Turn on some TV news or check out Twitter and it would be easy to conclude that the political speech in our era is nastier than ever before. What would the founders of our nation—writers of eloquent, reasoned defenses of the freedom of expression as essential for democracy—have made of such crass and vitriolic attacks?
While our 21st-century tools for lobbing invective at our political enemies may be novel, the practice itself is anything but new, New York University journalism professor Stephen D. Solomon relates in the book Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).
“Back in the colonial times, so much of what they were saying was offensive.”
Were the journalists and politicians of 1780 suddenly transported our era, he suggests, they might happily join in the mudslinging.
Their right to do so was hard fought. As British subjects, American colonists had inherited, along with other rules and protections of English common law dating back to the 13th century, a legal prohibition against seditious libel—or speaking critically of the government or its officials. In the American colonies before 1700 there were 1244 prosecutions for seditious speech—a crime for which punishments included confinement to the stocks, public whippings, and worse (one offender in Virginia had his tongue pierced with an awl; another in Massachusetts got his ears cut off).
But later, when colonists felt that their rights were being impinged upon by Parliament across the ocean—beginning, notably, with the 1765 Stamp Act that taxed printed materials like newspapers, magazines, and even playing cards in the colonies—they spoke up, to hell with the local sedition laws.
As radical newspapers like the Boston Gazette took direct aim at the British prime minister with verses like “To make us all Slaves, now you’ve lost Sir! The Hope / You’ve but to go hang yourself. / We’ll find you the rope,” and the Sons of Liberty hanged and burned effigies of various officials, seditious expression flourished in all sorts of wickedly creative forms, from broadsides and pamphlets and songs to cartoons—and juries sympathetic to the patriot cause declined to convict.
It wasn’t pretty—but that’s a free press.
In the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence, loyalists complained about a rowdy new class of people who “attend at taverns, where they talk politicks, get drunk, damn King, Ministers, and Taxes; and vow they will follow any measures proposed to them by their demagogues, however repugnant to religion, reason and common sense.”
The thing about all that damning and politicking is that once it gets started, nobody is immune—and once the British were out of the way the framers of the new government did not hesitate to turn their poison pens on each other, including in debates over how the Constitution and its amendments should be crafted. (The anti-Federalist Patrick Henry worried that it “squinted toward monarchy” and warned that “your President may easily become King,” for example. Other critics burned copies of the document to show their opposition to its ratification.)
It was James Madison who most powerfully articulated the need for what became the First Amendment, arguing that “opinions are not the objects of legislation,” and “the censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.”
Then as now, political feuds often turned personal: In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson employed the journalist James Callender to attack President John Adams, only to have Callender later turn against him, reporting that he had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Callender was also the guy who broke the story of the first great sex scandal in American history, publishing a series of pamphlets about Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds. It wasn’t pretty—but that’s a free press.
In the histories many of us remember from grade school, the colonies fought a war to become independent, and once victorious set up a new society with new rules—including the freedom of expression. But in Solomon’s telling, it’s the other way around: it’s an earlier war—the battle against the strictures against dissent—that made the revolution possible.
To celebrate Independence Day last year, NYU’s Eileen Reynolds talked with him about what the founding generation might have made of social media: