FREE SPEECH HISTORY TIMELINE
Dive into a timeline covering the subjects of Clear and Present Danger. The timeline will expand as we travel through the history of free speech.
Free speech history
Episode XV: Paper-bullets and the forgotten martyrs of radical free speech
Episode 15 returns to Europe and formative events in 17th Century England, where a mostly forgotten group of radicals demand a written constitution guaranteeing free speech, liberty of conscience, and democracy. But who are the Levellers? What is the historical context of their radical demands and why are they crushed by their former allies?
1643: Licensing Order
In 1641, Parliament abolishes the Star Chamber and ends the Star Chamber Decree of 1637. But parliament is not interested in stopping censorship: It simply replaces royal censorship with parliamentary censorship. Two years later, parliament issues the Licensing Order, enforcing pre-publication censorship.
The order causes Milton to write his Areopagitica.
1415: The Portuguese Empire
The Portuguese conquer Ceuta in Morocco in 1415, turning the first sod in a soon-to-be global empire. They colonise Guinea-Bissau in 1474, Brazil in 1500, Mozambique in 1501, Goa in 1510, Malacca in 1511, Macau in 1557, Nagasaki in 1570 and Angola in 1575. Everywhere they go, they spread the Catholic faith.
1492: The Spanish Empire
Columbus stumbles on the American continent in 1492. A generation later, Spanish conquistadors subjugate the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas. Before long, Spain’s vast American empire stretches from New Mexico in the North to Argentina in the South.
Everywhere they go, the Spanish bring Catholic missionaries: 10 million native Americans are converted before 1550. The Franciscan missionaries raze native temples, confiscate sacred images and ban traditional games and dances. Women are instructed to cover their naked bodies, and chastity and monogamy are enforced by the whip. In the words of a Franciscan missionary, conversion has to be “reinforced by the fear and respect which the Indians have for the Spaniards.”
1536: The Portuguese Inquisition
Man about to be burnt at the stake in Goa (Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, c. 1797, Public Domain)
The Portuguese Inquisition is launched by papal bull in May 1536. Five years later, king João III extends the Inquisition to the cover the whole Portuguese Empire. Until 1821, the Inquisition investigates more than 50,000 trials and executes around 2,000. The most serious crimes include Judaism, Lutheranism, Islam, heretical opinions, witchcraft and bigamy.
An independent tribunal is set up in Goa in 1560: The massive institution covers all the Eastern colonies from Sofala on Africa‘s East Coast to Malacca in Malaysia. Brazil is under the jurisdiction of the central tribunal in Lisbon.
1570: The Spanish Inquisition in America
In 1570, the Spanish Inquisition opens two independent tribunals in America: One in Mexico City (New Spain) and one in Lima (Peru). A third tribunal opens in Cartagena (Columbia) in 1611. By 1700, the tribunal in Lima has investigated 1176 cases and convicted 46 to death. The tribunal in Mexico City has investigated 950 cases and convicted 59 to death. The most frequently prosecuted crimes are heresies and blasphemies, closely followed by Judaism. Protestantism and Islam are also illegal.
Sancho de Aldana is convicted of blasphemy in 1572. He is sentenced to declare his crimes in public, naked to the waist, with a gag in his mouth and a candle in his hand. He is then paraded through the streets of Mexico City on a mule before receiving 100 lashes and being kicked out of Mexico for four years.
1571: Censorship in Spanish America
America’s first printing office opens in Mexico City in 1539. The Church keeps printers on a tight leash: Novels are forbidden all together and a strict index of forbidden books is enforced.
In 1571, Mexico’s new Inquisitor General launches a massive book purge – even the Franciscans are caught with illegal books in their libraries.
Episode XVIII: Colonial Dissent – Blasphemy, Libel and Tolerance in 17th Century America
In 17th Century colonial America, criticizing the government, officials or the laws is punishable as seditious libel. It can result in the cropping of ears, whippings, boring of the tongue and jail time. Religious speech is also tightly controlled: Blasphemy is punishable by death in several colonies and religious dissenters such as Quakers are viciously persecuted in Puritan New England.
But despite the harsh climate of the 17th century, the boundaries of political speech and religious tolerance are significantly expanded.
1611: Dale’s laws
Dale’s Laws, 1612
The English establish their first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. In 1611, Virginia’s first governor Thomas Dale issues a long list of offenses known as “Dale’s laws“. The laws mandate capital punishment for blasphemy, heresy, idolatry, witchcraft and consulting with witches. It is even punishable by death to worship God in a molten or graven image.
1641: The Massachusetts Body of Liberties
The Puritans establish England’s second colony in Plymouth, New England, in 1620. Their persecution in England is a major motivation behind the migration. But once they settle in New England, the Puritans don’t show any tolerance for blasphemers or religious minorities like Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists and Jews.
