Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment

Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment

by Burt Neuborne


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“A detailed history of the transformation of First Amendment law” from one of the nation’s foremost civil liberties lawyers (The New York Times).
Are you sitting down? It turns out that everything you learned about the First Amendment is wrong. For too long, we’ve been treating small, isolated snippets of the text as infallible gospel without looking at the masterpiece of the whole. Legal luminary Burt Neuborne argues that the structure of the First Amendment as well as of the entire Bill of Rights was more intentional than most people realize, beginning with the internal freedom of conscience and working outward to freedom of expression and finally freedom of public association. This design, Neuborne argues, was not to protect discrete individual rights—such as the rights of corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections—but to guarantee that the process of democracy continues without disenfranchisement, oppression, or injustice.
Neuborne, who was the legal director of the ACLU and has argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court, invites us to hear the “music” within the form and content of Madison’s carefully formulated text. When we hear Madison’s music, a democratic ideal flowers in front of us, and we can see that the First Amendment gives us the tools to fight for campaign finance reform, the right to vote, equal rights in the military, the right to be full citizens, and the right to prevent corporations from riding roughshod over the weakest among us. Neuborne gives us an eloquent lesson in democracy that informs and inspires.
“In the dark art of lawyering, Neuborne has always been considered a white knight.” —New York

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620970416
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 869,266
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 3.50(d)

About the Author

Burt Neuborne is a Professor of Civil Liberties and founding Legal Director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. For 45 years, he has been one of the nation's foremost civil liberties lawyers, serving as National Legal Director of the ACLU from 1981-86, Special Counsel to the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund from 1990-1996, and as a member of the New York City Human Rights Commission from 1988-1992. He has argued numerous Supreme Court cases, and has litigated literally hundreds of important constitutional cases in the state and federal courts. From 1995 to 2007, he directed the legal program of the Brennan Center, focusing on efforts to reinforce American democracy and secure campaign finance reform. He has written three scholarly books, and has contributed to The Nation magazine. He lives in New York.

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Reading the First Amendment as a Poem

This is not a work of history. I claim no special expertise about James Madison's interior life. Nor do I claim to be describing his subjective purpose. I don't even claim that Madison himself was wholly responsible for his music. As we'll see, Madison's arranger, Roger Sherman, deserves some credit. Rather, it is an effort to read the First Amendment's forty-five words — all of them — as a coherent whole in order to recapture what I call Madison's music.

I rest this book on the phrasing, rhythm, order, and placement of the forty-five words themselves. When we read a great poem, we do not ask whether the poet intended to achieve a particular emotional, aesthetic, or intellectual response. It is enough that the choreography of words triggers a responsive chord in a careful reader. The thesis of this book, dear reader, is that a careful study of the order, placement, meaning, and structure of the forty-five words in Madison's First Amendment will trigger a responsive poetic chord in you that will enable us to recapture the music of democracy in our most important political text.

Today we hear only broken fragments of Madison's music. Instead of seeking harmony and coherence in the First Amendment, we read the First Amendment (indeed, the entire Bill of Rights) as a set of isolated, self-contained commands, as if the Founders had thrown a pot of ink at the wall and allowed the order, placement, and structure of each provision in the Bill of Rights to be randomly determined by the splatter. The result is an arbitrary constitutional jurisprudence that has left us with a dysfunctional, judge-built "democracy" that is owned lock, stock, and barrel by five thousand wealthy oligarchs, a pseudodemocracy in which district lines have been carefully gerrymandered to rig the outcomes of most legislative elections, only half the population bothers to vote, and cynics erect barriers designed to disenfranchise the weak and the poor.

It doesn't have to be that way. A poetic vision of the interplay between democracy and individual freedom is hiding in plain sight in the brilliantly ordered text and structure of the Bill of Rights, but we have forgotten how to look for it. Recovering our ability to hear Madison's music would pave the way to a democracy-friendly First Amendment aimed at reinforcing Lincoln's hope that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

We honor James Madison as the driving force behind the Bill of Rights. We recognize him as Thomas Jefferson's indispensable political lieutenant. We applaud him as the nation's fourth president. But we'll never do Madison full justice until we revere him as a great poet — not a literary poet like Wallace Stevens, but a political poet like Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan. Madison's poetic genius was structural — a mastery of the contrapuntal interplay between the collective practice of democracy and individual liberty. His poetic voice speaks to us in the harmony of the 462 words, thirty-one ideas, and ten amendments — each in its perfectly chosen place and all interacting to form a coherent whole — that constitute the magnificent poem to democracy and individual freedom called the Bill of Rights.

