What Do You Think? Free press in the brave new world
Jul 21, 2017 09:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Crowds of new Americans ringed the State Capitol building in Annapolis eager to see the General who had led the new nation to victory in a War for Independence. “Hail to the King, we crown you King,” they chanted.
It was December 23, 1783, and inside the Capitol building in the Senate Chamber at high noon, George Washington, hero of the Revolution, was not accepting a crown for a King. He stood before the Continental Congress, offered his congratulations to the august body and in a few words tendered his resignation as Commander-in Chief of the Continental Army. His actions precipitated the beginning of a liberal Republic and civil government of, by, and for the people. Principles stated in the Declaration of Independence for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness protected by government would become the new law of the land.
With the tyranny of King George III still fresh to memory, the Founding Fathers adopted the philosophy of John Locke, the leading thinker of the Enlightenment. Locke’s essay, Concerning Human Understanding, written in 1690, would become the foundation of modern Western philosophy; its principles on liberty and equality and freedom of speech, press, and religion would be embodied in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1789. In the checks and balances against tyranny, only the consent of the governed and freedom of expression would protect the goals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Leadership with absolute power creates an environment that can easily turn people into slaves,” Locke opined. Thomas Jefferson thought Locke to be among the greatest of men that ever lived.
In 1787, the proposed Constitution was sent to the States for ratification. Some questioned the absence of a Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of speech. James Madison in Virginia declared “that the people have a right to freedom of speech and of writing and of publishing their sentiments; that the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and ought not to be violated.” With agreement to pursue a Bill of Rights, Virginia ratified the Constitution. And so, the First Amendment that Congress shall not abridge freedom of speech or press was set in motion. America’s founders believed Freedom of the Press, besides advancing truth and culture, promoted discussion and scrutinized government that would overcome oppressive officials.
The Presidential election of 1800 would test the Freedom of the Press. Federalists, in power, and Jefferson Republicans challenged each other. Claiming sedition, editors of Republican newspapers were arrested. Efforts to repress the press failed when the Republicans won the election. Those arrested were freed and cheered as heroes. Sedition was not used again. The free press operated from then on with political point counter point.
The real challenge of the new republic, however, was to meet the mandate of popular sovereignty. How was government of, by, and for the people to happen in such a vast and expanding nation? America was not a world power or a center for academic and scientific discoveries. What it became, however, was a leader in communication. The dispersal of knowledge, understanding government issues, and communicating with one another was deemed essential to the grand experiment of a liberal republic. Pennsylvanian Ben Rush in 1787 declared “knowledge of every kind had to be circulated through every part of the U.S. in order to adapt the principles of morals and manners to our citizens in our republican form of government.”
In this climate, newspapers became the most valuable vehicle of choice for perpetuating a free and knowledgeable nation. By 1820, there were 1,258 newspapers in the country. By 1840 the total weekly circulation of news for 17,000,000 people surpassed that for 233,000,000 in all of Europe. The literacy rate for both men and women was the highest in the world. Unlike European countries, U.S. newspapers were inexpensive. By 1831, all of them could be sent through a comprehensive postal system. The exchange of ideas, different viewpoints on national and world news, carried this nation forward.
During the founding of our nation, Richard Henry Lee, when questioning whether the civil society contemplated by the Constitution could be over taken by tyranny again, thought “yes it could happen again not with a bloody coup but with a smile and a friendly swagger. If people had grown tired of self government and could be jollied along or scared into servitude.” Alexander Hamilton also questioned “whether societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”
Because of the constitutional principle of a free press, “the bulwark of liberty” was sometimes controversial but hardly the enemy of the people. In the spirit of true citizenship, the press has led the way to protect our civil society and the common good against greed, tyranny, and private interests. For 200 years, newspapers have mattered to our success as a nation.
Do they still?