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Toby Terrar, “"The New Social History and Colonial America's Press Legacy: Tyranny or Freedom?" This article originally appeared in NST: Nature, Society and Thought (Minneapolis), vol. 2, (no. 1, 1989), pp. 45-75. Its original title was “Scholarship during the Cold War Period on early American, First Amendment Press Freedom and the relevance of the New Social History's Focus on Race, Class and Gender: A bicentennial critique of Leonard Levy's Book, Emergence of a Free Press


            INTRODUCTION. Between 1987 and 1991 the United States celebrates the bicentennial of the Constitution and its First Amendment free press clause. It may also mark the end of the cold war. It is an opportunity to reconsider the denigration in which some scholars during the cold war period have held early America's press heritage. This essay contributes in this direction. It analyzes the historical scholarship of one of the leading First Amendment academics of the cold war period, Leonard Levy. It may be there is something worth celebrating during the bicentennial. Perhaps the early American heritage has a lesson for helping reduce the cold war.

            Since the publication in 1960 of his Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History, Levy's negative views on the origins of American press freedom have had wide circulation (Levy 1960). Textbooks, scholarly articles and even the United States Supreme Court have cited his conclusions. The author of a recent survey in the journal, Journalism History stated: "Legacy has generated about as much scholarship as any work in recent memory" (Martin 1981, 114).

            In the aftermath of World War II, there was, in some regards, a favorable shift in the balance of world power toward the developing and socialist nations, trade unions, people of color and women. Backward looking forces at the same time worked to overthrow democratic governments, as in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). They made war on progressive trade unions, universities, newspapers, radios and churches. The cold war produced its own version of history. This included the substitution of "great white male" history for the people's history. The "big white fog," as Herbert Aptheker puts it, was characterized by censorship - the omission of race, class and gender as categories of analysis.

            Levy's Legacy brought the cold war to early American free press scholarship. The people during the American colonial period, as in the developing nations after World War II, had been able, occasionally, to mobilize the press in their behalf. This sometimes meant suppressing the censorship exercised by the press monopoly of the rich and wellborn. The cold warriors condemned the national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America for such violations. It is not surprising that Levy condemned as a "legacy of suppression" similar activity in early American history.

            In the 25 years since the publication of Legacy, the New Social History has enriched the understanding of the relatively inarticulate early American majority - the farmers, artisans, laborers, blacks, Indians and women. In doing their research social historians make use of anthropological methodology, census, church and poor relief records, tax lists, court records, newspapers, diaries, architecture and everyday artifacts. Social history has produced findings that are relevant to the analysis of early American press freedom. In preparation for the First Amendment's bicentennial, Levy has published Emergence of a Free Press, which states in its preface to be an updating of Legacy and an incorporation of recent First Amendment scholarship . In fact, however, Emergence is written as if it were still 1960. Levy is not interested in social history and its discussion of the social relations of race, class and gender. For Levy the cold war continues. There is too much in common between early America and the developing nations of the 1980s.[1]

            RACE. Levy's "no government interference" theory of free press analysis focuses on opposition to common law seditious libel - the right of post-publication state criminal prosecution of certain types of publication. Levy censors out race as a governing category of free press analysis. Blacks and Indians compromised some thirty-five percent of the late colonial population. Social historians have shown that they had their own particular views on and history of press freedom.

            From the black and Indian view, the colonial era free press libertarians were Indians such as James the Printer, who reduced the native American languages to writing and published works in them (Thomas 1970); the literate slaves who taught their fellow slaves to read; the black and Indian Quakers and Puritans who established and funded schools for teaching literacy (Axtell 1976; Murphy 1981; Danky 1984); and those who worked for the abolition of war, racism and slavery, the main enemies of press freedom.[2] Early American libertarians included the citizens of the Five Indian Nations for whom, as Cadwallder Colden's (1688-1776) The History of the Five Indian Nations (1727) recorded, free speech and debate were among basic principles of government (Bagley 1983).

            To illustrate how Levy's focusing only on whites produces an inadequate picture of the free press heritage, the case of William Smith (1727-1803) can be considered. It arose during the 1750s in Philadelphia. For Levy, the case is a significant part of early America's legacy of suppression. For social historian Gary Nash, who goes into the racial background of the case, the conclusion is somewhat different.

            Nash starts off by showing how Quaker political morality in the colonial period tended to require service to the public welfare, not to William Penn and the English capitalists who financed Pennsylvania. Nash writes:

Quaker leader David Lloyd issued the call that government must exist not as an extension of proprietary authority but as the instrument of the people's will. This, of course, had been the axiom of those who struggled against Penn's prerogatives from the very beginning (Nash 1979, 95).

Indians were people and their interests were generally served by the Quakers. Nash writes:

Quakerism was dedicated to the principle of nonviolence and just relations among people of all religions and races. . . Interracial relations in the Delaware River Valley stood in sharp contrast to other parts of North America (Nash [1974] 1982, 95).

            Quaker free press philosophy was based in its political morality of serving the public welfare. The press was seen as having a function in educating people to the ideals of good citizenship and against racism and war. Many Quakers, as good citizens, took up journalism and pamphletering as a second vocation. Nash writes of John Smith's contribution:

The literacy rate was higher in colonial America. . . Lengthy pamphlets were often distributed gratis. Half of the 1000 copies of John Smith's Doctrine of Christianity, a Quaker plea for noninvolvement in war, were distributed free in 1748, so "that it might have the more universal influence over the Province" (Nash 1979, 200).

            Philadelphia's non-Quaker press tended to follow the Quaker example in educating against racism and war. Nash observes:

In 1740, when the proprietary party made its first concerted effort to challenge the Quaker party, the most important German printer in the colony convinced most of the Germans that "there was a (proprietary) Design to enslave them: to force their young Men to be Soldiers, make them serve as Pioneers, and to go down to work upon our Fortifications." The Proprietary party's attempt to split the German vote failed miserably in Philadelphia county as the Germans "came down in shoals and carried all before them" (Nash 1979, 230).

            During the colonial period Indians were defrauded, enslaved and even killed as a result of war-making instigated and financed by London and European profit-seeking policy makers. This included Queen Ann's War (1701-1713), King George's War (1740s) and the Seven Years War (1755-1763).

