Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech

Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech

Stephen D. Solomon

Language: English

Pages: 368

ISBN: 023034206X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

When members of the founding generation protested against British authority, debated separation, and then ratified the Constitution, they formed the American political character we know today-raucous, intemperate, and often mean-spirited. Revolutionary Dissent brings alive a world of colorful and stormy protests that included effigies, pamphlets, songs, sermons, cartoons, letters and liberty trees. Solomon explores through a series of chronological narratives how Americans of the Revolutionary period employed robust speech against the British and against each other. Uninhibited dissent provided a distinctly American meaning to the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech and press at a time when the legal doctrine inherited from England allowed prosecutions of those who criticized government.

Solomon discovers the wellspring in our revolutionary past for today's satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, and protests like flag burning and street demonstrations. From the inflammatory engravings of Paul Revere, the political theater of Alexander McDougall, the liberty tree protests of Ebenezer McIntosh and the oratory of Patrick Henry, Solomon shares the stories of the dissenters who created the American idea of the liberty of thought. This is truly a revelatory work on the history of free expression in America.












criminal charges. It was a classic seditious libel law, but the Federalists grafted onto it the two most important safeguards that libertarians had wanted going back to the trial of printer John Peter Zenger in New York in 1735 (see chapter 2). Finally, the law granted the defense of truth for people accused of defaming the government, rejecting the oppressive common law rule that punished criticism of government whether it was true or not. And following in the footsteps of Fox’s Act, which

the incendiary articles in the Boston Gazette and other papers understood the boot to represent the Earl of Bute, the Scottish nobleman who until a few years earlier had been the prime minister of Great Britain. The colonists considered Bute one of the officials responsible for passage of the tax. The boot sported a green sole, green having represented freedom in British medieval folklore since Robin Hood dressed in green cloth in Nottinghamshire. And the boot itself was not empty. In case anyone

themselves, and government officials served as their agents rather than their superiors. Citizens, then, required the freedom to speak freely and passionately on all the issues before them. The rejection of seditious libel played out with Governor Bernard and Chief Justice Hutchinson in the late 1760s. Again and again they tried to punish Benjamin Edes and John Gill for their articles in the Boston Gazette. Again and again the entire community turned them away. Neither of the two royal

race.”13 If the Livingston clan looked down on McDougall, that did not prevent them from enlisting him as a political ally. The Livingstons and the De Lanceys were bitter rivals in New York politics at the time the Stamp Act conflict arose, both vying for control of the colony. In New York, as in many other colonies, local politics and opposition to British policy in America spun a complex web. The two family parties divided on religious, economic, and political grounds. The Livingstons

authority of a superior one, and every species of confusion that is to be feared from the despotism of democracy, would be attendant upon a display of so profound a piece of casuistry.”46 The king himself would lose his supreme position. “In the one instance, each American governor would display all the authority of a British King; and in the other, drop gently into the character of a King’s representative only.”47 The writer drew a bright line in the sand—the sovereign enjoyed indivisible

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