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:

  • Howthe 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:

  • Bejan, T.M. (2017): Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. Harvard University Press. KindleEdition.
  • Brown, R.D. (2007): “The Shifting Freedoms of the Press in the Eighteenth Century” in: Armory, H. & Hall, D.D. (eds.): A History of the Book in America, vol. 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World.University of North Carolina Press.
  • Corrigan, J. & Neal, L.S. (2010): Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Curtis, M.K. (1991): “In Pursuit of Liberty: The Levellers and the American Bill of Rights”. Constitutional Commentary, p. 801, 1991; Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 956931.
  • Curtis, M.K. (2000): Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege”: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History. Duke University Press.
  • Deazley, R., Kretschmer, M. & Bently, L.(eds.): Privilege and Property: Essays on the History of Copyright. OpenBook Publishers.
  • Eldridge, L. (1995): A Distant Heritage: The Growth of Free Speech in Early America. NYUPress. Kindle Edition.
  • 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.
  • Juster, S. (2014): “Heretics, Blasphemers, and Sabbath Breakers:  The Prosecution of Religious Crime in Early America” in Beneke, C. & Grenda, C.S. (eds.) (2014): TheFirst Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America.University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • 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. TheUniversity of North Carolina Press.
  • 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 literaturesources and documents

Online articles