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Did Thomas Jefferson Have a Consistent Message on Free Presses?

Perhaps not unlike other prominent politicians of his time, Thomas Jefferson had an ambivalent relationship with the press. That ambivalence expressed itself in an unflagging theoretical commitment to free presses with growing practical recognition as he advanced in years that free presses seldom concerned themselves with truth. Thus, while he recognized that public papers were often put to use for political posture, in spite of the strictures of the First Amendment, he also recognized that a Jeffersonian republic—republican government consistent with Jefferson’s political philosophy—needed free presses. Without free presses, there could not be an informed citizenry, and without an informed citizenry, the likelihood of abusive governors and corrupt government would decuple. So, presses in a Jeffersonian republic had to be free. That is duly noted in the secondary literature. Yet he also came to recognize that the gazettes of nations with a commitment to free presses were vehicles of “inculpation”—not only the politics-sanctioned censors of government, but also politics-sanctioned sycophants of government. Thus, there is the intimation that their potential for public harm through political bias and libel far exceeds their potential for public good through dissemination of useful, fact-based information. That is often overlooked in the secondary literature. So too is the tension between Jefferson’s experiences with presses and his theoretical commitment to their indispensability in a Jeffersonian republic.

Jefferson’s theoretical commitment to free presses is evident in several letters, none better than an 1816 letter to Charles Yancey (Jan. 6). “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” 

To Edward Carrington (16 Jan. 1787), he praises the “good sense of the people” as “the best army” against political abuse. Though they are sometimes led astray—he has Shays’s Rebellion in mind—they “soon correct themselves.” We keep people from erring by giving them “full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers.” He sums famously, “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 I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” 

In a letter to President Washington (9 Sept. 1792), Jefferson says that free presses are the vehicles of the censors, and sycophants, of government. Still, “nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth either in religion, law, or politics.” In an 1823 letter to Lafayette (Nov. 4), Jefferson says: “The only security of all, is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” The sentiment of agitation is in keeping with the turbulence of republican government Jefferson mentions to James Madison (30 Jan. 1787)—pockets of rebellion that spring up periodically. That turbulence is “as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical”—“a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Ignorance and freedom are inconsistent. If a nation is to be free, then it must have free presses and a citizenry in which all people are able to read the papers. The argument is theoretical as Jefferson is not arguing, as an above-board empiricist, from effects to causes—viz., he is not appealing to data which show that free presses are correlated with free, and happy, citizens, and thus, very probably causally linked—but from the safe perch of deductive reasoning, in which a conclusion only spits back information contained in the premise(s). He begins with the notion of an ideal republican government and then works back to things needed for its actualization, or what is more likely, its approximation.

Yet Jefferson’s experiences with free presses, expressed in numerous letters and from his tenure as Secretary of State till his death, seem not to conform to his theoretical commitment. I offer a representative sample. To Edward Rutledge (27 Dec. 1796) he says that there is “so much of eulogy and of abuse” in the nation’s prominent papers. The harm of abuse, he adds, greatly exceeds the capacity of eulogy to heal. To Samuel Smith (22 Aug. 1798), Jefferson states that response to the calumnies of newspapers is a sort of Hydra’s head. “Were I to undertake to answer the calumnies of the newspapers, it would be more than all my own time, & that of twenty aids could effect. For while I should be answering one, twenty new ones would be invented.” 

He writes to Marc-Auguste Pictet (5 Feb. 1803) that public judgment is the best verdict concerning the “line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press” To James Madison (19 Apr. 1809), Jefferson says that “a word of truth [in the papers] now and then comes like the drop of water on the tongue of Dives.” To John B. Colvin (19 Apr. 1809), he admits to indifferency to the “scurrilities of the newswriters.” To John Adams (21 Jan. 1812), he says, “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus, and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much the happier.” To James Monroe (1 Jan. 1815), he writes: “A truth now and then projecting into the ocean of newspaper lies, serves like headlands to correct our course.” Last, to Nathaniel Macon (12 Jan. 1819), he says, “I read no newspaper now but Ritchie’s, and in that chiefly the advertisements, for they contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.”

Jefferson’s experiences with free presses seem to be inconsistent with his theoretical commitment. They focus on the great potential harm caused by their politics-based sycophancy and calumny, not on the benefits of dissemination of useful information. Too few truths are published, and it is a Bunyanesque task to sift out those truths from “the ocean of newspaper lies.” So numerous are the lies that the few truths are customarily taken as lies. Moreover, even if sifted out, those truths are often of such a general sort to be of little use.

In an 1807 letter to editor John Norvell (June 14), Jefferson says that a paper can be “most useful” if it restrains itself to “true facts & sound principles only.” Yet “such a paper would find few subscribers.” Even truth hides in newspapers, because readers as so accustomed to untruths that truth is taken as falsehood. He then offers a prescription for reform. “Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies.” Each section would be proportionately larger than the one preceding it and would be read with greater relish.

