As discussed in part one of the origins of the Bill of Rights British tyranny had a lot of influence on what would eventually become the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Partially out of this tyranny and partially out of philosophy. Many writings occurred in the decades, even centuries before the American Revolution that expressed opinions which are found in the First Amendment.
A sample of these will be discussed since are well too many to going to depth on all of them, but a sample across decades and centuries will be explored here into the American Revolution.
We will look at the First Amendment in four different areas, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of Association and freedom to petition. The reason for this is these can be distinctly referenced to in their specific areas though in all writings they may not be combined together.
Freedom of religion
Since freedom of religion is considered to be one of the natural or unalienable rights it seems proper first place to look for references of freedom of religion is John Locke . In addition to his to Two Treatises of Government, John Locke and other writings as well, some of which can be directly tied to the First Amendment and freedom of religion. For starters, John Locke considered the very principle of Religious Freedom and "natural Right" to all man to conduct themselves in a manner they feel fit.
Chapter II (Of the State of Nature) Section 4: TO understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
In addition to the first statement, John Locke reinforces this repeatedly in his book, here are a couple examples in the Second Treatises of Civil Government:
Chapter XI (of the extent of Legislative Power) Section 135: First, It (the Legislature) is not, nor can possibly be absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people:
Chapter XVI (Of Conquest) Section 190: Every man is born with a double right: first, a right of freedom to his person, which no other man has a power over, but the free disposal of it lies in himself. Secondly, a right, before any other man, to inherit with his brethren his father’s goods.
Though Locke does not specifically state "religious freedom" the premise of it being a truth is apparent in the phrase in Chapter II, "a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons". How a person worships or believes is up to the disposal of that individual, and inherently a natural right.
In Chapter XI, he addresses perhaps something a little more apparent, the Legislature cannot have absolute and arbitrary rule over the lives of the people. This is similar to the wording we will see later on with the First Amendment eventually leading to the part "Congress shall make no law", also specifically prohibiting the Legislature of arbitrary decisions of the lives of people which included religion.
Chapter XVI sums all of this up into a plain and simple statement. Every man is of right free to his person, which no other man has power over. Because religious beliefs are unique to each person and are and can only ever be at the sole discretion of the person it is his right to chose and not another's to make in regards to religious beliefs.
About a year after his Two Treatises of Civil Government was finished and written in 1689 Locke titled, "A letter concerning toleration", Locke discusses the Church and society and its relationship with Government (magistrate). In the letter his is much more specific to religion and the importance of religious freedom and that the State should not interfere with the State and vice-versa. Is this letter it was a laid out argument for religious freedom, and I would encourage all to read the short letter, only about 6-7 pages long.
A couple of the points he made concerning the freedom of religious beliefs are the following:
Because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another, as to compel any one to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace.
The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.
When these two paragraphs are combined with his discussion of natural law, John Locke is fully proposing the idea of total religious freedom of all people and that it is a natural right of theirs,
And upon this ground, I affirm that the magistrate's power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws. For laws are of no force at all without penalties, and penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent, because they are not proper to convince the mind.
The care of the salvation of men's souls cannot belong to the magistrate; because, though the rigour of laws and the force of penalties were capable to convince and change men's minds
These considerations, to omit many others that might have been urged to the same purpose, seem unto me sufficient to conclude that all the power of civil government relates only to men's civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come.
For the civil government can give no new right to the church, nor the church to the civil government. So that whether the magistrate join himself to any church, or separate from it, the church remains always as it was before, a free and voluntary society. It neither requires the power of the sword by the magistrate's coming to it, nor does it lose the right of instruction and excommunication by his going from it. This is the fundamental and immutable right of a spontaneous society; that it has power to remove any of its members who transgress the rules of its institution; but it cannot, by the accession of any new members, acquire any right of jurisdiction over those that are not joined with it.
The care, therefore, of every man's soul belongs unto himself, and is to be left unto himself.
