Episodes

Episode 18 – Colonial Dissent: Blasphemy, Libel and Tolerance in 17th Century America

Americans are more supportive of free speech than anyother people. 95 % of Americans think it’s “very important” to be able tocriticize the government without censorship and 77% support the right to offendreligious feelings. But in 17th Century colonial America,criticizing the government, officials or the laws was punishable as seditiouslibel and could result in the cropping of ears, whippings, boring of the tongueand jail time. Religious speech was also tightly controlled. Blasphemy waspunishable by death in several colonies and religious dissenters such asQuakers were viciously persecuted in Puritan New England. Despite the harshclimate of the 17th century, the boundaries of political speech andreligious tolerance were significantly expanded.  In this episode we’llexplore:

  • How the crime of seditious libel was exported to colonial America
  • Why peddlers of “fake news” were seen as enemies of the state
  • Why a Harvard student was whipped for blasphemy
  • Why four Quakers were hanged in Boston and many more whipped, branded and jailed
  • How colonies like Pennsylvania, Carolina and Maryland combined religious tolerance with laws against religious offense,
  • HowRoger Williams´ ”Rogue Island” and West New Jersey adopted policies of radical religious toleration
  • The dangers of mixing alcohol and politics in Maryland
  • How William Penn promoted religious tolerance and political intolerance
  • How the colonies operated a strict licensing regime to suppress printing
  • HowJohn Wise protested taxation without representation and became “America’s First Great Democrat”

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Literature:

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  • Corrigan, J. & Neal, L.S. (2010): Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. University of North Carolina Press.
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  • Hall, D.D. (2007): “The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century” and “Readers and Writers in Early New England”, in: Armory, H. & Hall, D.D. (eds.): A History of the Book in America, vol. 1: TheColonial Book in the Atlantic World. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Harvard University: “Henry Dunster”, accessed 22 January 2019, https://www.harvard.edu/about-harvard/harvard-glance/history-presidency/henry-dunster.
  • Juster, S. (2014): “Heretics, Blasphemers, and Sabbath Breakers:  The Prosecution of Religious Crime in Early America” in Beneke, C. & Grenda, C.S. (eds.) (2014): The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Kopan, T. (2013, October 10): “Student stopped from handing out Constitutions on Constitution Day sues”. Politico, accessed 22 January 2019, https://www.politico.com/blogs/under-the-radar/2013/10/student-stopped-from-handing-out-constitutions-on-constitution-day-sues-174792.
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  • Leff, L. (1990, April 28): “MD. Court Hearts Appeal of Oral Sex Conviction”. The Washington Post, accessed 22 January 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1990/04/28/md-court-hears-appeal-of-oral-sex-conviction/461dfed1-8669-4a5e-b0cc-2967c25f179c/?utm_term=.0208e444ed44.
  • Levy, L.W. (1985): Emergence of a Free Press. Oxford University Press.
  • Levy, L.W. (1995): Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Morgan, E.S. (1975): American slavery – American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Neal, L.S. & Corrigan, J. (2010): Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. The University of North Carolina Press.
  • New England Historical Society: “Harvard Student Beaten in 1674, President Takes Fall”, accessed 22 January 2019, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/harvard-student-beaten-1674-president-takes-fall/.
  • Rossiter, C.L. (1949): “John Wise: Colonial Democrat”. The New England Quarterly 22(1). pp. 3–32.
  • Smolenski, J. (2001): “William Bradford”. In: Derek, J. (ed.): Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
  • Solomon, S.D. (2016): Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech. St. Martin’s Press.Kindle Edition.
  • Taylor, A. (2002): American colonies: The Settling of North America, Vol. 1. Penguin Books.

Primary literature