            The press in England and the colonies tended toward war-mongering and racism, a tool for genocide. This was not the case in Pennsylvania. The minority proprietary party controlled Pennsylvania's appointive offices (governor, judiciary). However, the Quakers set policy, including free press philosophy, as they consistently won control of the popularly elected assembly. This meant white and Indian lived side by side in relative harmony. Unjust business relations and war-mongering were suppressed.

            When the proprietary press did engage in racism, steps were taken to halt it, as during the Seven Years War. In 1755 the British army, led by Edward Braddock (1695-1755), was defeated by Indians in Western Pennsylvania. The Indians then went after backwoods Scots-Irish and Germans "to settle the score of their encroachment" (Nash 1982, 250). The Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania assembly sided with the Indians, believing them engaged in a just war of self-defense. It refused to allocate funds to raise an army against the Indians or to allow the Philadelphia proprietary press to war-monger. Nash comments: "Quakers believed the Scots-Irish frontiersmen were only reaping what they had sowed through years of abusing and defrauding Indians" (Nash 1982, 252; Siegert 1981, 54).

            The William Smith case arose during the Seven Years War, when the proprietary party was trying to make the assembly alter its position. Smith was an Anglican clergyman and proprietary leader. He published several newspaper articles and pamphlets, including A Brief State of the Province of Pennsylvania (1755), accusing the Quakers of treason, warned of imminent danger if the assembly (Quaker) party was not dismantled, and suggested barring Quakers from office and even from voting (Nash 1979, 268; Smith 1755; Hoffer 1981). A Benjamin Franklin ally summarized Smith's "fear-mongering, deception, innuendo and scurrility" as "the vomitings of this infamous Hireling. . . [which] betoken that Redundancy of Rancor, and Rotteness of Hart, which renders him the most despicable of his Species" (Nash 1979, 269).[3]

            The assembly brought a libel suit against Smith in 1758, convicted him, and incarcerated him for three months. For being incarcerated, Levy counts Smith a freedom fighter, a principled hero, a martyr for freedom of the press. Levy's account starts with Smith's trial. Levy omits discussion of Quaker political morality, their free press philosophy, and the racial context and reason underlying the libel charges against Smith. According to Levy, Smith was an "extremely influential person," who thought it was his duty to 'keep the Dutch press as free as any other in the province'" and who "proved his mettle" by attacking the assembly in a series of articles while still in jail (Levy 1985, 52, 55-56). The following, which begins with a quote from Smith, illustrates Levy's approach:

"There is nothing the Law of England is more tender about than the Freedom of the Press, Knowing it to be the great Bulwark of all other freedom." Smith then launched into a pastiche from Cato's Letters, starting with an extract from Number 15, "Of Freedom of Speech." In his third essay Smith condemned the legislature's "uncommon endeavors, used for a number of years past, to overawe the Press, and to vilify and intimidate the advocates for impartial Enquiry" (Levy 1985, 56).

            According to Levy, the assembly represented a "tyranny," a "Stuart despot," a "Star Chamber" which conducted a "mock trial before a kangaroo court, acting as accuser, judge and jury," "a Wonderland of the Knave of Hearts for stealing the tarts - the sentence 'Off with his head!' preceded both trial and verdict," and a violation of "due process, Magna Carta and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679" (Levy 1985, 53-54, 56). Levy condemns Benjamin Franklin who was the assembly's special agent in London at the time. Franklin, among other things a journalist, wrote a refutation to every point of Smith's appeal to the Privy Council. Levy relates:

Franklin declared Smith "had suffered not at all by the Censure of the House for publishing a Libel, he having been long considered as a common Scribbler of Libels against Publick Bodies." And he argued that no appeal could be taken from the judgment of the assembly. Thus spoke America's foremost printer and reputed champion of freedom of the press. He was not just doing his job. He believed in the position he represented (Levy 1985, 57).[4]

            From the Indian perspective, the William Smith case is part of a legacy of press freedom, a service to Indian citizens. It contributed to protecting their life and property. For Levy, on the other hand, Franklin, the Quakers and their principled press freedom is a legacy of suppression. The exploitative, aggressive and ruthless become freedom fighters, and freedom fighters like the Indians, Quakers and Franklin become tyrants. In cold war terms, the legacy of suppression is not that the native race was robbed and killed, but that occasionally the war-mongering racists were punished for their crimes.

            RACIAL DOUBLE STANDARD. Some academics during the cold war have used a double standard in evaluating America's press heritage. While accepting race as a consideration for present day American free press standards, they think early Americans should have been neutral to racial content. Levy's standard for early America as set forth in Emergence is typical of race neutrality: "So long as the press may be subjected to government control, the press cannot be free - or is not as free as it should be" (Levy 1985, xvii)."

            To his credit, Levy voices no objections to present day government intervention against press racism. Such intervention includes laws that forbid the publication of racist and anti-semitic ideas, as in newspaper ads ("only whites need apply," "churches nearby," "no Irish hired,"). Levy apparently goes along with the Supreme Court, which confirms, as in Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 US 250 (1952), the state codes that prohibit the publication of false or malicious defamation of racial and religious groups (Aptheker 1987, 165; Rome 1985; Lerner 1965). These were enacted to help combat the long history of racial murders, lynchings, assaults, forced sterilizations, interference with economic and political rights - including interference with black press freedom. The Supreme Court itself acknowledges that these defamation laws reduce racism and are no threat to but rather an aid in expanding black press freedom.

            One does not hear from Levy any condemnation of the Nuremberg Tribunal's execution of Nazis like Julius Streicher. Although he took no administrative or military part in war crimes, Streicher's anti-semitic propaganda was judged to have "incited murder and extermination" (Wright 1948, 133). The prosecution emphasized that Nazi propaganda for racism, anti-semitism and war-mongering did not lose out in the free market place of ideas. Nazism almost conquered the world and took 50 million lives to put down. Even now it dominates in nations like South Africa and Chile. The US legislation, under which the Nazi propaganda was suppressed, is still part of the United States Army Field Manual:

The belligerent occupant may establish censorship of the press, radio, theater, and motion pictures, of correspondence, and of all other means of communication. It may prohibit entirely the publication of newspapers or prescribe regulations for their publication and circulation (United States Department of Defense 1956, chapter 6, section II, paragraph 377).