When we read a great literary poem like "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," Wallace Stevens's celebration of the miracle of reading, we concentrate deeply on each word and pay particular attention to the rhythmic cadence of the language and stanzas, and to the imagery they spin.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

The magical quality of "The House Was Quiet" is not merely in its 141 words and its elegant phrases. Wallace Stevens achieves great poetry in the interplay between and among his words, and in the capacity of their order, rhythm, cadence, and imagery to generate meaning and mood that enriches and ennobles the plain text, imbuing it with a kind of music. Every great poem has an internal music that hides in plain sight with not a word out of place or an image wasted. What if we were to read Madison's Bill of Rights — especially his First Amendment — with the same respect and intensity that we lavish on a Wallace Stevens poem, paying close attention, not only to the individual words and phrases of the first ten amendments, but also to their interplay, order, cadence, and imagery? Would we find the music of poetry in Madison's handiwork? I have no doubt that the answer is yes.

In Wallace Stevens's words, I invite you to rediscover Madison's music, to be the scholar to whom Madison's Bill of Rights is most true, to be "the reader leaning late and reading there."


Why Reading the First Amendment Isn't Easy

Reading the First Amendment isn't easy. Consider the text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


The words themselves aren't much help. Reading the first word, "Congress," literally would leave the president, the military, fifty governors, and your local cops free to ignore our most important set of constitutional protections. Reading the fourth and fifth words, "no law," literally would wind up protecting horrible verbal assaults like threats, fraud, extortion, and blackmail. The three most important words in the First Amendment — "the freedom of" — the words that introduce, modify, and describe the crucial protections of speech, press, and assembly, simply cannot be read literally. The phrase "the freedom of" is a legal concept that has no intrinsic meaning. Someone must decide what should or should not be placed within the protective legal cocoon. Finally, the majestic abstractions in the First Amendment, like "establishment of religion," "free exercise thereof," "peaceful assembly," and "petition for a redress of grievances" do not carry a single literal meaning. In the end, each of the abstractions protects only the behavior we think it should protect.

So much for the literal text.

History (or what's sometimes called originalism these days) is even worse as a firm guide to reading the First Amendment. The truth is that the First Amendment as we know it today didn't exist before Justice William Brennan Jr. and the rest of the Warren Court invented it in the 1960s. In fact, history turns out to be the worst place to look for a robust First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson thought free speech was a pretty good idea, but the ink wasn't dry on the First Amendment before President Adams locked up seventeen of the twenty newspaper editors who opposed his reelection in 1800. One of the jailed editors was Benjamin Franklin's nephew Benjamin Franklin Bache. He died in jail. Despite the newly enacted First Amendment, not only did the federal courts remain silent in the face of Adams's massive exercise in government censorship; they often initiated the prosecutions. Matthew Lyon, Vermont's only Jeffersonian member of Congress, was jailed for four months and fined $1,000 for criticizing the president in his newspaper. Lyon had the last word, though. He was released just in time to cast Vermont's swing vote for Thomas Jefferson when the presidential election of 1800 was thrown into the House, helping to seal Adams's defeat.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were free-speech disasters. Before the Civil War, antislavery newspapers were torched throughout the North. All criticism of slavery was banned in the South. Slaves were even forbidden to learn to read. During the Civil War, President Lincoln held opponents of the war in military custody for speaking out against it. After the Civil War, labor leaders went to jail in droves for picketing and striking for higher wages. Labor unions were treated as unlawful conspiracies. Radical opponents of World War I were sentenced to ten-year prison terms and eventually deported to the Soviet Union — for leafleting. In 1920, Eugene Debs polled more than one million votes for president from his prison cell in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, where he was serving a ten-year jail term for giving a speech in 1917 praising draft resisters. Released in 1921, Debs, his health broken, was banned from voting or running for office; he died in 1926. After World War II, fear of communism translated into jail or deportation for thousands of political radicals guilty of saying the wrong thing or joining the wrong group, culminating in 1951 with the Supreme Court's affirmance of multiyear jail terms for the leadership of the American Communist Party, despite its status as a lawful political party.

So much for history, unless you want to erase the First Amendment.


If we can't read the First Amendment literally or rely on its checkered history for firm guidance about how to read it today, perhaps we can read each of the forty-five words in light of its underlying purpose. The problem, of course, is agreeing on whose purpose counts, figuring out what that purpose is, and deciding how best to advance it. When he finally awakened to the need for a robust First Amendment, the great justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. told us that its real purpose is to ensure a "free market in ideas," so that the best ideas will triumph in the long run through free competition. That, of course, is the mantra of free-market capitalism — to say nothing of Darwinism — trusting that free competition will lead us to the best of all possible worlds: political, economic, social, and biological. We know from bitter experience that the extreme version of the free-market mantra can be wrong in the economic sphere. History teaches that completely unregulated economic markets can lead to disaster. Witness the stock market collapse of 1929 and the economic collapse of 2008. The key is knowing when and how to regulate the economic market and when to let it alone. The same goes for the idea market. The vast bulk of the time, a free market in political ideas works fine, but history teaches that occasionally false (or at least horrendous) ideas triumph with disastrous social consequences — witness the broad popular acceptance of Nazism in pre–World War II Germany, the stubborn persistence of racial prejudice everywhere, the perennial lure of anti-Semitism, the unending worldwide oppression of women, widespread support for slavery in the old South and in much of the world today, and the modern embrace of jihadist terror.

