Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech” – Part of an article by Benjamin Franklin, under the pseudonym Silence Dogood, a name he used due to threats against free speech. Franklin wrote it on freedom of speech and of the press; it published in a newspaper: No. 8 on July 9, 1722, The New-England Courant.
The principle of a free press is enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This principle has shaped and characterized American society and political governance from the nation’s earliest beginnings. Americans of every generation have valued a free and independent press, protected from the controlling or censuring arm of government.
This strong American cherishing of a free press has its roots in the colonial period, during the lead-up to the movement for independence from Britain. As the colonists learned, such a movement would not have been successful without a free and vibrant press.
One of the political catalysts of the American Revolution was the effort of the British to subdue the popular press in colonial America. This attempt was twofold. The first was an accelerated use of the law of seditious libel. The second was the Stamp Act, under which a prohibitive tax was placed on the paper used by the presses. This tax threatened to force the inexpensive press out of circulation and thus to suppress colonial discussion of politics.
The Stamp Act passed by Parliament in 1765 proposed a host of unprecedented and, in the American view, unconstitutional burdens. The passage of the Stamp Act hurt printers by threatening an increase in their costs and by jeopardizing their subscription base, since many subscribers refused to even indirectly pay a tax to the Crown.
Following passage of the Act, the colonial newspaper documented the public’s mounting opposition to the Act. Indeed, the outburst of popular resentment against the Act was so great that it led to the start-up of four new newspapers. Printers took an active role in the debate and developed a close alliance with political groups such as the Sons of Liberty. These political groups also founded new newspapers whenever they felt it desirable.
As the Stamp Act became effective, the majority of colonial newspapers became inspired by the wave of public opposition to the Act, and in one manner or another opposed the Act. By the time the Stamp Act was repealed, newspaper printers had acquired a heightened sense of their role in the community. The principle of “liberty of the press” had become a battle cry against the Stamp Act. The campaign against the Stamp Act also increased the opinion role of newspapers. No longer mere transmitters of information, they had become engines of opinion.
The newspapers carried forward the role they had played in the Stamp Act crisis to the protest against the Townshend Acts. Even more so than the Stamp Act, the Townsend Acts sparked an intense battle of opinion waged in the newspapers. This battle was fought between the patriot press and the government press, revealing the degree of public support behind each cause. The spirited campaign fought by the patriot newspapers against the Townshend Acts contributed to the eventual repeal of nearly all of the duties.
During the controversy surrounding the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts, printers were greatly swayed by the opinions of their readers. The more radical the readers, the bolder the printers. The content of colonial newspapers closely mirrored the particular issues that were important to the local constituencies. The press in effect became intertwined with local partisan battles, and newspapers often started up just as a political issue rose in importance.
During the interim period between the Townshend Acts and the Revolutionary War, newspapers continued to exist and to flourish, keeping open the channels of public discussion, which would become valuable in the crucial years ahead.
In 1773 when Parliament passed the Tea Act, a roar of protest once more emerged from the newspapers. The most aggressive editors were those who had participated in the protests in the 1760s. Again, the public mood thrusted the newspapers into the midst of the protest.
The American press played a major role in opposing British rule. The distinct gain in prestige made by the press during the revolutionary period began with the Stamp Act, the repeal of which was recognized as the result of a united colonial opposition made possible by the important role played by the newspapers of the day.
In addition to its political consequences, the newspaper offensive unleashed by the Stamp Act made several permanent impacts on American journalism. First, the influence of the press was enormously enhanced, instilling a newspaper-reading habit that would characterize many succeeding generations. In 1800, for instance, a magazine declared the United States to have become a nation of newspaper readers, and foreign observers noted in comparison with Europe the prevalence of newspapers in America.
After achieving independence from Britain and setting out to form a new constitutional republic in the United States, the Framers knew and treasured the role that a free press had played in shaping a new nation. This principle would receive not only constitutional protection in the Bill of Rights but would also command widespread popular support throughout America for centuries to come.
Patrick M. Garry is professor of law at the University of South Dakota. He is author of Limited Government and the Bill of Rights and The False Promise of Big Government: How Washington Helps the Rich and Hurts the Poor.