            In America's past and in its present jurisprudence, the racially "neutral," "no government interference" standard has never been dominant. Rather, the legislatures and courts look to the balancing of social interests, social utility, freedom and responsibility and the power to protect the public health, safety, national defense and moral well-being (Afange 1965; Cooley 1871, 414; Graber 1986; Story 1851, 2:597). Government press regulation supports press freedom. Levy does not suggest otherwise. Only against early America does he raise the double standard.

            In a similar manner, the multi-national, news service conglomerates attack the developing nations and their New World Information Order (NWIO). The NWIO is an implementation of the United Nations' Charter mandate against colonialism, racism and foreign interference via the media in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. American laws prohibit racist ideas in the media. When the developing nations seek similar laws, as in the NWIO, they are attacked as violators of press freedom (Elder 1984; Terrar 1984; Schroth 1975; Dickinson 1928; Fenwick 1941).

            RACIAL PRESS FREEDOM. A lesson of the Indian, black, asian, hispanic, and non-English language press heritage in America, is that press freedom is defended and expanded mainly through the movement for racial justice (Miller 1987). The cold warriors notwithstanding, press freedom has not meant being neutral or detached from racial justice, but dependent upon and constituted by racial justice. Black press freedom flourished, for example, only with emancipation. By 1890 there were 200 black newspapers and by 1920, 500 (Detweiler [1922] 1968, 1-2).[5] Historian Irving Penn (1891, 27) discusses 24 black pre-Civil War newspapers. Their titles were expressive of their non-neutrality toward racism: Rights For All, Mirror Of Liberty, Genius Of Freedom, Alienated American, Ram's Horn, Elevator. The program of the Colored American, which published between 1837 and 1842 in New York City was typical: "Its objects are. . . the moral, social and political elevation and improvement of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the enslaved" (Detweiler [1922] 1968, 39). The abolitionist Maria Weston wrote of the black press:

It is church and university, high school and common school, to all who need real instruction. Of it what a throng of authors, editors, lawyers, orators and accomplished gentlemen of color have taken their degree (Williams 1885, 2:79).

            To the limited extent it "interfered" with the Southern slavocracy press and its Copperhead (Democratic party) counterpart in the North, the Lincoln administration contributed to, it did not lessen the American free press heritage (Klement 1960; Reynolds 1970). It was the racist press which engaged in censorship.[6] It hid the truth about black points of view, organizations, history and culture. The upholders of press freedom were the armies of Butler in New Orleans, Grant in Mississippi, Sherman in Georgia and newspapers such as the Afro-American Raleigh Independent. Its motto was "Neutral in Nothing" (Detweiler [1922] 1968, 106).

            The black press has been involved in a fight to the death - the destruction of the racist press. The lethal nature of the attack was testified to by the hatred manifested toward it and the laws against it where racism was dominant. Under slavery the Democratic party's New York World sought to exile to Canada black publisher Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and to close down his North Star Review (1847-1860) (Detweiler [1922] 1968, 41; Foner 1975). The North Star defended the Republican party and the containment of slavery.

            Historian Detweiler noted the hatred that existed toward the black press during the period he was writing in the 1920s:

Newspapers like the Defender are cordially execrated among white men in the South. An article in the Defender was held responsible for the riot in Longview, Texas. Governor Charles Brought of Arkansas said he believed the Crisis and Defender were responsible for the Arkansas riots and announced his intention of asking the Postmaster-General to exclude them from the mails. . . A correspondent in Arkansas wrote that "in the present state of mind of the white people of Phillip County, any Negro is as good as dead if he be even suspected of writing for a Northern Negro publication". . . Another correspondent noted: "We here in the South are not allowed to sell Northern Negro newspapers. We have to slip the paper into the hands of our friends. Every public school teacher is closely watched, also the Negro preacher (Detweiler [1922] 1968, 19, 139, 154).[7]

            The US Justice Department listed its grievances against the black press after World War I:

First, ill-governed reaction toward race rioting; second, the threat of retaliatory measures in connection with lynching; third, the more openly expressed demand for social equality, in which demand the sex problem is not infrequently included; fourth, the identification of the Negro with such radical organizations as the Industrial Workers of the World and an outspoken advocacy of the Bolsheviks or Soviet doctrines; fifth, the political stand assumed toward the present Federal administration, the South in general, and incidentally toward the peace treaty and the League of Nations. Underlying these more salient viewpoints is the increasingly emphasized feeling of a race consciousness, in many of these publications always antagonistic to the white race and openly, defiantly assertive of its own equality and even superiority (United States Attorney-General 1919, 161).

            Press freedom has existed not where the press merely reflected or was neutral toward reality, but where it worked like a hammer of justice to make reality. Detweiler commented on press freedom in the period of Jim Crow:

Instead of merely reflecting "life" the Negro newspapers, in setting themes for discussion and suggesting the foci of attention, helps powerfully to create that life. It may be that those who are on the frontiers of their world, chiefly in the cities and the ranks of the educated, are most sensitive to the new forces and new standards. But back in quiet rural areas, others are reading their views and arguments, and the whole mass is responding to the printed suggestion. Even a street fight, if the racial issue enters in, stiffens the whole line of conflict and sounds the call to a holy resistance (Detweiler [1922] 1968, 268-269).

            Detweiler detailed how the black press, like its white counterpart of the seventeenth and eighteenth century arose specifically in the struggle to make a just social reality, not because shareholders wished to sell advertising. He writes:

It is not surprising, then, that we have such titles as Advocate, Hornet, Protest, Challenge, Contender, Defender, Protector, Crusader, Whip, Blade. "We propose," says the Rising Sun of Pueblo, Colorado, "to wage a relentless warfare against everything that prevents us from being recognized as full fledged citizens of America." This emphasis on citizenship with the political and civil rights attaching to it is common to the great majority of the Negro papers. The Rising Sun presents details, on which the press is generally agreed:

We propose to contend for our complete rights before the law, just representation in politics; meritorious consideration in labor, no discrimination in education or public accommodation, no domiciliary restrictions and a repeal or prevention of the enactment of any statute or ordinance by either state or municipality in contravention to the constitution of the United States (Detweiler [1922] 1968, 131).