Moreover, neither the economic market nor the idea market is ever really free. We know that powerful economic entities can stifle competition and foist inferior products on consumers at excessive cost. That's why we have antitrust laws and bans on false advertising. But the idea market is also far from free. Given the high cost of mass speech, only the rich and powerful can afford to engage in effective mass political communication. The poor suffer the speech they must.

Thus, while Holmes's notion of a free market in ideas is both a useful metaphor and a helpful guide, it is not a fail-safe key to reading the First Amendment, especially in settings such as campaign finance reform or access to the mass media, where vast private concentrations of power and huge resource imbalances systematically distort the market.

Justice Louis Brandeis, who joined with Holmes in pioneering the modern First Amendment, tells us that the real purpose of the First Amendment is to enhance human dignity by protecting individual self-expression and autonomous choice. According to Brandeis, respect for the inherent dignity of the speaker as a human being requires us to tolerate efforts at self-expression, even when they do not help our choice-dependent institutions to work better. Brandeis's recognition of the close link between speech and human dignity infuses the First Amendment with a deep moral purpose worth fighting for. But is it an automatic trump that invalidates all speech regulation? What about speech that mocks human dignity? It's hard to find much human dignity in virulent hate speech, pornography about brutalizing women, cigarette ads linking sex and smoking, violent video games aimed at children, libel, or unlimited corporate electioneering. And what happens when the speaker's dignitary interest in self-expression runs headlong into the hearer's dignitary interest in self-worth, or a speech target's dignitary interest in privacy or accuracy? Should the speaker's dignity always outweigh everyone else's?

Finally, many modern free-speech theorists argue that the real purpose of the First Amendment is prophylactic, designed to keep government out of the business of regulating communication because governments inevitably seek to manipulate the minds of ordinary citizens in order to stay in power. There is good reason to distrust government as a censor. Has there ever been a dictatorship that did not use censorship to keep itself in power? But two factors complicate the effort to explain and apply the First Amendment as an unyielding prophylactic ban on government efforts to regulate speech.

First, the most egregious historical examples of abusive government censorship have taken place in totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. While democracies engage in their fair share of abusive censorship, it's much harder to censor in a democracy when everyone is watching. After all, democracies have successfully operated vast public education programs for more than a century, with all the capacity for ideological brainwashing that such an enterprise entails, without slipping into First Amendment hell. In fact, the public schools' record on toleration and openness, while far from perfect, is a good deal better than that of private schools, most of which function as ideological Xerox machines.

Second, removing government from the equation doesn't mean that speech becomes free. When an unyieldingly prophylactic First Amendment takes government out of the speech regulation game entirely, it creates a regulatory vacuum that will quickly be filled by powerful private entities such as Amazon with the capacity to influence what gets seen and heard by the population. What should frighten us more? A democratically elected government tweaking the speech market to protect the weak or a wholly unregulated speech market dominated by a few massive corporations?


Disagreement over the relative importance and persuasiveness of the three usual candidates for the First Amendment's underlying purpose — preserving free markets in ideas, respecting human dignity, and avoiding government censorship — has split the current Supreme Court into two First Amendment wings: "deregulatory" and "aspirational." The five current Republican justices, intuitively drawn to unregulated markets, supportive of the rhetoric (if not always the reality) of personal autonomy, and intensely suspicious of government regulation in any setting, tend to read the First Amendment as an iron deregulatory command. Once the five Republican justices have taken the government out of the speech-regulation game, they don't worry much about what goes on in the vacated space, as long as it doesn't interfere with their parallel commitment to stable hierarchies. Speakers at the bottom of hierarchies, such as public employees, prisoners, soldiers, and high school students, don't get much free-speech protection from the five Republican justices, but corporations, wealthy ideologues, and big media receive intense deregulatory protection.

The four Democratic justices, suspicious of wholly unregulated markets and intuitively drawn to a more egalitarian vision of human dignity, are more tolerant of government efforts to level the speech playing field. They read the First Amendment as an aspirational vision of a tolerant self-governing community. Unlike their deregulatory colleagues, the four aspirational justices are willing to uphold government regulation of the electoral speech of corporations and wealthy individuals aimed at protecting political equality and are more sympathetic to speakers at the bottom of a hierarchy.


Excerpted from "Madison's Music"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Burt Neuborne.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Reading the First Amendment as a Poem,
2. Why Reading the First Amendment Isn't Easy,
3. Madison's Music: Lost and Found,
4. The First Amendment as a Narrative of Democracy,
5. Madison's Music Restored: Recovering Madison's Democracy-Friendly First Amendment,
6. The Democracy-Friendly First Amendment in Action,
7. Mr. Madison's Neighborhood,
8. Divine Madness: Hearing Madison's Music in the Religion Clauses,
9. The Costs of Ignoring Madison's Music: The Enigma of Judicial Review,
10. Madison, the Reluctant Poet: How the Great Poem Almost Didn't Get Written,

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