When President Obama, in delivering a solemn homily to the United Nations General Assembly this week, exhorted world leaders to respect the right to unrestricted free speech in the wake of anti-American protests over an inflammatory made-in-Hollywood anti-Muslim video, he could base his plaint solidly on the painful experience of the United States immediately after its own breech birth as the world's first democracy.
It took a full generation before American revolutionaries felt secure enough even to begin to tolerate any opposing political or religious views, let alone permit anything like free speech. In fact, even before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, suspected Loyalists who dissented from the emerging radically-revolutionary consensus were brutally silenced. Some 10,000 inaptly named Sons of Liberty ferreted out dissenters, then silenced them with public floggings, ritualistic applications of hot tar and sharp-quilled feathers, or an excruciating ride astraddle a rough-hewn fence rail with heavy weights dangling from their ankles.
After eight years and some 1200-plus fratricidal military engagements in what was as much a civil war as a struggle for independence from the imperial British, many of the Founding Fathers still distrusted open criticism of their new democratic order. Consequently, they omitted any guarantee of free speech from the Constitution. Only the threat of the document's rejection by five state ratifying conventions elicited a pledge that a separate written Bill of Rights would soon follow and would include freedom of speech and religion.
As the newborn republic struggled to its adolescent feet, partisans of Washington, Adams and Hamilton, squared off against Jefferson and Madison, turning from tar and feathers to vitriolic prose. The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press proved such a tempting new idea that hack British scriveners flocked to the temporary American capital at Philadelphia, imported their scurrilous prose styles from the Billingsgate section of London, where they faced imprisonment for libel for any undisguised political commentary.
Against the scrim of the French Revolution, the widening rift within Washington's Cabinet between pro-French Jeffersonites and pro-English Hamiltonians led to sub rosa formation of opposing newspapers, the first step toward formation of political parties. Under the cover of a vacation trip to New England in 1791, Jefferson and Madison lined up support for an anti-Hamilton party and hired impecunious poet-turned-journalist Philip Freneau to set up an anti-Administration thrice-weekly rag to counterattack Hamiltonian screeds. Both rivals, still members of Washington's Cabinet, siphoned off government funds to pay their printers and leaked documents to them even before they reached Washington's desk. Yet none of this reached the public. The appearance of unanimity had to be preserved.
When one newspaperman, Benjamin Franklin's grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache, dared to run a crude cartoon depicting a duel between two New England Congressman wielding fireplace tongs before a potbellied stove in his Philadelphia Aurora, it was the press that was silenced. NDeclino further live coverage of Congress was allowed for the next seven years.
Declining a third term because, Washington wrote to a friend in Virginia, he was treated in the press like "a pickpocket, a common defaulter," the old general briefly turned up for Adams' inauguration already wearing his plain black travel suit and whispered, "Ay, I am safely out and you are safely in; we'll see which of us is the happier." It was not to be Adams: Vice President Jefferson and his Sancho Panza, Madison, surreptitiously hired transplanted London scribbler James Thomson Callender to write a long, caustic history of Adams' administration.
Never one to turn the other cheek silently, in the most ill-advised act of his unpopular one-term presidency, Adams pushed through Congress the Alien and Sedition Acts. They were not designed as an anti-immigrant measure as it might appear today. In Philadelphia, some 25,000 royalist refugees from the French Revolution crowded the streets of a town of a normally 35,000 population. The Prince de Talleyrand strolled up Market Street, President Adams returned his bow and doffed his tricorn hat with the white cockade of the Royalist party fluttering in plain view.
The principal target of the Alien and Sedition Act was criticism of Adams' Administration by press and politicians. Members of the five-man U.S. Supreme Court also served as circuit court judges, riding in the carriages from town to town, reading the local punditry and arresting and jailing some 25 printers. In Richmond, Justice Chase arrested printer Callendar. Jefferson arranged for Madison to slip Callendar the money to support his family.
Jefferson ousted Adams from the White House in 1800 and when the Alien and Sedition Act came up for renewal, Jefferson refused to sign it. He also refused Callendar the cushy political appointment he expected to become postmaster of Richmond. Jefferson would later regret his ingratitude when Callendar, exercising his right to freedom of the press under the First Amendment, wrote about Jefferson's "concubine," "Black Sally" Hemings. Callendar would later be found face-down, mysterious drowned in a ditch, but Richmond kept its secrets.
Despite his intense dislike of the license the early American press took with his policies, ironically it was President Washington who granted it one of its greatest freedoms -- reduced postal rates. We should thank our first president for bulk mail.
Washington spoke little. When he wrote a letter, it carried great weight. On tour the summer after his first year in office, Washington visited Rhode Island before it voted to become the last state to ratify the Constitution. Moses Seixas, warden of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, wrote to the visiting first president, expressing gratitude for the new American doctrine of liberty of conscience. Washington wrote right back to Seixas:
"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people," Washington wrote in August 1790. "For happily the Government of the United States... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance..."
To the delegates of countries nervous about Americans' expectations of ever-progressing democracy in the aftermath of last year's Arab Spring, President Obama was echoing, in so many words, what Washington declaimed when he called for respect for every religion. But then, and this is Obama's new and difficult challenge, beyond that, for toleration of the freedom to express all views of the consequences of this freedom.
Willard Sterne Randall is the author of fourteen books of American history, including six Founding Father biographies. His most recent work is Ethan Allen, His Life and Times, published by W. W. Norton. He recently retired as Distinguished Scholar in History and Professor at Champlain College in Vermont.