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Adams Unbound

  Government | Human Nature | Freedom of the Press | The Rights of Man


Freedom of the Press

As a young lawyer and revolutionary, John Adams had often published political tracts in local newspapers, but his opinion of the press changed when he won the presidency. In 1781 He signed the Sedition Act. It was designed to punish writers of "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the U.S. government, but today is viewed as a suppression of the very liberties for which Adams had fought.

"Wollstonecraft's naïve assumption [was] that the ultimate purpose of government was to 'get out of the way.' The ultimate purpose of government, [Adams] insisted, was not to release individual energies but to constrain and balance them."

-- Historian Joseph Ellis

Should the press be allowed to oppose the government?
Can a law against libels be effective in revolutionary times?
What is the role of the press in a democracy?



Should the press be allowed to oppose the government?

During Louis XVI's reign, the press was censored. No criticism of the King's policies was allowed. At the onset of the French Revolution, the press was given complete freedom, and introduced harsh critiques of the government. In America, revolutionary leaders exploited the British government's lack of censorship and published newspapers and pamphlets that fed the fervor for independence.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
The liberty of the press, which had been virtually established, at this period, was a successful engine employed against the assembly.
ADAMS:
Is it not astonishing, that The National Assembly did not foresee that the Press would be employed against them? that their own Creatures would uncreate their Creators? That their own Tools would cut their own Throats? That their own Devils would become their Tempters first and Tormentors afterwards?


Can a law against libels be effective in revolutionary times?

John Adams' suggestion that libel, if repressed by the government, would multiply is interesting in light of his own battle several years later with a slanderous Republican press. When he signed the Sedition Act, President Adams believed that he was protecting both the office of the president and the fledgling country from revolutionaries who were agitating for war with France.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
... it would have been impossible, perhaps, to have restrained the temper of the times, so strong is the intoxication of a new folly, though it would have been easy for the assembly to have passed a decree respecting libels.
ADAMS:
And yet, the Nation had ascertained the most important Political Truths! A Decree against Libels would not have restrained the Temper of the times. Libells would have been multiplied by it.


What is the role of the press in a democracy?

The British censored the press in their colonies much less than they did at home. Ironically, President John Adams did more to undermine American freedoms by signing the Sedition Act.

WOLLSTONECRAFT:
But so ardent was become their passion for liberty, that they were unable to discriminate between a licentious use of that important invention, and it's real utility.
ADAMS:
Is there any Nation that will distinguish between the Licence and the Freedom of the Press? Not the English. Not the American most certainly. Neither Government can do it and the People will not.
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