In the next place: As the magistrate has no power to impose by his laws the use of any rites and ceremonies in any church, so neither has he any power to forbid the use of such rites and ceremonies as are already received, approved, and practised by any church; because, if he did so, he would destroy the church itself: the end of whose institution is only to worship God with freedom after its own manner.
The influence John Locke had on the Founders and many of the American Colonies cannot be overstated. His advocacy of natural rights played an inspirational role and had a profound influence upon many writers and American Statesman and was cited by many including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Mason and Thomas Paine1.
Montesquieu and the Spirit of Laws
Montesquieu dedicates a good portion of his Spirit of Laws to religion, mainly around the influences of Religion on the State and vice-versa in the Political spectrum of governance which will be discussed in the Establishment clause portion. But he does also briefly touch on Freedom of Religion in Book XXV Part 9
We are here politicians, and not divines; but the divines themselves must allow, that there is a great difference between tolerating and approving a religion. When the legislator has believed it a duty to permit the exercise of many religions, it is necessary that he should enforce also a toleration among these religions themselves. It is a principle that every religion which is persecuted becomes itself persecuting; for as soon as by some accidental turn it arises from persecution, it attacks the religion which persecuted it; not as religion, but as tyranny.
It is necessary, then, that the laws require from the several religions, not only that they shall not embroil the state, but that they shall not raise disturbances among themselves. A citizen does not fulfil the laws by not disturbing the government; it is requisite that he should not trouble any citizen whomsoever.
Here Montesquieu is not expressively talking about ensuring that all have freedom of religion. But is rather discussing what may happen if it does not exist, one religion may persecute another. In order to prevent this, "It is necessary, then, that the laws require from the several religions, not only that they shall not embroil the state, but that they shall not raise disturbances among themselves". He is advocating laws which prevent the interference of one or any religions not only on the state, but amongst other religions as well. In essence, a society where all can worship as they desire without interference from OTHER religions (he does not mention the state) and where they in turn do not meddle in state affairs.
King James II, Instructions to Governor Thomas Dongan
In 1682, King James II sent a letter instruction the Governor of the Providence of New York (Mainly present day New York State) to allow freedom of religion to all its inhabitants if they were causing no issues or disturbances.
You shall permit all persons of what Religion soever quietly to inhabit within your Government without giving them any disturbance or disquiet whatsoever for or by reason of their differing Opinions in matters of Religion, Provided they give no disturbance to ye public peace, nor do molest or disquiet others in ye free Exercise of their Religion.
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Early in 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a small pamphlet, that provided one of the biggest sparks in the road to Independence in the Colonies. Common Sense became a rallying point of sorts for Independence, his basic plan and argument became echoed throughout the Colonies, culminating later that year with the Declaration of Independence.
As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensible duty of every government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle, which the niggards of all professions are so unwilling to part with; and he will be at once delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us: it affords a larger field for our Christian kindness. Were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle, I look on the various denominations among us, to be like children of the same family, differing only, in what is called, their Christian names.
Thomas Paine is often referred to as an atheist or at the very least a deist (though this passage does not support this). Even if true, this does not prevent him from also understanding and appreciating the fact of free conscience is a must, and the government has no business to interfere with it. He advocates that having diversity in religious beliefs is to the benefit of all (Christians is his own example for himself).
The concept of being free to believe in a God how you wished was far from a new concept in Colonial America. The precedents from John Locke to King James to Montesquieu were held long before the idea of revolt ever entered the mindset of the American Colonists. When those seeds were planted the idea of freedom in religion was not abandoned, but championed by leading figures of the day. This concept is a long and deep rooted belief, going well into the past.
But a total a free place of religion without the establishment of an official religion was not in fact absent. Many states did have official state observed religions, and some even religious tests for officials, but on the whole of the masses, the notion of the ability to freely believe in God as desired, was an absolute and inseparable right.