Should we blame the founding generation for planting the seeds of discord that make today’s political climate so toxic? Perhaps a little. The men and women of the Revolutionary era, argues Stephen Solomon, redefined free expression, creating a bedrock American principle that makes no distinction between pleasant and genuinely nasty speech.
In other words, we’ve been living with the uglier aspects of free speech for quite a while.
That’s just a hint of what Solomon has to say in his recent book, Revolutionary Dissent. He’ll be delivering a lecture on the topic, followed by a book signing, this Wednesday, May 10 at 5:30 p.m. at the Hennage Auditorium.
Revolutionary Dissent traces the early American history of an idea—the right to speak out against the government–from the case of Massachusetts minister John Wise, who was punished for leading a tax protest against the royal governor in 1687, through the state conventions held to ratify the Constitution.
The inquiry was prompted by a freshman seminar Solomon teaches at NYU, where he is associate professor in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and director of the M.A. program in Business and Economic Reporting, which he founded 18 years ago. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, he teaches First Amendment law to undergraduate and graduate students. A previous book, Ellery’s Protest, told the story of the Supreme Court case that declared state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the public schools to be a violation of the First Amendment.
The freshman seminar explores First Amendment law and history. Solomon sensed a common misperception among the students that free speech and press had always been protected by law. “They think that freedom of the press, association, and petition were always recognized, so they don’t appreciate the fight to win those rights,” he said.
In Revolutionary Dissent, he tells that story.
Solomon’s research convinced him that there was a fascinating dynamic that made the evolution of free speech possible, a process which he explores in nine case studies. Taking his cue from John Adams’ famous comment in an 1815 letter to Thomas Jefferson that the meaning of the Revolution to him was “in the minds of the people” well before the war started, he argues that a dramatic change in the way the colonists thought about freedom of expression occurred first, and helped make the outcome so consequential.
As the debates over British policy in the colonies intensified after the French and Indian War, the American colonists began to exercise rights they didn’t clearly have. Under the common law charges of seditious libel could be brought against subjects who cast aspersions on their rulers. Even if the complaints were true, the law offered little cover, although the Zenger case in 1735 at least demonstrated the possibility that a jury could protect truth tellers.
In 1765 the Stamp Act generated angry rhetoric in the newspapers, intricate intellectual arguments in pamphlets, and resolutions from colonial legislatures. But it was when such deeply argued dissent moved to the streets and broadened public participation that the laws inhibiting political speech became unenforceable, says Solomon.
This is what he calls the first revolution, the one before the war, when protest spread to the masses and broke down existing boundaries of acceptable speech. “Many couldn’t read, but they could protest,” says Solomon, and they found “a certain clarity” in being able to rally around unifying symbols of protest like liberty trees and liberty poles.
“They were hanging effigies from the gallows because it brought out large crowds,” he says. “Uninhibited debate became the American way of doing things.”
So what is there to gain from this origin story?
“In a way our freedoms are always at risk. There are always attacks on the press and the right to speak freely. But what we learn is that these rights are critical to self-government. To have a democracy work you have to be able to discuss leaders and policies without fear of reprisal.”
Who ever said democracy was pretty?
Stephen Solomon will be discussing Revolutionary Dissent in Hennage Auditorium at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, Wednesday, May 10 at 5:30 p.m. A book signing will follow. Tickets are available online.
You can also read Professor Solomon’s related article, “The Cost of Criticism,” from the Winter 2017 issue of Trend & Tradition, online. His article on the struggle for the Bill of Rights will appear in the upcoming Summer 2017 issue.