            CLASS. For some academics during the cold war period, class is not considered in free press analysis. For social historians, it is a standard theme. Early American's popular forces, through their elected representatives, sometimes interfered with the monopoly of the rich over the press. Levy finds this to be a legacy of suppression. Social history suggests that such may have had a liberating influence on press freedom for the non-rich. To appreciate the contribution which the class aspect of social history offers, it is helpful to start with a general consideration of class during the colonial period.

            Community studies of farmers, artisans and laborers have indicated that the near doubling of the English population between 1500-1650, land enclosure, urban growth, market-oriented farming, manufacturing and the advance of capitalism created a social crisis. The widespread displacement of the rural population, poverty, vagabondage, unemployment, and economic depression meant that one-quarter to one-half the population was chronically underfed and without permanent housing.

            Historian Christopher Hill has studied various manifestations of Puritanism (separating, non-separating, Independent, Presbyterian, Quaker, Brownist, Congregationalist). Their antinomianism (literally "against the law") was the ideology of the revolutionary class in seventeenth-century Europe. It involved a rejection in church and state of the "Norman Yoke," the military dictatorship of the landlord class established in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. Hill writes:

All human law, not just Mosaic law, was inapplicable to the elect. Thomas Collier noted in The Morrow of Christianity (London: 1646), pp. 60-61, "believers are a law unto themselves" (Hill 1986, 2:174; see also, Hill 1954, 1, 12, 57, 66).

Antinomianism counterpoised itself to the aristocracy's armenianism - the ideology of good works, such as obedience and service to the established order of bishops landlords and the aristocratic principle of status based on birth and inherited wealth.

            Puritan immigration to America had a collective aspect and represented an effort, in the face of social chaos to achieve order, social harmony, and decent living conditions. Among the ideals in government, economics, religion and other social relations which found support was that set forth in the Bible: serving public needs, being your brother's keeper. The individualism and greed of the rich was often criticized for causing and profiting from popular suffering. The system established in English North America did not generally rest on the aristocratic principle of birth, but on service and work. Town covenants and charters of incorporation had the spirit of "from each according to ability, to each according to need." Historian Lockridge remarks:

The equality of the society was nothing less than the equality of economic interests which lies at the heart, not of modern pluralistic democracy, but of Marxist-Leninist democracy. One class, one interest, one mind (Lockridge 1970, 76; see also, Lockridge 1974).

            Responsible government in the view of early Americans was benevolent. They gave it extensive powers to benefit public needs. Through government, popular forces controlled the economy: the cost of milling grain, the cost of flower and bread, standards for hides, the monetary system and public works (Nash 1979, 29, 32, 86). They defended their first freedom - the "right to be fed" as when Andrew Belcher, a rich merchant, was prohibited from garnering large profits by exporting grain during a time of local shortage (Nash 1979, 77). Through government the care of the poor, dependents, widows, and deviants was acknowledged as a common responsibility (Nash 1979, 5). Legislation protecting the rights of servants, such as requirements concerning clothing and tools, was the norm (Menard 1973, 49).

            PURITANS. The very first press established in North America in 1638 specialized in printing texts banned by the aristocratic class in England (Wells 1984, 270). In defending and expanding its freedom, the Puritan press was counterpoised to the aristocracy, the enemy of popular press freedom. During the medieval period, under aristocratic domination of education, illiteracy had been allowed to exercise a censorship on the popular scientific and scholarly press in a more complete way than its church inquisitions, superstitions and common law seditious libel. The Puritans in America was the required every town to establish a public school.

            In Levy's analysis, the anti-aristocratic nature of colonial press theory is not considered. Levy commends the "freedom" which in the medieval period had allowed aristocrats to lord it over the majority. Illustrative is the case of William Pynchon (1590-1662). For social historians the case suggests that seventeenth-century Americans required the press to be civic-minded, rather than selfish and factional. Historians Gura (1982, 479) and Innes (1983, 12, 15) show that Pynchon was a money-grubber, who as early as 1639 was being fined by the Connecticut General Court for hoarding grain, oath breaking and cheating the Indians with whom he was dealing

            By the late-1640s, through the establishment of a fur trading monopoly and real estate speculation, he was the richest merchant in Springfield. His religious tract, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption (1650), reflected the thinking of England's aristocratic Laudian party. The purpose was apparently to create an anti-popular faction. The tract was outlawed. In 1660 the aristocracy in England, using Laudian theological ideology as one of its weapons, staged a counterrevolution. The monarchy and aristocratic domination of the press were restored. In New England where factionalism had not been allowed to weaken the unity of the revolutionaries, the Puritan government and its press were never defeated.

            The English Puritan John Owen, in reflecting on possible excesses in the revolutionary destruction of the aristocratic press in England, concluded that it had been better for 500 errors to be scattered among the people than one error, the monarchy, to have power and jurisdiction over all others. To the present day the English people have not achieved what the Puritans did in the 1650s - the destruction of the monarchy and the class it symbolizes.

            For Levy, Pynchon is a hero of press freedom. His class identity is not mentioned. Levy writes:

The Puritans were bigots. . . The absence of freedom of speech in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, especially on religious subjects, is so familiar a fact that a mere reminder should suffice. . . In 1652 William Pynchon, by escaping to England missed the distinction of being the first person to be prosecuted for opinions expressed in print. His tract, which had been licensed in England, was judged "erronyous and hereticale" by the legislature, which commanded it to be burned by the public executioner (Levy 1985, 16, 26).

            Levy believes that tyranny against press freedom in eighteenth-century America was even worse than in the seventeenth century. Social historians tend to see a continuation of the popular control of press freedom. The anti-aristocratic services of Boston's press during the 1740s are described by one social historian:

The Independent Advertiser's pitch to the laboring classes was obvious from the first issue. "Liberty can never subsist without Equality," it pronounced. "So when Men's Riches become immeasurably or surprisingly great, a People who regard their own Security, ought to make strict Enquiry, how they came by them. But some will say, is it a Crime to be rich? Yes, certainly, At the Public Expense." The Advertiser held that the people were warranted in taking the law into their own hands because they had watched "their Estates crumbling to Nothing, their Trade Stagnate, and fail in every Channel, their Husbandry and Manufactures destroyed by insupportable Weight of Taxes," meanwhile witnessing "Others thriving at their Expense, and rising to Wealth and Greatness upon their Ruin." The Independent Advertiser essayist played to feelings of social inequality in Boston and explicitly made the links between increasing stratification of wealth and growing political despotism (Nash 1979, 224).

