Idea of a Free Press: The Enlightenment and Its Unruly Legacy

Idea of a Free Press: The Enlightenment and Its Unruly Legacy


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With the introduction of the printing press in England in 1476, a struggle over its control—and its potential for interrupting power—was joined. The written word, once the domain of the upper levels of society that controlled politics, economics, and religion, could be seen passing into the hands of anyone throughout the social strata who wished to voice opinions on any topic of interest or importance. How the advent of printing led to the idea of a free press is the story told by David Copeland in this book, which traces a confrontation that began with issues of religion and gradually expanded into the realm of political freedom.

The rise of a free press was, in many ways, a legacy of the Reformation and Enlightenment. Copeland describes a discourse centered on questions of religion—a discussion that the government, with all its religious authority, could not suppress because of the belief that the ability to reason for oneself was God-given. In this account we see how the debate moved from religion to the purely political sphere, and how, through the increased use of the printing press, it was opened to a multiplicity of voices and opinions. Spanning nearly four centuries in Britain and America, Copeland's book reveals how the tension between government control and the right to debate public affairs openly ultimately led to the idea of a free press; in doing so, it documents an intellectual development of unparalleled relevance and importance to the history of journalism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810123298
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 07/21/2006
Series: Medill Visions of the American Press Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David A. Copeland is the A. J. Fletcher Professor in the School of Communications at Elon University in North Carolina and the author of many works including The Antebellum Era (Greenwood Press, 2003) and, with Shannon E. Martin, The Function of Newspapers in Society: A Global Perspective (Praeger Publications, 2003) Author lives in Elon, NC.

Read an Excerpt


By David A. Copeland
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2006

David Copeland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2329-8


In 1589, a publication from the London press of John Wolfe declared, "I know you in England expect newes with everie happie winde: and happie be that wind which bringes you good newes." Wolfe and other English printers were providing the people of London with continuous news of the war in France between Henry of Navarre and the Catholic League. It was a confrontation that attracted unprecedented attention. Thousands of Englishmen had chosen to join the holy fray. Considering England's level of involvement in terms of manpower, the confrontation's Protestant-Catholic nature, and the interest in England in the war's outcome for reasons both political and religious, the fact that an estimated 45,000 news pamphlets on the war circulated through England during the five years of fighting, 1589-1593, may not be surprising to twenty-first-century readers, who are bombarded with thousands of pages and hundreds of news broadcasts monthly concerning political affairs. But the comment that the people "expect newes" was printed in 1589 during the tenure of the Star Chamber, the Tudor-Stuart monarchy's tool for controlling dissent and information.

More than 160 years later, another printer, this time New Yorker James Parker, described the appeal of news in his time: "This Taste, we Englishmen, have for News, is a very odd one; yet it must be fed." Parker concluded his observation by saying that news was something "we can't be without." The fact that English-speaking people in Britain and America developed a desire for information is logical, considering the political, religious, social, intellectual, and economic changes that occurred in both places in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Saying in 1589 that people "expect newes," or in 1750 that news is something "we can't be without," is not the same as proclaiming that people have a right to speak and print their thoughts, no matter the nature of their words. But those pronouncements certainly reflected people's desire in England and America to obtain as much information and knowledge as possible. At the same time, people were writing that it was, in fact, their right to print their ideas even if they contradicted the ideas sanctioned by governing authorities. The same phenomenon occurred in many other Western European countries-and their New World colonies, too. Yet it was in the former British colonies that became the United States that those who created a new form of government, a republican democracy, declared through legislative fiat that they would "make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

How was it possible to reach a time when politicians were willing to guarantee the right of a free press? After centuries of struggle between those who were in power and those who were not, between those of the religious orthodoxy and those who dissented, a new thought process began to develop. People began to see that when governments controlled what was spoken or printed, they limited a natural right of man given by God. If God gave the right, it logically could not be infringed upon by any other person or government. "But how great is the Absurdity to suppose, that Government was ever designed to enslave the Consciences of Men!" is the way New York lawyer-turned-columnist William Livingston phrased the idea in 1753.

