Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech

Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech

Stephen D. Solomon

Language: English

Pages: 368

ISBN: 023034206X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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.

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delegates and onlookers due to attend, the city buzzed over the weekend with political talk as people arrived and filled the taverns and inns. Designated the state capital during the war nine years earlier, Richmond had none of the charm of Williamsburg, the former seat of government, which was near the coast and considered vulnerable to British attack. Richmond, with a population of about four thousand, including slaves, had about four hundred modest wood houses, often with an outside

administration, secrecy was critical in all that they did. Jefferson was the vice president opposing a policy of his own president, and both men’s strong opposition to the Sedition Act was itself an illegal act under the law they were fighting. So they would entrust their plans and ideas only with each other and with a handful of their closest political friends. Although Madison and Jefferson frequently wrote to each other, they apparently exchanged no letters between July 21 and October 26.

defense. In other words, the jury had to return a verdict of not guilty even if they believed Zenger had published the newspaper with the criticisms. Hamilton needed an act of jury nullification—the jury acquitting Zenger because it disagreed with the fairness of the law being used against him. Hamilton enjoyed an advantage that he could exploit. The Weekly Journal had enlarged the public sphere of discussion about Cosby, stimulating debate wherever people gathered in the city. Dissent was

authority of a superior one, and every species of confusion that is to be feared from the despotism of democracy, would be attendant upon a display of so profound a piece of casuistry.”46 The king himself would lose his supreme position. “In the one instance, each American governor would display all the authority of a British King; and in the other, drop gently into the character of a King’s representative only.”47 The writer drew a bright line in the sand—the sovereign enjoyed indivisible

were certainly seditious libel and probably treason as well. General John Burgoyne called Adams “as great a conspirator as ever subverted a state.”96 Adams’s comments about Dickinson only made relations between the men worse. When they passed each other on Chestnut Street a few months later, Adams reported that he bowed and took off his hat, but that Dickinson passed by. “We are not to be upon speaking Terms, nor bowing Terms, for the time to come,” wrote Adams.97 Samuel Adams had turned

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