            Historian Nash comments on the hostility expressed by aristocrats against the working people and their press:

For the conservative merchants, lawyers, clergymen and government appointees, led and epitomized by royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, the popular system spelled chaos. "Reform" for these aristocrats meant what it had since the early years of the century - paring back the power of the town meeting, substituting appointive for elective officeholders and restricting the freedom of the press. The aristocrats complained: "There is scarce a cobbler or porter but has erected his stage near the printing-press from whence his oracular decisions have been stamp'd off and delivered to the world as infallible nostrums" (Nash 1979, 279).

            Levy's neglect of class leads him to defend the royally appointed and controlled colonial judiciary, as supporters of press freedom, while condemning popularly elected assemblies. He writes:

The traditionally maligned judges, as a matter of fact, behaved virtually as angels of self-restraint when compared with the intolerance of community opinion. . . The most suppressive body by far, surpassing even the prerogative court of governor-and-council, was that acclaimed bastion of the people's liberties: the popularly elected assembly. That the law bore down harshly on verbal crimes in colonial America was mainly the result of the inquisitorial assemblies (Levy 1985, 17).

            AMERICAN REVOLUTION. The aristocratic press during the American Revolution was interfered with - its editors were disenfranchised, jailed and exiled. Because of this, Levy believes the Revolutionary period has little to teach about press freedom. According to Levy, "The moral values that normally claimed the devotion of humane libertarian leaders" were abandoned (Levy 1985, 173). "The revolutionaries sacrificed their principles." But for "extremism" and the "reviling" of "executive power," the conflict could have been settled without arms or independence (Levy 1985, 87). Repeating the complaints and insults of the British aristocracy, Levy sums up:

No cause was more honored by rhetorical declamation and dishonored in practice than that of freedom of expression during the revolutionary period, from the 1760s through the cessation of hostilities. The irony of the period might best be portrayed by a cartoon depicting the tarring and feathering of a Tory speaker under a banner run up by the patriots inscribed, "In Liberty's Cause." Yankee Doodle's Liberty Boys vociferously claimed for themselves the right to free expression that they denied their opponents, if they could (Levy 1985, 63).

            Social history considers the Revolution in its class context, the defeat of foreign and domestic aristocracy, the abolition of monarchism and the overthrow of colonial dependency. The press, like every sector of Revolutionary America, was mobilized by the people to serve their interests. The press helped unify and organize against a better financed and armed enemy. It reinforced pride and taught the history of the continuous struggle against aristocratic corruption, including violation of popular press freedom, from the Puritan and Glorious Revolutions to the Declaration of Independence.

            When viewed in class terms, the Revolution can be seen as a step forward for press freedom. The confiscatory taxation of the Stamp Act, designed to destroy the American press, was a complaint in the Declaration of Independence. Its permanent abatement was a fruit of the Revolution. Revolutionary interference with the aristocratic press was part of the war effort, a result of its propagandizing anti-popular notions such as that human nature is corrupt and incapable of self-rule; racist ideas, such as that "aristocratic" and not "common" blood by nature is meant to rule; and British chauvinism which threatened to divide the people from their natural ally, the French.

            The over-riding right was that of the revolutionary government to survive, the right of national self-determination, of the majority to govern itself. This was threatened by the counterrevolutionary class. In this context, the 1775 Sons of Liberty ultimatum to New York printers is a part of the American free press tradition, not an aberration:

Sir, if you print, or suffer to be printed in your press anything against the rights and liberties of America, or in favor of our inveterate foes, the King, the Ministry and Parliament of Great Britain, death and destruction, ruin and perdition shall be your portion. Signed by Order of the Committee of Tarring and Feathering. Legion (Jones 1879, 1:63-64, 566-567).

            The theory of press freedom voiced by the revolutionaries and the makers of the Constitution's First Amendment is the same humanistic balancing approach and consideration of public welfare used currently. William Livingston (1723-1790), a member of the Constitutional Convention stated it: "Liberty of the press means promoting the common good of society, it does not mean unrestraint in writing" (Bailyn 1980, 69). Natural law, as expressed in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Plato's Republic, Augustine and Calvin had always set government, society and the press's goal as the common good, peace, security and protection of life, health, family relations and good name.

            CLASS PRESS FREEDOM. Generally counterpoised to the people and their press freedom are the rich and their censorship of press freedom. The establishment and expression of popular press freedom is not independent of but based on reducing the freedom to censor of the anti-popular press. Illustrative is the labor press, whose task includes combating the "freedom" of the commercial press to mislead working people and the public. To the extent the labor movement and its press have won popular support, both have expanded.

            Historian Jon Bekken shows that as early as the 1820s and 1830s, the 68 labor presses then in existence had a role in convincing the public of labor's right to organize and strike in the face of prosecutions for "conspiracy to injure trade" and "unlawful association" (Bekken 1988, 3-4). The labor press did not start with the intention of having a long life, but, as one trade unionist put it, to support a strike or the establishment of a trade union against "the controlled opinion of the daily press and its vested interests" and to counter the prevailing anti-labor bias (Hedges 1951, 177).

            The labor newspapers continued in existence after the establishment of unions, as the need to fight the censorship and lies of the commercial press did not diminish. For example, after the Civil War, the commercial press was used by western employers to purposely create advantageous surpluses of labor, by luring unemployed workers from the East with false advertisements. To combat such press "freedom", most of the 120 labor newspapers then publishing developed an institution called the "Don't Come Here" (or "Stay Away") column to warn the unemployed away from areas where strikes were in progress or where joblessness was already acute (Davis 1984, 149; Bekken 1988, 5).

