Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech
Stephen D. Solomon
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When members of the founding generation protested against British authority, debated separation, and then ratified the Constitution, they formed the American political character we know today-raucous, intemperate, and often mean-spirited. Revolutionary Dissent brings alive a world of colorful and stormy protests that included effigies, pamphlets, songs, sermons, cartoons, letters and liberty trees. Solomon explores through a series of chronological narratives how Americans of the Revolutionary period employed robust speech against the British and against each other. Uninhibited dissent provided a distinctly American meaning to the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech and press at a time when the legal doctrine inherited from England allowed prosecutions of those who criticized government.
Solomon discovers the wellspring in our revolutionary past for today's satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, and protests like flag burning and street demonstrations. From the inflammatory engravings of Paul Revere, the political theater of Alexander McDougall, the liberty tree protests of Ebenezer McIntosh and the oratory of Patrick Henry, Solomon shares the stories of the dissenters who created the American idea of the liberty of thought. This is truly a revelatory work on the history of free expression in America.
be perceived in the community, Wise apologized at the start by admitting that “there may be discerned a great liberty in argument, with a mixture of satires.” But he had “neither desire, nor design to hurt any man, no, not so much as a hair on his head, but I solely aim at error, that is the butt I level for.”34 Hardly had the apology been off his pen when Wise drove his stake into the heart of the ministers’ idea of supervisory control of the churches. “Here is mischief,” he wrote,
spots. A rider carrying news from New York to Boston needed two and a half days at top speed.115 Riders often dealt with wretched conditions, moving over paths strewn with rocks and splashing through thick mud when it rained. Edward Carrington complained to Madison of ice on the falls at Richmond and “a Canoe with difficulty makes its way through the Falls and by that means my letters from the post office have today got to me.”116 John Adams described his ride from Braintree to Baltimore
294–95, 286–87. 52. Boston Gazette, 12 March 1770. 53. Boston Gazette, 19 March 1770. 54. Providence Gazette, 17 March 1770; Connecticut Courant, 19 March 1770; Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, 15 March 1770; New Hampshire Gazette, 23 March 1770; Boston Gazette, 2 April 1770; Boston Evening-Post, 2 April 1770; Kurt William Ritter, “Rhetoric and Ritual in the American Revolution: The Boston Massacre Commemorations, 1771–1783” (PhD diss., Indiana University,
recognized before. If the colonies continued on this journey, it seemed that they would at some time have to rebel against the crime of seditious libel. Over the next decade, the Boston Gazette became the most partisan paper in America. For Edes and Gill, there was no line between publishing and political activism. They vilified Governor Bernard and the Stamp Act every Monday with a new issue of their newspaper, working as the movement’s publishing arm. The editors not only published the
noteworthy in its isolation, the only indictment for seditious libel brought against a protest leader in the years leading up to the American Revolution. That Americans in general were wary of exacting criminal punishments against their fellow citizens was reflected in the extent to which the stars had to be aligned correctly for an indictment to issue. All three branches of government—the governor, chief justice, and assembly—supported the indictment, and the sheriff had to finagle the