Thomas Jefferson's legacy: a free but fractious press

Anthony Lewis

April 21, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

WE CELEBRATED Thomas Jefferson's 250th birthday last week with the respect due a monument of our history: the author of the Declaration of Independence, a president who with his friends Madison and Monroe made a 24-year Virginia dynasty in the White House.

But in his day Jefferson was a highly controversial figure, widely feared and reviled. He was in fact one of the first objects of the paranoia that has gripped American politics from time to time, most recently in the form of hysteria about communism.

The ideology feared in America at the end of the 18th century was French Jacobinism, with its revolutionary terror. President John Adams and his colleagues in the Federalist Party called the opposition -- Vice President Jefferson and his followers -- "the French party," suggesting that they would import Jacobin terror.

When Jefferson ran for president in the year 1800, he was portrayed as an enemy of morality and religion. The president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, predicted that if he won, children would be taught to chant "mockeries against God."

What is interesting about all this, and worth remembering, is how Jefferson dealt with the abuse -- and how the country did. For they established a model of toleration, of freedom for hateful speech.

Jefferson is known as a great advocate of freedom of the press. Journalists love to quote his statement: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

But he said that before he was president. After he had been in the White House for six years, he said: "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."

So he minded press attacks as much as modern presidents do. And the press was much nastier then than now, with no pretense of impartiality; editors were often in the pay of political parties. But Jefferson did not let his anger change his philosophical position. He wrote a friend:

"I deplore . . . the putrid state into which the newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and mendacious spirit of those who write them . . . These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste. It is however an evil for which there is no remedy; our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."

In 1798 the Federalists pushed through Congress a Sedition Act making it a crime to publish false, malicious comments about the president or Congress. (They exempted Vice President Jefferson from this protection against abuse.)

The aim of the law was to silence the country's main Jeffersonian newspapers in the run-up to the election of 1800. Their editors and owners were indeed prosecuted, some for mere critical opinions or lampooning of President Adams.

Jefferson and James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, worked to rouse the public against the Sedition Act. They argued that the Federalists, by trying to silence speech critical of politicians, were taking America back to the British system -- the tyranny of George III. And their arguments persuaded many, contributing to Jefferson's defeat of Adams.

When Jefferson took office, on March 4, 1801, he pardoned all those who had been convicted under the Sedition Act. In his Inaugural Address he opened his arms to his bitter opponents -- and set out what I think is the true American attitude toward freedom of speech.

"We are all Republicans -- we are all Federalists," he said. "If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

Through our history the political right has from time to time tried to repress hated thoughts. Now elements of the left want to tame the vigor of American speech to protect the sensibilities of groups they favor, women and minorities.

If the tamers understood Jefferson, they would know that freedom is safer.

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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