            In the depression of the 1870s, and later ones, the labor press worked to correct the misinformation of the capitalist press concerning unemployment. The capitalist press blamed it on individual culpability (the laziness of the worker), called for harsh laws against the unemployed and incited fear of the labor press and radicalism. The Northern version of the Southern black code provided, as in Ohio during the 1870s, for three years of prison and forced, uncompensated labor for kindling a fire on the highway or entering a yard uninvited (Davis 1984, 161). Among the labor press's educational counterattacks were letters to the editor. Typical was one in the National Labor Tribune during 1877. The letter writer compared his state's newly enacted anti-worker law which made it a "crime to be out of employment and money at the same time" with Tudor legislation against vagabondage. It also discovered the shadow of Henry VIII (who was purported to have executed 72,000 vagabonds) in the bloodthirsty proposals of the Chicago Tribune to exterminate the unemployed en masse (Davis 1984, 162).[8]

            When anti-labor press freedom flourished, the labor movement and its press freedom virtually disappeared (Myers 1950; Bekken 1988, 5). When labor had relative strength against the corporate press, as was made possible, for example, with the establishment of the American Federation of Labor, its press freedom expanded. In 1909 the AFL's American Federationist subjected to a judicial injunction not to publicize a boycott against the anti-union Buck Stove and Range Co. Samuel Gompers successfully ignored the injunction and defended labor's press freedom (Gompers 1909a; Gompers 1909b).

            It is not surprising that workers (incorrectly) were accused of dynamiting the anti-union Los Angeles Times in 1910 (Foner 1979, 5:7-9). As the organ of the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association, whose open shop program sought to destroy the labor press and make Los Angeles "a city of slave owners, slave drivers and chattel slaves," the destruction of the press freedom of the Times' censorship was viewed by many as a defense of labor's press freedom.

            The labor movement in the 1930s advanced on many fronts. Boycotts, the government through the National Recovery Administration and the unionization of the printing trades forced hundreds of anti-labor newspapers out of business (North 1934). The destruction of the anti-labor commercial press made room for expanding the labor press and its freedom. In terms of new labor papers, the growth was from 311 in 1925 to 628 in 1940 with a 20 million circulation (Bekken 1988, 15-16). The commercial press that survived was curbed in its censorship of labor by the formation of a journalists' trade union, the American Newspaper Guild. The Guild journalists in their Code of Ethics, adopted in 1934, refused "by distortion and suppression to create political, economic, institutional and military war" (Leab 1970, 132). Older guild journalists of the 1930s had had their press freedom denied during World War I as a result of the war-mongering and anti-labor hysteria spread by the capitalist press (Vezzosi 1985, 449).[9] Labor presses opposing American intervention had had their mailing privileges denied and been shutdown. Labor journalists had been imprisoned and deported (Cartosio 1985, 427, 435-436; Miller (1985, 408).[10] The Guild code prohibition on war-mongering was a defense against such attacks on labor press freedom.

            The labor newspapers today carry on the revolutionary, class partisan First Amendment heritage. They match or exceed in circulation most capitalist-owned presses. Of 133 U. S. union and labor council papers surveyed in one source, 38 have a circulation of more than 100,000 (Ulrich 1986, 881-888). Five have a circulation greater than one million.[11] The People's Daily World, the only national daily of the working class and its allies, competes with the few capitalist newspapers that can manage a nationwide presence.

            The mission of these presses is class justice. They have no significant advertising and do not pretend to "neutrality". Those unsympathetic to the worker cannot buy their way into the labor press. As journalist Tom Foley puts it: "No employer has 'freedom' to a single inch of space in a labor paper" (Foley 1986, 21).[12]

            CLASS DOUBLE STANDARD. Early Americans used the government to protect their press and other freedoms. This sometimes involved limitations on the great white males. Such for Levy is "government interference," and a legacy of suppression. However, when present day government intervenes in behalf of great white males and their commercial press, Levy welcomes such "interference".

            Government enacted and enforced corporation laws shield the rich press owners from personal financial liability. This allows them to raise and preserve capital and concentrate press ownership. Through inheritance laws, the government allows the rich to pass newspaper ownership to their heirs. The rich are helped through newspaper mailing privileges and postal subsidies. The operation of the commercial press is dependent upon court enforced contracts, finance and banking regulations, the awarding of compensation for tortious acts and the police, military, fire and sanitation services which preserve press property from theft, fire and foreign invasion.

            Cold war academics have not contested the general legitimacy of the 80 U.S. federal statutes that authorize secrecy and censorship in behalf of state secrets (Medow 1982). Nor are statutes viewed as free press interference which prohibit infringement of copyright, disclosure of income tax and social security returns, and similar activity (Oman 1986). The courts, with Levy's approval, give no protection to publications which hurt society: incitement to criminal acts, injurious falsehoods, treason or contempt of court . Since 1934 the government has licensed and regulated radio and television air waves to serve public interest (Rosen 1980).

            It is not so much government interference that concerns the great white males, but rather class interference. It is "suppression" when press laws favor the people, as in early America or the NWIO. It is freedom when the press laws favor and in fact make possible the commercial press. There is one standard for the people and another standard for the rich.

            GENDER. For Levy, gender is not a category relevant to free press analysis. Early American obscenity laws are considered as part of the era's legacy of suppression. He comments:

The American people simply did not believe or understand that freedom of thought and expression means equal freedom for the other person, especially the one with hated ideas. . . Violating public morals [was considered] obscene libel. . . The law of obscene libel crimped literary, artistic and other forms of personal expression (Levy 1985, 7, 16, 89).

John Wilkes (1727-1797) is one of Levy's free press martyrs, because among other things he broke Britain's obscenity laws and was jailed for it. For Levy, he was a "tiger," "a resourceful and pugnacious antagonist against the combined forces of all branches of the government" (Levy 1985, 145).

            Social history is gender conscious. It has made considerable progress in understanding the general status of colonial women. Bagley (1983, 54), for example, shows how the 117 sections of the Iroquois' Law of the Great Peace had for hundreds of years prior to European settlement, guaranteed women's rights. This included equality and freedom of speech. Webber (1978, 149) has documented the equalitarian relations between black men and women.

            On the other hand, black and Indian women and children had few rights in relation to white men. Women of color were subjected to sexual harassment, beatings, rapes, not to mention denial of press freedom. While women slaves and servants were especially vulnerable, white women were also victimized. At the same time, women waged successful struggles to overcome their economic, political and social debasement. It was the women themselves who monitored community morals, who brought wife beaters and child abusers before the attention of church and town meetings. They gained legislation repealing the common law "right" of the husband to beat the wife. They used the courts to force child support from unmarried or separated fathers.