In 1803, he considers selected prosecutions of libelous slander and has Federalists in mind. He tells Thomas McKean (Feb. 19): “A few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution: but a selected one.” Those selected prosecutions are to come through the individual states, not the federal government, which has more serious matters with which to contend. Jefferson, we know through his draft constitution for Virginia, sanctioned redress to private injury through slander—“printing presses shall be free, except so far as by commission of private injury cause may be given of private action”—but Jefferson here seems to be offering presidential sanction for prosecution of public slander aimed at Federalists. Is that so?

John Boles thinks that. “The letter contradicted a basic principle of Jefferson’s faith in the free press, elsewhere stated in innumerable letters.” It is, thus, “a blemish on Jefferson’s reputation” and we are to hold him accountable for that blemish.

Joe Ellis says of the letter: “Jefferson wanted the press to be free, but he had also presumed that a free press would maintain some measure of respect for the truth. The free-for-all mentality and ricochet style of the multiplying newspapers allowed him to persuade himself that the very principle of freedom of the press was being destroyed by its own excesses.” Jefferson was not “violating a principle,” but “rescuing it from its own abusive and self-destructive tendencies.” Thus, the letter to McKean was a hint to Governor McKean as well as Governor De Witt Clinton of New York that they should prosecute “the most recalcitrant Federalist editors” in their states. Jefferson, it seems, was implicitly sanctioning presidential approbation of selected prosecutions of Federalists’ libels.

Are Boles and Ellis warranted in their criticisms of Jefferson?

First, Boles, unlike Ellis, takes no notice of the many letters expressive of Jefferson’s lack of faith in free presses. That omission is astonishing. Furthermore, even if we take the letter to McKean as a glitch in Jefferson’s thinking on free presses, is it really a blemish on a man’s reputation to wish to see incentives for newspapers to concern themselves with veridicality and not lies? Last, Jefferson’s sentiment in his letter to McKean is an oddity, but is it an inconsistency? Does Jefferson anywhere in the letter assert that McKean ought to take up selected prosecutions for libel?

Jefferson in the letter is not asserting that there ought to be selected prosecutions, but merely that selected prosecutions for public libels would have “a wholsome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses.” That is all that he asserts, and he says the same in other letters. That may be taken as a hint, but it need not be thus taken. Yet it is better to err by a literal reading than by reading something into the text.

Moreover, Jefferson admits to having entertained the subject for many years. As he said in his letter to Seymour, he thought that a government, conducting itself with probity and transparency, had nothing to fear from published slander. That notion he expresses in other letters: e.g., TJ to Messieurs De Viar and Jaudenes (14 July 1793), TJ to Levi Lincoln (24 Mar. 1802), and TJ to William Short (6 Sept. 1808). So, the letter to McKean is benign and Jefferson’s attitude overall is one of disrelish of selected prosecutions.

In sum, Jefferson’s inclination was not to prosecute libel if only to prove as a sort of litmus test for sound republican governing. Libel in the eyes of the citizenry would be mostly innocuous so long as an administration conducted itself with integrity and transparency. Given that, libel, having substantial effect, would be a signal that the severe criticisms were not libelous assertions, but accurate claims concerning degenerative government.

In his letters to Seymour, Lincoln, and Short, Jefferson refers to free presses in a republican government as an experiment—the possibility of the compatibility of free presses and orderly government. As Jefferson matured, he came to see a free press as part of “the turbulence to which it [republican government] is subject” that he mentions in a 1787 letter to Madison (Jan. 30). Still Jefferson adds: “Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.” Thus, failure of free presses would be a signal that the turbulence of a Jeffersonian republic is too great for it to be a viable alternative to the varied and oppressive aristocracies that prevailed in the centuries prior to the American Revolution. Yet he ultimately noted in his Second Inaugural Address that the experiment was a success, as the citizenry in the election had spoken overwhelmingly on behalf of Jeffersonian republicanism.

Jefferson’s faith in free presses, in spite of their large tendency to fantastication, was ultimately faith in the people, each of whom possessed moral sensibility sufficient to be a check on abusive government. That comes out in his 1787 letter to Peter Carr in which Jefferson states that a ploughman will grasp a moral situation better than a professor. It also comes out in numerous utterances that juries are much less liable to err than judges. That faith in the people is directly expressed in his letters to Yancey, Washington, and Lafayette and it is why—with the exception of his letter to Norvell in which he writes “It is not he who prints, but he who pays for printing a slander, who is it’s real author”—he consistently inculpates editors for the scurrilities and exculpates the public, which ingests and digests those scurrilities.

Were he alive today and were he to see the partisan bickering that is the essence of the political media, the public love of that double Dutch, and a president so distrustful of the media that he resorts to conveyance of information by tweeting, Jefferson would likely rethink public exculpation. He might also come to recognize, as did Freud, that people are as demonic as they are saintly.