Livingston and most of the other writers and thinkers of his age had been affected by the writings of John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Daniel Defoe, "Cato" (a pseudonym for the eighteenth-century Englishmen John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon), and dozens of other often anonymous writers-many of whom were Puritans and other religious dissenters demanding the inalienable right to act on the dictates of their conscience. These people combined their religious beliefs with a new way of looking at the world. They believed that they were more enlightened than those who had lived before them. Humankind, they said, had been given the ability to think; therefore, people could understand the world around them, even man himself-all of which were God's creations-through the ability to think and reason. They believed that God offered a balance-harmony-to the world. Consequently, whatever might be revealed to humankind as "divine revelation" could not, as Henry May has said, "establish truths which were contrary to reason." This way of thinking became known as the "Enlightenment." Those who subscribed to its principles in the seventeenth century and much of the eighteenth did not deny God or God's ability to reveal; they simply said that God could not, would not, reveal, create, or act in any manner contrary to humankind's ability to reason. While not all people in Britain or its American colonies accepted this notion, many did, and it wove itself into the fabric of religion and nearly all aspects of life.

The pages of this book look back to see how the people of England and then America developed the concept that a free press was a right given to the people and how this concept ultimately found its way into the Bill of Rights of the young United States. It is not an attempt to explain what America's Founding Fathers meant by the First Amendment. Rather, it is an effort to see how English-speaking people arrived at the point where they believed that the right to speak and print should be protected by government, and to examine the efforts made along the way to suppress speech for any number of reasons, but principally as a means of protecting and preserving government. In relation to England and America during this period, usually government can be seen as a combination of political and ecclesiastical authorities.

When William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, no one, no doubt, believed it would ever become an instrument to disseminate "dangerous" or heretical concepts. After all, England was still very much a medieval nation and fervently Roman Catholic in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Caxton's publications included translations of some of the greatest literature of the ages. He printed religious works and history. When he died in 1491, the great heresy, according to those who held the strings of power, that the printing press would foster-the Protestant Reformation-was still nearly thirty years away.

Because all aspects of life at the beginning of the sixteenth century were written upon indelibly with religion, any questioning of religious orthodoxy brought into question nearly all aspects of life. When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door, he openly questioned what had not been questioned in Europe since the end of the fourth century-the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchies that supported it. Luther's monumental 1520 work, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, introduced the concept of the "priesthood of the believer." One of the basic tenets of the Reformation, this concept posited that all had access to the ear of God. Therefore, one did not need to confess one's sins to a priest. One could go directly to God personally to ask forgiveness. A young Cambridge-trained scholar named John Frith became one of the first to promote Reformation ideas in England. As early as 1528, Frith proposed that the concept of transubstantiation-the idea that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were literally the body and blood of Christ-was "adiaphora"-that is, made no sense, and therefore should not matter to a person of faith. Frith was not alone in these thoughts-or in his way of thinking-but he introduced the Renaissance concept of rationalism to the growing Reformation debate in England. Human reason, for Frith, was the final arbiter of scripture. Frith's "enlightened" thought removed from the priesthood the power it transmitted in the sacraments and placed it squarely upon God's favor to the believer. If every article of faith were scrutinized in such a manner, then the very foundations of the Roman Catholic Church-and even the monarchy, which ruled through divine right-might be undermined.

What gave the ideas of Luther and Frith such strength was the ability to share them via the printed word. Concepts uttered in a tavern or a classroom at Oxford could be dangerous, but when those words were printed and bulk copies dispersed, they had the ability to produce powerful results. They could take on a life of their own. They could spur more pamphlets and even more wildly heretical thought, according to the crown and church. Frith may have been the first Englishman to publish tracts based on the liberty of conscience-and to die for proposing ideas contrary to the status quo-but he would not be the last.

In England, Henry VIII responded quickly to the writings of Frith and similar thinkers. In 1529, he instituted the first of numerous laws that prohibited the publication of certain books and established trade regulation of books. Henry also instituted a licensing system. The purpose of this system, which was enforced by the Court of the Star Chamber, was to quiet all dissenting voices by requiring governmental approval of all items before they were published. In 1557, Mary Tudor transformed licensing into the Stationers' Company, which established a guild of crown-approved printers who controlled all questions surrounding printing in England. The Stationers had the power to censor printed material, establish printers' wages, and limit the number of employees who could work in a single print shop. The Stationers' Company increased its power in Elizabethan England and continued to operate along with the Star Chamber under the Stuarts-James I and Charles I-into the middle of the seventeenth century. The Stuarts introduced a new legal concept to the mix-seditious libel, which made any criticism of the government, be it true or false, a criminal act.

The Tudor-Stuart reaction to the publication of tracts and pamphlets was explained simply in 1597 by Francis Bacon. In his meditation "Of Heresies," the English philosopher said, "Knowledge itself is power." Before the printing press and publication of information in the vulgar languages, items written in Latin were understood only by the clergy and nobility. To the rest, understanding the mysteries surrounding Christianity-and anything else in print-was left to those who told them what the writings said and, subsequently, how they were to act and respond to the dictates of those words. With printing in the vernacular and calls for reformation in religion, however, the printing press became the weapon of choice. No other way existed to disseminate information as quickly and as widely as this new tool allowed.


