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Clear and Present Danger podcast – Episode 18: Colonial dissent: blasphemy, libel, and tolerance in 17th century America

In 17th century colonial America, criticizing the government, officials, or the laws was punishable as seditious libel and could result in the cropping of ears, whippings, boring of the tongue, and jail time. Religious expression was also tightly controlled. Blasphemy was punishable by death in several colonies and religious dissenters such as Quakers were viciously persecuted in Puritan New England. Despite the harsh climate of the 17th century, the boundaries of political speech and religious tolerance were significantly expanded. In this episode, we’ll look into the following stories:  

  • How the crime of seditious libel was exported to colonial America 
  • Why peddlers of “fake news” were seen as enemies of the state 
  • Why a Harvard student was whipped for blasphemy 
  • Why four Quakers were hanged in Boston and many more whipped, branded, and jailed 
  • How colonies like Pennsylvania, Carolina, and Maryland combined religious tolerance with laws against religious offenses 
  • How Roger Williams’ “Rogue Island” and West New Jersey adopted policies of radical religious toleration 
  • The dangers of mixing alcohol and politics in Maryland 
  • How William Penn promoted religious tolerance and political intolerance 
  • How the colonies operated a strict licensing regime to suppress printing 
  • How John Wise protested taxation without representation and became “America’s First Great Democrat” 

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