freedom of the press: historical perspective

I don’t think most people realize what a radical thing the First Amendment to the American Constitution was when it was first proposed:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (emphasis mine)

I tend to read eighteenth-century American history through the lens of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. This quote from Paula McDowell’s “Women and the Business of Print” (Women and Literature in Britain, 1700-1800, ed by Viven Jones. Cambridge, 2000) might help you see why:

Over the period from 1695 o 1774, the English press underwent some of the most important changes in its history. Before 1695, the guild which oversaw the book trade, the Worshipful Company of Stationers of London, held a royal charter granting its membership sole right to print, publish, or traffic in the printed word. Printing was confined to London and the two university towns, there were strict limits on the number of printers, and texts had to be licensed before they could be printed. During the Civil War period, press controls temporarily collapsed; political upheaval and increased literacy rates had contributed to an unprecedented demand for the printed word. In 1662, the Printing or Licensing Act would revive the principles of government censorship, yet the press would never again be as effectively controlled as it had been prior to the 1640s. In 1695, the Licensing Act was allowed to lapse for good, ending pre-publication censorship and limits on the number of master printers. The situation after 1695 was not that of a ‘free press’; government and trade restrictions still limited what could be printed and by whom. Nonetheless, the early eighteenth century was a period of anarchic expansion in the print trades. Whereas before 1695 there were only twenty-four legal printers in all of England, by 1795 there were between sixty-five and seventy printing-houses in London alone. (137-138))

Imagine if you had to get permission from the government before you could publish anything (e.g. on your blog). The idea seems ridiculous now, but prior to 1695, that was the norm in the most powerful nation of the English speaking world. This was a kind of dumb phrase, given that England was pretty much the only English speaking nation in the world at this time.

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2 thoughts on “freedom of the press: historical perspective

  1. You know, when that excerpt from Hamilton’s defense of freedom of the press at the Zenger trial (in what, 1739 or so?) I try to explain all of that press licensing to my students. They’re floored by the idea.

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