            Social history suggests that obscenity law sometimes played a positive role in protecting and empowering women against sexual abuse. Early American women, including servants, used obscenity and defamation law to fight character assassination and other forms of sexual intimidation and aggression (Demos 1982; Thompson 1987, 505, 509, 511). In the 1744 Northampton, Massachusetts incident of the "bad books," a group of men obtained a book on midwifery from a local doctor. They taunted women on the streets about what "nasty creatures" they were. The women used obscenity law to end the harassment (Tracy 1979, 160).

Scholar Catherine MacKinnon (1984, 336-337, 340) studies how obscenity as an ideology is a tool to subordinate and dehumanize women, to keep them back economically, politically and socially. Most particularly, obscenity is a method of denying women's press freedom.

            Levy's hero, John Wilkes, viewed from the gender perspective, was not a libertarian. He contributed to widening the gender gap. Levy omits details of the Wilkes case. Wilkes was a rich landlord, part of the British gentry and a member along with nobility like Lord Sandwich (1718-1792), in the "Medmenham Monks." This was a social club, the main purpose of which was to meet occasionally in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey at Medmenham and debauch young servant women, a "fashionable" eighteenth-century vice. In connection with the activities of this club, Wilkes published a parody of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1733), titled Essay on Women. This was the obscenity for which he was jailed. To the extent he degraded women, Wilkes's writings contributed to the denial of women's press freedom.

            Historically the defense and expansion of the women's press has been part of and constituted by the elimination of sexism and its press propaganda. The writings of Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884) and Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) are illustrative of the free press philosophy of many women in the pre-Civil War period (Schilpp 1983, 74-84; Todorov 1976, 75). Both were abolitionists, feminists and professional journalists. They called upon the people, through their government to crush the Democratic party's press freedom to apologize for slavery - the kidnapping, murdering, marketing, raping and beating of black women and children. They noted the obvious: government interference in the Civil War was basic to expanding the press freedom of black women.

            Maxine Seller in her study of the women's press of the early twentieth century finds that government "interference" was not the measure of women's press freedom (Seller 1985, 221-242). Suffrage was demanded so that government could be mobilized to work for, instead of against the women's press and other rights. Held up for praise was the progress made by the women's press in the Soviet Union as a result of government measures against the commercial press and propaganda detrimental to economic and political justice for women. One also reads in the women's press of admiration for the women's campaign in India against the colonial press and in England, France and Italy against the commercial press's opposition to women's suffrage.

            As originally constituted during World War I, the American Civil Liberties Union defended women's press freedom. Explicitly rejected were pornographers like Theodore Schroeder (1864-1953). Schroeder attempted to have his Free Speech League, a political arm of the pornographic commercial press, affiliate with the ACLU. Roger Baldwin, head of the ACLU commented:

I don't believe that we will want to consider inviting organizations which deal with these personal liberties. They are not an issue before the country just now, and are hardly involved in the wider political question which we are discussing (Murphy 1972, 31).

Only with the cold war were commercial press pornographers like Morris Ernst able to turn the ACLU against women's press freedom.

            Women in early American, as in the present day, were active participants in their society, had their own ideas on press freedom, and took control, as far as possible, of their own lives. For them the measure of press freedom was not government interference. In their press they gave no freedom to obscenity and pornography, which were seen as part of the propaganda used to dehumanize and limit their rights. Social history helps put the gender aspect of the early American in perspective.

            CONCLUSION. In a 1981 interview Levy commented, "I no longer even delude myself into thinking I write to contribute to the public understanding." He also mentioned the "totalitarian" threat as a motive for writing free press history.(Martin 1981, 99, 103). Political scientist Michael Parenti has studied how cold war attitudes are turned on and off like a spigot to coincide with the dictates of the defense budget and the profit needs of the economy (Parenti 1986, 126). With a possible end to the cold war in sight, perhaps the cold war attack on the First Amendment heritage can be turned off. Perhaps a contibution to the public understanding, as Levy puts it, can be made.

            The New Social History, unlike the cold war analysis, gives cause cause for celebration at the First Amendment's bicentennial. The great advances in press freedom which the people of color, working people and women have been forging in more recent times should not obscure earlier achievements. The people were already at work in the colonial era. They left a fine heritage.

            What is needed from the cold war academics is more interest in "original intent" - the intent of the people; and more interest in the free market place of ideas - an uncensored version of early American press ideas. Original intent supports the New World Information Order and the International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism, adopted in 1984 by journalists and journalist organizations from some 140 nations. (Fourth Consulative Meeting of Journalist Organizations 1984; Nordenstreng 1985). The Principles and the New World Information Order are only "new" in some parts of the world. In the United States they are an ancient heritage.

             The first of the International Principles rephrases American revolutionary William Livingston: press freedom is the people's, not the press owner's, right. Principle III flows from this:

Information in journalism is understood as social good and not as a commodity, which means that the journalist shares responsibility for the information transmitted and is thus accountable not only to those controlling the media but ultimately to the public at large.

The social responsibilities which Principle VIII and IX set forth all have precedent in early America:

The journalist must stand for the universal values of humanism, above all peace, democracy, human rights, social progress and national liberation. . . The journalist must abstain from any justification from, or incitement to, wars of aggression and the arms race, especially in nuclear weapons, and all other forms of violence, hatred or discrimination, especially racialism and apartheid, colonialism and neo-colonialism, as well as other great evils which affect humanity, such as poverty, malnutrition and diseases.

            In one version of the NWIO, the developing nations propose to set regulations for the four major commercial news agencies that account for 85 percent of the international news circulated. These regulations are not unlike those which early Americans sometimes placed on their own press. The NWIO limits the news agency censorship that undermines the cultural heritage of national states, that impedes their independent development, that disorients the public and that prevents them from establishing their own information service. Many leaders of the developing nations voice disapproval of the commercial press's diverting the attention of workers from acute social and political problems by dealing in sensationalism, pornography, scandal and compromising "facts" from the lives of famous people. In the view of many developing nations, the news agencies have been the apparatus for organizing biased information that meets the political, military and economic interests of the rich.