Two traditions developed in England and continued in America that ultimately led to the belief that a free press was a necessity and a right. The first was the desire for information-the rationale behind the news pamphlets of the war in France from 1589 to 1593 and James Parker's declaration that news was something Englishmen could not be without in 1750. This desire for information is hardwired into humans. Of course, people who met along roads, in marketplaces, or nearly anywhere else had been exchanging information for as long as people interacted. Personal letters also served as a means of sharing news, and the writers generally intended for their correspondence to be shared with others in order to impart information. Eventually, personal correspondence turned into newsletters that anyone could buy to learn of occurrences. Handwritten newsletters naturally transformed into printed newssheets. John Campbell's scribed newsletters in Boston, for example, became the Boston News-Letter in 1704.

Because the earliest newssheets were, by decree, "published by authority," government agents used them to disseminate information and to shape and direct people's thoughts. This information was news, but it was tailored to fit the needs of those who held political power. In England in the first half of the seventeenth century, however, issues of political and religious importance led to another press, one that printed despite authority (the same would occur in America a century later). As newspapers developed into the form they would assume for the next two hundred years, competition and the gradual weakening and then abolishment of licensing laws created a venue for multiple voices through the printed word. Books, pamphlets, broadsides, newsbooks, and finally newspapers created a metaphysical space, the "public sphere," where ideas and information could be exchanged. A portion of the information shared here was news as we understand it today, although it was still often presented and then understood through lenses colored by the ideology and religion of the writers and readers, who oftentimes were more concerned with passing on a moral lesson than with providing accurate facts. This news included reports on governmental action and policy and events of the community, and it contained essays on subjects political, social, religious, and nonsensical.

Even though the printing press and these early publications together created what we understand newspapers to be, the second element in the development of the concept of the free press-the notion that people have a right to express their beliefs based on liberty of conscience-had appeared before, and it continued to find voice in the printed word from the time of the Protestant Reformation and John Frith through the eighteenth century and beyond. In fact, the exposition of beliefs continued to form a principal use of the printed word into the nineteenth century, when it helped to shape the mass media, and into the twenty and twenty-first centuries, when it took new incarnations in the realms of broadcasting and cyberspace. The human desire to expound on elements of belief was and continues to be so strong that people find ways to express themselves despite governmental injunctions against it. Even death cannot silence principle if more than one person subscribes to it, as attested by the long line of martyrs described by John Foxe in The Acts and Monuments of the Church (1563).

Establishing freedom of the press was not the intention of Englishmen who reacted to Roman Catholicism, to Henry's Anglican Church, or to any other authority attempting to place limitations upon the interpretation of scripture. Printing was a means to an end, but it ultimately had to be supported in order for thoughts contrary to the state to be distributed. Liberty of conscience, therefore, became the rationale for a free press in countless publications, including an open letter to Parliament, published in 1688, that said, "it's evident the Freedom of Restraint of the Press depends on this single Question, Whether we ought to be free, or Slaves in our Understandings?" And it is why William Livingston stated that it was an absurdity "that Government was ever designed to enslave the Consciences of Men!" in 1753.

In the seventy years before Martin Luther, printers were content to publish Bibles and works of history, philosophy, and literature. But three centuries earlier, Thomas Aquinas had written his Summa Theologiae, which used Aristotelian logic to establish the validity of the doctrines of the Catholic Church and, more important, the existence of God. The use of rational thought continued to be applied by Renaissance thinkers to find logical ways of explaining the relationship between God and humankind found in the catechism of the church in Rome. The revolt against the church, spawned by Luther and then widened by men such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, used the same logical thought processes to prove that the Roman Church misrepresented God, holy scripture, and the sacraments. And, unlike Aquinas, they sent their writings to printers. Luther's Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation sold four thousand copies in two weeks, with subsequent press runs of the book following. The reach of Luther's 1520 treatise had to be beyond the comprehension of people at that time, especially considering the way the products of the printing press had been shared up to that point.


Excerpted from THE IDEA OF A FREE PRESS by David A. Copeland
Copyright © 2006 by David Copeland. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Daniel Schorr
One. Introduction
Two. English Origins—Liberty of Conscience
Three. English Origins—News]
Four. The Marketplace of Ideas and Its Polemicists
Five. American Origins—The Seventeenth Century
Six. Turning Points for Expression
Seven. Debate and the Public Sphere
Eight. Conclusion


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