Presidents and the First Amendment

Presidents and the First Amendment


Below are links to articles in The First Amendment Encyclopedia of all American presidents and their engagement with First Amendment issues. This project of documenting each president was completed by John Vile, a distinguished constitutional scholar, history professor and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.

1. George Washington (1789-1797). Washington, the nation's first president, supported the adoption of the Bill of Rights in order to shore up support for the new government. The leader of the American forces in the American Revolution, Washington had symbolically returned his sword to Congress indicating his support for civilian control over the military. As president, he further decided not to run again after his second four-year term. Washington expressed strong support for religious freedom, even for religious minorities like Jews. 

2. John Adams (1797-1801). One of the founding fathers, Adams influenced the development of constitutional government through his political writings and thought. He was supportive of First Amendment principles although he did believe in established churches. During his presidency, four laws that came to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed, representing the first instance of an American president placing national security issues and personal reputation before the principles of freedom of speech and of the press.

3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809). The author of the Declaration of Independence at age 33, Jefferson was influential in pushing for the Bill of Rights to the constitution protecting civil liberties. Jefferson was a prime advocate of freedom of conscience and religious liberty. He opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts as infringements on a free press and free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

4. James Madison (1809-1817). A key architect of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Madison was the foremost champion of religious liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press in the Founding Era. Like Jefferson, he opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

5. James Monroe (1817-1825). Often identified as the last of the Founding Fathers, Monroe had joined with anti-Federalists to oppose a new constitution without a Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment). He served a variety of government roles, including in the Jefferson Administration, before being elected president.

6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829). The first son of a president to become president, Adams also is known for his opposition when he returned to Congress after his presidency against the gag rule that prevented any petitions on abolishing slavery. Adams believed the right to petition government, which is one of the rights in the First Amendment, was a "right that belongs to humanity." He won repeal of the rule in 1844.

7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). Jackson believed the Constitution's First Amendment clearly provided for separation of "sacred" and "secular" concerns. He opposed requiring religious oaths to hold public office and refused to call for a national day of prayer and fasting to halt a cholera epidemic.

8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841). Van Buren was the first president to be born a citizen of the United States. As divisions about slavery grew, he supported the gag rule in Congress to prevent slavery petitions from being presented. He also denounced abolitionists for using the mail to send anti-slavery material to the South. 

9. William Henry Harrison (1841-1841). The son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Harrison had a long military and political career before becoming president. However, he served as president only 31 days, dying of natural causes. Notably, Harrison spoke in particular support of a free press, saying it was a great bulwark of civil and religious liberty.

10. John Tyler (1841-1845). Tyler expressed strong Jeffersonian views in favor of religious liberty and separation of church and state.  Although Tyler was an active participant in a Peace Convention designed to avert the Civil War, he supported the Confederate states and was elected to the Confederate Congress. He died before he was able to serve.

11. James K. Polk (1845-1849). During Polk's term, the United States gained territory during its war with Mexico. Polk extended liberties and rights to Mexicans in those lands that had become part of the United States, including religious freedom, but he also supported the rights of slave owners.

12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850). A hero of the Mexican-American War, Taylor served only 16 months in office before dying from a stomach ailment. While president, he resisted statehood for Utah, which he associated with Mormons who he called a "pack of outlaws."

13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853). Fillmore was president when the Mormon Church announced its support of polygamy, setting the church on a path of conflict with American sentiment and jeopardizing the statehood of Utah. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that polygamy was not a religious right protected under the First Amendment.

14. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857). A Northerner who supported slave states, Pierce had supported the gag rule in Congress that tabled all anti-slavery petitions. He also blamed abolitionist rhetoric for the increasing conflict with the South. Pierce was unable to stop the course toward secession of Southern states.

15. James Buchanan (1857-1861). Buchanan addressed the limits of religious freedom in dealing with treason by Mormons in Utah and, like others at the time, blamed abolitionist rhetoric for inflaming the issues around slavery that eventually led Southern states to secede from the Union.

16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865). One of the most revered presidents of the United States for his role in ending slavery through the Civil War, Lincoln has also been criticized by some scholars for his restrictions of civil liberties during the war. For example, Lincoln censored the press and the mail, infringing upon First Amendment freedoms.

17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869). Becoming president after Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson was president when the wounds of war had yet to heal. His desire to accept Southern states back in the union without reconstructing their laws to guarantee basic liberties to African Americans, led to increasing conflict with Congress.

18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877). Grant's  record on First Amendment issues shows he strongly supported separation of church and state (particularly opposing aid to church-sponsored schools) and equal rights and privileges for all, irrespective of religion or race. During his presidency, Congress adopted the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious,” “immoral,” or “indecent” materials through the mail, including birth control devices or information.

19. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881). Hayes’ contested presidential election (although Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, a commission awarded Hayes the contested electoral college votes) resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops from Southern states, bringing an end to Reconstruction but not to Hayes’ commitment to equality. During his single term in office, Hayes appointed John Marshall Harlan I, the only justice to oppose racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896),  to the Supreme Court. 

