How the free press helped free America
EDITOR’S NOTE: This item originally was published the week of Independence Day.
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
— Thomas Paine, “American Crisis”
This week, as I do every July 4, I pondered on the bravery and nobility of our founding fathers, and marveled at their wisdom to protect the freedom of the press.
I have always thought that, without a free press, the authors of the Constitution would have had a hard time protecting any of the other freedoms scrawled out in the Bill of Rights.
After all, the free press protections in the First Amendment are not really about newspapers, which were a relative rarity in the colonies at the end of the 18th century.
What freedom of the press is really about is the freedom to obtain information from sources unsanctioned by the government. And that allows us to think and share our own thoughts, to inform and educate others, to study whatever we please, to openly question the government and help others do the same.
Without those freedoms, we quickly would lose all the others.
Without a free press, we couldn’t publish and disseminate religious texts if the government disagreed with them, so you could throw freedom of religion out the window.
If the government controlled the press, who would tell us when the government was guilty of warrantless search and seizure or using harsh tactics to disperse a crowd peacefully assembled?
Without a free press, we couldn’t even publish the laws themselves, or any analysis of them, unless the government wanted us to. We couldn’t learn how to push back when the government gets heavy handed.
Part of the reason I’m a journalist is because I believe the free press is what makes the rest of the Bill of Rights work.
The founding fathers protected the free press because they saw the value it had in the very creation of their newborn nation.
Pamphleteers like Thomas Paine and newspapermen like Benjamin Franklin used the press to inform their fellow colonists of the goings-on of the Revolutionary War and to rally their neighbors to the cause.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation carries a couple of quotes from the founding fathers to prove the point:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson is quoted, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants,” said Samuel Adams, “as a free press.”
(Find out more about the history of newspapers in the Revolution here: https://tinyurl.com/yy7ls58j).
For many residents of the colonies, the battles of the revolution were far off, and some even struggled to see the effect of the whole “taxation without representation” thing on their own lives. Newspapers and pamphlets and other informational text — printed against the wishes of the British government — helped the colonists understand why the patriot cause was important.
This is my favorite part of the story of newspapers in the Revolution: The very founders who supported a free press during the war were suddenly bothered by it — after they took office.
Again from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: “When John Adams wrote ‘A Constitution or Form of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ in 1779, he included a guarantee of liberty of the press. But as president, Adams endorsed the Alien and Sedition Acts, aimed at muzzling the opposition by jailing editors who dared criticize the chief executive.” Even George Washington took to sneering at newspaper editors once he was in office.
Why were these original endorsers of the First Amendment suddenly opposed to a free press?
They were afraid.
And that’s just the way it should be.