Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of the Press

Today the POTUS tweeted:

I responded:

Freedom of the press is included in the same First Amendment that protects religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.

I think it is fair to say that no POTUS has liked the press.   But to declare the press the enemy undermines the First Amendment.

Let’s see what Thomas Jefferson thought about a free press:

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

Jefferson said a lot more about the press. Some of it was critical and some of it might provide a usable past for Trump.  See some more of his quotes here.

Here’s the Continental Congress.

The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.–Continental Congress, October 1774.

The Founders were a bit more nuanced about freedom of the press than these quotes suggest, but I do think these quotes represent the Founders’s general understanding of the subject.

One thought on “Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of the Press

  1. Trump was not complaining about the free press, but about what he sees as the dishonest press.

    In a country governed by the will or consent of the people (expressed through our representatives and officials), anything and anybody that deliberately distorts the basis on which the people formulate their wills or decisions is an enemy of sorts. Anyone that does so from “gross negligence” (to borrow a legal phrase) is also culpable.


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