In 1631, Phillip Radcliffe is sentenced to have his ears cut off and be banished from the colony for accusing the church of Salem of being founded by the devil.
In 1641, the colony of Massachusetts issues the Body of Liberties. It bans blasphemy and adultery:
“If any man shall blaspheme the name of God, the Father, the sonne or holy ghost, with direct, expresse, presoumptous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in like manner, he shall be put to death.” – the Massachusetts Body of Liberties
Episode XX: The Seeds of Enlightenment
In 1685, the Sun King Louis XIV revokes the Edict of Nantes and initiates a policy of religious persecution of French Protestants. In England, the Catholic James II assumes the throne to the horror of the Protestant majority in Parliament. From their exiles in the Dutch Republic, the French philosopher Pierre Bayle writes his groundbreaking defense of religious tolerance “Commentaire Philosophique”, and John Locke the original Latin version of his Letter Concerning Toleration. In this episode, we trace the seeds of the Enlightenment covering events in France, the Dutch Republic, and England.
1670: Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus
Baruch Spinoza c. 1665 (Public Domain)
The philosopher Baruch Spinoza publishes his controversial Tractatus theologico-politicus anonymously in 1670. It promotes freedom of thought and speech, rejects miracles and reads the Bible with a critical eye.
“In a Free Commonwealth it should be lawful for every Man to think what he will, and speak what he thinks” – Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670)
The book is too controversial – even for the tolerant Dutch. Spinoza’s patron Jan de Witt is assassinated in 1672. The same year, an anonymous pamphlet calls the Tractatus a “book forged in hell by the renegade Jew together with the Devil”.
1623-1683: Algernon Sidney
Algernon Sidney (Public Domain)
Algernon Sidney pens his anti-monarchical Discourses Concerning Government during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81. It is published posthumously in 1698 and has a tremendous influence on the radical Whigs and the founding fathers of America.
Sidney is executed for an alleged plot against Charles II in 1583. On the scaffold just before the execution he delivers a speech:
“… we live in an age that maketh truth pass for treason; I dare not say anything contrary unto it, and the ears of those that are about me will probably be found too tender to hear it. My trial and condemnation sufficiently evidence this.” – Algernon Sidney on the scaffold
1685: The Edict of Fontainebleau / The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
The ‘sun king’ Louis XIV, Europe’s most powerful man. Portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1702 (Public Domain)
Louis XIV of France issues the Edict of Fontainebleau in October 1685. The edict revokes the Edict of Nantes from 1598, and rolls back the Protestant Huguenots’ right to worship without persecution. Tens of thousands flee to England, the Dutch Republic and the American colonies.
1687: The Declaration for Liberty of Conscience
Portrait of James by Peter Lely, c. 1650-1675 (Public Domain)
Britain’s new Catholic king James II issues a double Declaration for Liberty of Conscience in Scotland and England in early 1687. Also known as the Declaration of Indulgence, it secures freedom of conscience for Catholics and Protestant dissenters and rolls back various discriminatory penal laws. The Anglican majority in Parliament fears a brewing ‘Popish plot’.
1789: The Toleration Act and the Bill of Rights
William III and his queen and co-ruler Mary II. Sir James Thornhill (Public Domain).
William of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, knocks James II off the British throne in late 1688. The events are later known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
William III and Mary II give royal assent to the Toleration Act in May 1689. It secures freedom of conscience for most Protestants, but not Catholics, anti-Trinitarians and Atheists.
In December, the king and queen give royal assent to the Bill of Rights, securing freedom of speech in parliament:
9. That the freedom of speech, and debates or proceedings in parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament. – The Bill of Rights (1689)
Read the Bill of Rights here.
1689: A Letter Concerning Toleration
Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1697 (Public Domain)
John Locke publishes his Epistola de tolerantia or Letter Concerning Toleration in Gouda in April 1689. An English version is published in London a few months later. The extent of Locke’s toleration ends at Atheism: “… those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God.”
1695: End of the Licensing Act
The Licensing Act, enforcing pre-publication censorship and banning “Heretical, seditious, schismatical, or offensive books”, expires in 1695. John Locke plays an important role as lobbyist for the revocation.
“I know not why a man should not have liberty to print whatever he would speak; and to be answerable for the one, just as he is for the other, if he transgresses the law in either. But gagging a man, for fear he should talk heresy or sedition, has no other ground than such as will make chains necessary, for fear a man should use violence if his hands were free, and must at last end in the imprisonment of all who you will suspect may be guilty of treason or misdemeanor” – John Locke
The end of the Licensing Act causes an explosion of heterodox anti-Trinitarian pamphlets. It also allows British Catholics to publish their catechisms and prayer books uncensored.