20. James A. Garfield (1881-1881). Garfield, who was assassinated 100 days into his presidency, argued for equal protection for former slaves. A former preacher, Garfield also supported religious liberty but disagreed with the Mormon Church over polygamy, thinking it evil and that laws against it should be enforced.

21. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885). Arthur was the nation's president when Congress replaced the political patronage system with a civil service system by passing the Pendleton Act. During this period, the Supreme Court also upheld a law that prevented government officials from requesting or receiving money from employees, which one justice thought violated First Amendment speech rights. The oath test for civil servants was also repealed. 

22. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889).  Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms as president. During his first term, the Supreme Court upheld a law revoking the charter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and confiscating its property, after which the church renounced polygamy. Cleveland pardoned those who agreed to obey state marital laws against polygamy, which some Mormons felt was part of their religious practices.

23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893). On religious issues, Harrison agreed with laws that outlawed polygamy practiced by the Mormons and resisted efforts to admit Utah as a state. On speech issues, he lobbied for a law to prohibit the U.S. mail from being used to send lottery cards or advertising for gambling, a law that the Supreme Court said did not violate the freedom of the press in In re Rapier in 1892.

24. Grover Cleveland (1893-1897). During his second term, Cleveland dealt harshly with issues involving speech rights, including labor boycotts and marches on Washington. Cleveland successfully invoked the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to obtain an injunction against a railroad labor union. He had members of Coxey's Army arrested when they marched on Washington seeking government support for hiring the unemployed.

25. William McKinley (1897-1901). McKinley was known mainly for the acquisition of colonies after the war with Spain — Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. He made a note in his state of the union address in 1900 of pledging that no form of religion would be forced on new colonies and that the separation of church and state (protected in the First Amendment) would remain absolute.

26. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909). Roosevelt espoused First Amendment freedoms, including speech about war and religious freedom. And though he cultivated the press, he also sued them for libel over reports that alleged financial graft in the U.S. purchase of the Panama Canal, one of of Roosevelt's signature achievements connecting the oceans. 

27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913) Taft is the only person to earn the positions of president and chief justice of the United States.  Taft presided over the Supreme Court as it began to incorporate First Amendment provisions into the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which meant that First Amendment rights of speech and religious liberty could be protected against state law infringement as well as federal law.

28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). Although he ran for a second term on the fact that he had kept the U.S. out of war, he asked Congress to intervene during his second term, leading to the country's entrance into World War I. Wilson pushed for sedition and espionage laws, adopted in 1917 and 1918, that made illegal certain speech about the war, including speech that might incite disloyalty within the military or be supportive of the enemy. These laws, which later were viewed as an instance of government overstepping the bounds of First Amendment freedoms, led to the conviction of several anti-war activists at the time. Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, also led raids on communist and socialist groups, creating mass arrests and undermining First Amendment rights.

29. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923). Harding is praised for his defense of the First Amendment in pardoning Eugene Debs. Debs, a labor leader, socialist and anti-war activist, had been convicted of sedition for a speech he gave in 1918 against U.S. participation in World War I. A lax administrator who filled his cabinet with personal friends, his shortened term became known for its political corruption.

30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929). Coolidge became president when Harding died in office and served the remainder of his term and one other. Unlike Harding, Coolidge rejected amnesty pleas from those convicted under the Espionage Act, saying freedom of speech should not “extend to those who during the war attempted to stir up a general public opinion hostile to the purposes of the Government." During Coolidge's presidency, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case that the First Amendment protects an individual's rights from state government restriction and not just just federal restrictions.

31. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933).  Hoover was most associated with the Great Depression that followed his election as president. Hoover appointed three consequential justices to the Supreme Court who would later rule on major First Amendment cases. During his presidency, the court began to apply First Amendment protections to states. For example, it struck down a Minnesota law that had enjoined publication of newspaper that had criticized Minneapolis city officials, likening such government action as censorship and unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

32. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). Roosevelt is best known for his New Deal programs and his leadership during World War II. Roosevelt viewed America as defender of free world against fascism and contrasted the rights in the U.S. Bill of Rights with the lack of such rights in enemy countries during the war. However, his executive order to put 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent in relocation camps after the Pearl Harbor invasion remains an embarrassing incursion on civil liberties. 

33. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953). Truman led the country out of World War II after making the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Truman's presidency was dominated by fears of communism, which led to laws that were challenged under the First Amendment and led to consequential Supreme Court decisions that limited the U.S. Communist Party. 

34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961). Eisenhower ran for office in opposition to “Communism, Korea, and Corruption.” The prosecution of communists led to Supreme Court decisions during Eisenhower's two terms that refined when controversial speech and beliefs are protected as free speech under the First Amendment. In 1954, during Eisenhower’s presidency, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. Flag, and. In 1956, Congress adopted the phrase “In God We Trust” as the American motto.

35. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963). Kennedy is the youngest president elected to the office. He was assassinated in office in 1963. Kennedy was a powerful speaker on American ideals and civil liberties, including religious liberty contained in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court decided in a controversial decision during Kennedy's presidency that schools could not mandate that children participate in classroom prayer.

36. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969). Johnson served during a tumultuous time of protests over the Vietnam War. Several Supreme Court decisions were delivered related to free speech during Johnson's presidency. The court also introduced the standard of actual malice in libel cases by public officials. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act of 1966.

37. Richard Nixon (1969-1974). Nixon's conduct during a period of Vietnam War protests, executive wrongdoing and investigations at times threatened the freedoms of speech, press and political association. Nixon tried to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. During this period, the Supreme Court overturned an injunction that prevented newspapers from publishing the Pentagon Papers, saying that the injunction would be a prior restraint on press freedom and unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

38. Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977). Ford brought stability after the national scandal related to Richard Nixon's authorization of the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex and its subsequent coverup. Ford was president when Congress passed and the Supreme Court upheld campaign contribution limits while striking down campaign spending limits as interfering with First Amendment rights of expression. 

39. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Cater, as a born-again Christian, was embraced by the evangelical movement but believed firmly in the separation of church and state. Carter pardoned individuals who had left the United States to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. During his administration,  Congress adopted and Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, later amended in 1994, to protect the use of peyote in connection with “bona fide" traditional ceremonial purposes.

40. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). Reagan, like Carter, enjoyed support from evangelicals and supported some of their causes during his presidency. In terms of First Amendment issues, he supported a free press and thought the fairness doctrine was antagonistic to an independent press. On religion and government, Reagan thought the Supreme Court got it wrong in interpreting the establishment clause to prohibit mandatory prayers in public schools. The court expanded libel protections during his presidency in a famous case involving a parody in Hustler Magazine of evangelical leader Jerry Falwell.

41. George H. W. Bush (1989-1993).  First Amendment issues during Bush's presidency included religious freedom of employees and a Supreme Court ruling that flag burning can be a form of symbolic speech. When Congress responded to the latter with a law that allowed states to enact statutes criminalizing the burning or desecration of the flag in public protest, Bush, who doubted its constitutionality, allowed to become law without his signature. The Supreme Court later ruled it was unconstitutional and Bush could not garner the votes to pass a constitutional amendment to  overturn it. Bush appointed consequential Supreme Court justices, including Clarence Thomas.

42. Bill Clinton (1993-2001). Soon after assuming the presidency, Clinton revoked the gag rule that prevented reproductive service personnel from sharing information about abortion services. Clinton also signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, which made it a federal crime for abortion protesters to block access to an abortion clinic, a law that was ruled invalid on free speech grounds. Clinton was successful in expanding accommodation of religious freedom for federal employees and also argued for the protection of religious expression in public schools, pointing to the right of private prayer, for example.

43. George W. Bush (2001-2009).  Known largely by his response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and pushed for the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act was criticized by some as overly broadening surveillance of Americans. Bush was supportive of religious liberty — notably not blaming the religion of Islam in general for the Sept. 11 attacks though the people who carried it out were Muslims. He also expanded the ability of religious organizations to apply for government-funded projects.

44. Barack Obama (2009-2017). Obama faced free speech issues during his presidency, particularly regarding corporate speech and rights. While president, the Supreme Court loosened rules on corporate spending in elections, saying a campaign law restricted corporate speech in violation of the First Amendment. The court also ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, which said the requirement to provide coverage for birth control in Obama's Affordable Care Act violated its religious beliefs as a company.

45. Donald Trump (2017-2021). Trump's presidency was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to massive shutdowns and restrictions on Americans to try to stop the spread of the virus that eventually killed more than 1 million people in the United States. Trump sided with churches who opposed regulations limiting gatherings. Trump often used stinging rhetoric delivered over his Twitter account and at rallies. He called the press "the enemy of the people," promising to "open up" libel laws that some felt would push back on press freedom. However, Trump was a strong supporter of religious liberty and appointed Supreme Court justices that later upheld a business owner's right to refuse service to gay people on the basis of his religious beliefs. Trump's efforts to overturn the election results after he lost a second term to Joe Biden resulted in criminal charges of conspiracy and obstruction. In one case, Trump is using the First Amendment as a defense to a speech he gave to supporters before the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot, urging them to "fight" to keep him in office. After the speech, those in the crowd proceeded to the U.S. Capitol, breaking down barriers and fighting guards to gain entry, and temporarily stopping the presidential vote certification as members of Congress fled to safety. Trump also used the First Amendment's free speech protections to mount a defense against a libel claim by a woman who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by him. After a jury found her account to be true, Trump was ordered to pay $83.3 million for his continual defamatory remarks made at public appearances and on social media calling her a whack job who made up the story.

46. Joe Biden (2021- ). After Trump's presidency, Biden sought to reestablish relationships with the press, calling the free press a "pillar of democracy." Biden also reestablished a faith-based partnerships office for contracts with the federal government. However, the Biden Administration also was accused in a lawsuit by two states of censoring dissenting views through a coordinated effort to pressure social media companies to downgrade or remove certain posts that the government viewed as false or misinformation. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Murthy v. Missouri, in 2024. Biden and his administration was also criticized when the Department of Homeland Security, in the name of national security, created the Disinformation Governance Board to respond to propaganda efforts by China, Russia and other adversaries. It was quickly disbanded.