Clear and Present Danger podcast – Episode 21: The ‘Bulwark of Liberty’ – Free Speech in 18th Century America, Part I

February 14, 2019

Eighteenth-century colonial America was influenced by the so-called “Glorious Revolution” in England. And nothing had a bigger impact on American attitudes toward freedom of speech than Cato’s Letters, influential essays anonymously written in the London Journal by the Radical Whigs, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon.

Cato’s Letters created — to borrow from the present vernacular — a powerful free speech meme that effectively went viral in the colonies: “Freedom of Speech is the great Bulwark of Liberty.” The reach of Cato’s principles grew exponentially as colonists liked, shared, and commented on them in newspapers, pamphlets, and taverns.

Americans were persuaded that “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man.” As a consequence, juries refused to indict and convict colonists for seditious libel when criticizing governments and officials.

Despite the practical defeat of libel laws in colonial courts, legislative assemblies continued to threaten free speech. Under legislative privilege, provocative writers could be jailed and fined by their own representatives. And even some American heroes were sometimes willing to sacrifice free speech principles.

In this episode we’ll explore:

  • How coffee houses expanded the public sphere by cultivating the sharing of news and ideas, including revolutionary ones;
  • How the common law crime of seditious libel impacted writers;
  • How English writers including Matthew Tindal, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon paved the way for American ideas on free speech;
  • How the editor of the New England Courant in Boston combined anti-vaxxer propaganda with free speech advocacy;
  • How 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin used Cato’s Letters to argue for freedom of speech when his brother James was in jail;
  • How the New York Weekly Journal became America’s first opposition newspaper and justified its savage hit pieces on New York Governor William Cosby with Cato’s free speech principles;
  • How a jury acquitted the printer of the New York Weekly Journal, Peter Zenger, even though he was guilty according to the law;   
  • How legislative privilege was used to punish colonists for offending their own representatives;
  • And how Benjamin Franklin defended legislative privilege and the jailing of a Pennsylvania man for his writings.

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