            The cold warriors have opposed the NWIO more because it favors the people, than because it involves government interference. It strengthens public and governmental news agencies, it establishes a federation of state news agencies that is not dependent on the private sector for its international news sources. It makes the press serve as a full constructive element in national and international programs of education, family planning, agriculture and industrialization. It works to eradicate illiteracy, poverty and war.

            Those who have something to celebrate at the bicentennial are those who work for and support the labor, women's, black and other nationality presses, the public radio and television system, the campaign for the readmission of the U.S. to UNESCO and for implementation of the NWIO in the U.S. These forces defended press freedom in gaining U.S. Senate approval in 1986 of the U. N. Genocide Convention and its prohibition of genocidal propaganda. They still are working for its formal ratification as a binding treaty, which requires enactment of a Congressional statute making genocide criminal under U.S. law. In their work they stand on the shoulders of and carry forward a sacred American tradition.


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[1]Several reviewers (Rabban 1985; Smith 1986) have noted that Levy's Emergence does not even include the scholarship of those like himself, who have no bent for social history, but who have made significant contributions to the study of early American press freedom using the conventional sources. Those in this category include Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood. Social historian Nash (1987, 603, 606-607, 610) in discussing American thought at the time the Constitution was adopted, comments on the inadequacies of Wood's analysis:

Wood made no attempt to investigate the political ideology of these common folk, who represented a majority of postwar Americans. Hence Shay's Rebellion commanded his notice only as the miniature civil war that energized political thinkers who led the way in reorganizing and strengthening the national government. He took no interest in the rebellion as indicative of the political consciousness and culture of Massachusetts farmers, whose views on wealth, economic justice, equality, and civic virtue were paralleled, in fact, in many other states on the eve of the Constitutional Convention. Overall, by his reliance on elite-based sources, Wood trivialized the social experience and political thought of the majority of rural Americans who struggled to cope with disheartening conditions and with the maddening charges of those above them regarding political immaturity. . .

[2]The slave narratives reveal numerous slave who, despite danger and self-sacrifice, taught themselves to read. Literacy was linked to the overriding goal, emancipation from economic servitude. Weber (1978, 132-133, 144) quotes one narrative:

"It seemed to me that if I could learn to read and write, the learning might - nay I really thought it would, point out to me the way to freedom, influence, and real, secure happiness. . ." [Webber then comments:] The narratives do not leave the impression that most of the quarter members thought of Freedom only in heavenly terms or were content to wait until their deaths to partake of its blessings.

[3]Benjamin Franklin was the hero and leader of Philadelphia's artisan class. He founded a volunteer citizens militia that answered defense needs, cost no taxes and killed no Indians. Franklin's great popularity carried many Anglicans away from the Tory party and caused a schism in the church, since he was inveterately opposed by Smith (Nash 1979, 269).

[4]The Privy Council, which reversed the assembly, acted justly, in Levy's view. But as Levy (1985, 57) complains, the assembly saw itself as inferior to no one, and ignored the Privy Council.

[5]In 1920 most black newspapers were in the South - 35 in Alabama, 26 in Virginia, 149 in the North. According to the National (Black) Newspapers Association, as quoted in Draper (1988, 7), there are currently 161 black weeklies and monthlies (see also, Suggs 1983; Daniel 1982).

[6]The abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy (1802-1837) was assassinated for his journalism. Theodore Weld (1803-1895), as quoted in Stewart (1976, 77), commented at the time about slavocracy press freedom:

"Free! The word and the sound are omnipresent masks and mockers. An impious lie unless they stand for free lynch law, free murder; for they are free."

[7]Detweiler ([1922] 1968, 154) quotes from the Crisis (June, 1920):

In 1920 the Mississippi Legislature passed an act to make it a misdemeanor to print or publish or circulate printed or published appeals or presentations of arguments or suggestions favoring social equality or marriage between the white and Negro races.

[8]John Swinton worked for the labor press. He attacked the commercial press's censored view of unemployment. He suggested the capitalist, not the worker, ought to be put in jail:

The Journal of Commerce says "The penitentiary is the only institution that holds any promise for the conversion of the tramp from the error of his ways." But suppose the error of the tramp's ways is his inability to find work, on account of the state of things brought about by capitalism? In that case, it seems to us, the guilty parties who ought to be sent to the penitentiary are those who, through their mastery of the industrial forces, are responsible for this social racket (Davis 1984, 163).

[9]Vezzosi (1985, 449) discusses the 21 states that between 1917 and 1920 passed criminal syndicalism laws to censor the labor press.

[10]Miller (1985, 408) discusses the internationalism of the Finnish, Danish, Polish, Russian, Hungarian and Yiddish language labor presses.

[11]Labor papers with greater than one million circulation are: Steelabor (Pittsburgh), established in 1936 by the United Steelworkers of America; International Teamster (Washington, D.C.), established in 1903 by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America; Solidarity (Detroit), the organ of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; IBEW Journal (Washington, D.C.), established in 1935 by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the Public Employee (Washington, D.C.), established in 1935 by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (Ulrich 1986, 1:881-888).

[12]In a tradition that is almost 200 years old, a typical weekly or monthly issue of a state or local labor council or national union paper, or of the People's Daily World, reports on court decisions, legislation, political candidates, and government agencies from the perspective of the worker. It supports worker health and safety laws, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, child labor laws, voter registration, contract negotiations, grievances, strikes and demonstrations. It opposes dumping, plant run-aways and unfair competition. It holds up for honor and is part of the testimonials for those who have 25, 30, 40 and even 50 years of service. It publicizes worker marriages and deaths, their hobbies and public service activities, tips on law and health, and where and what type of work they do. Finally it reports on union and labor council government, and the activities and meetings of elected union leaders.

            Jack Coyne, president of the St. Louis Labor Council writes of the labor press's importance to working people:

Communication is vital to the Armed Forces, to the United Nations, to jet pilots and to organized labor. The reasons are obvious. If there is a war and nobody knows about it, then nobody is going to come. How can we conduct a boycott if we don't have communication? Consider the difficulties in boycotting Coors Beer products without being able to ask your neighbor or friends to please buy something else. When the AFL-CIO decides it will support this candidate or that one, how effective will that support be if the national AFL-CIO or any of its state and local councils is not able to tell its members who it supports and why? (Coyne 1987, 50:6).