the people peaceably to assemble” — literally, as long as you’re not gathering to harm others, you can gather in any group you want, for any other purpose; and
  • The Petition Clause — “and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” — literally, you can take up any beef you have with your government.

We’ve seen the all-out assault on our Natural Right to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech over the last several months. I’ve personally found myself in the middle of this new battlefield in the culture war. And while there are many who would assert that I was wrong, that Kim Davis was wrong, and that those who put their faith into practice on a daily basis are “on the wrong side of history,” I would simply point to the Virginians.

The Virginians would side with Natural Rights and, more importantly, Natural Law.

Now, it’s been said that our Natural Rights are unalienable, and for the most part that is true, regardless of what the government thinks it can impose upon us. But, the Virginians did believe there were limitations, even upon the First Amendment, that the vast majority of Americans were never taught in their public indoc … err, school … classrooms.

Jefferson wrote: “A man has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” In other words, natural law trumps natural right. This wisdom extended even to the freedom of religion.

Mason: freedom of religion could be limited when “any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of society.”

Madison: No man should be “subjected to any penalties or disabilities unless under color of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of society.”

Although he defended Baptists’ religious liberty as an attorney, Henry drafted the 16th article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. It states freedom or religion was a right “unless under the color of religion any man disturb the peace.”

And, granted, the Founders and Framers were limited — by today’s standards — with regard to their experience with other world religions. But they knew “religious freedom” could be bastardized to allow a loophole for all sorts of vile behavior, as evidenced by Jefferson’s comment:

“Whatsoever is prejudicial to the commonwealth in their ordinary uses and therefore prohibited by the laws, ought not to be permitted to churches in their sacred rights. For instance, it is unlawful in the ordinary course of things or in a private house to murder a child. It should not be permitted any sect then to sacrifice children.”

It is important to note there is a distinction between limited Natural Rights and government attempts to restrain Natural Rights. The Founders and Framers were very clear that government did not have the authority to restrain any Natural Right, unless there was a clear, present, existential threat to the nation, and, as Jefferson put it, “the danger must be imminent, and the degree great.”

Is there an existential threat to American security that requires a Christian baker to make a gay wedding cake?

Is there an imminent threat of great scope to our nation that requires a Christian county clerk to issue gay marriage licenses?

Is there a clear and present threat to our national sovereignty that requires a Christian journalist to remain silent when writing about an effort to rewrite the Bible?

I think we all know the answers to those questions. And, as result, I think we all know what “side of history” the Virginians would be standing on, if they were here today.

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Bob Eschliman is editor of The Iowa Statesman and an award-winning journalist who has been covering government and politics for more than 16 years. He may be contacted at