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
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’.
1689: 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: John Locke’s Letter on Toleration
Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1697 (Public Domain)
John Locke pens his Epistola de tolerantia or Letter on Toleration in 1685, during his exile in Gouda. The text is published in Latin and English in 1689.
By the law of nature, he argues, all men have the right – and duty – to worship God in religious communities of their own choosing:
“Now I appeal to the consciences of those that persecute, torment, destroy, and kill other men upon pretense of religion, whether they do it out of friendship and kindness towards them, or no … I say, if all this be done merely to make men Christians, and procure their salvation, why then do they suffer whoredom, fraud, malice, and such like enormities, which, according to the Apostle, manifestly relish of heathenish corruption, to predominate so much and abound amongst their flocks and people?”
– John Locke, Epistola de tolerantia (1689)
But Locke is not a promoter of universal toleration. He draws the limit at Roman Catholicism and Atheism:
“… those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God.”
– John Locke, Epistola de tolerantia (1689)
1695: Locke and the end of the Licensing Act
The Licensing Act expires in 1695. No longer does it enforce pre-publication censorship and ban ‘heretical, seditious, schismatical, or offensive books’.
John Locke plays a critical role lobbying against the law. Not to argue for a free press, but because the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company drives prices of books up and quality down, and because the law violates property rights by allowing authorities ‘to search all houses [on] the suspition of haveing unlicensed books’.
“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 on the Licensing Act
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.
Episode 22: Fighting Words
In the second half of the 18th century, American Patriots show that freedom of the press is a potent weapon against authority. Not even the world’s most formidable empire can stop them from speaking truth, lies, and insults to power.
In 1765, the announcement of the Stamp Act kicks off a tsunami of dissent in Colonial pamphlets, newspapers, taverns, and town meetings. The outpouring of protest shapes a public opinion increasingly hostile to taxation without representation and in favour of popular sovereignty. Additional taxes and disabilities imposed by Parliament further radicalizes the Patriot side and the anti-British propaganda. The revolutionary dissent includes both principled arguments, pamphlet wars, slander, and some genuine “fake news.”
Since prosecutions for seditious libel have effectively been abolished by the Zenger case in 1735 (see episode 21), the British are powerless to stop the onslaught of Patriot fighting words. More than ever, press freedom has become the “Great Bulwark of Liberty.”
Though Patriots constantly invokes the principle of freedom of speech, Loyalist printers and newspapers are subjected to the “Patriot’s Veto” through intimidation and mob violence.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” becomes a sensation and pushes many Patriot fence-sitters into the independence camp. And just before and after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, several states protects freedom of the press in rights declarations.
1742: David Hume’s ‘Essays Moral, Political and Literary’
The Scottish philosopher David Hume issues his influential Essays Moral, Political and Literary in 1742. The essays contain a philosophical argument for a free press:
“But I would fain go a step further and assert that such a liberty [freedom of the press] is attended with so few inconveniences that it may be claimed as the common right of mankind and ought to be indulged them almost in every government except the ecclesiastical, to which, indeed, it would be fatal.”
– David Hume: Essays Moral, Political and Literary (1742)
In 1770, Hume changes his mind and erases the argument from the following editions of his essays. Instead, he sees the “unbounded liberty of the press” as “one of the evils” associated with mixed forms of government. But he still sees it as a necessary evil arising from a greater good and does not advocate a return to censorship.
The American patriots choose to ignore Hume’s backpedaling. An early, unedited version of the essay circulates widely in the American press under the title “the celebrated Mr. Hume’s Observations on the Liberty of the Press”.
1748: Montesquieu’s ‘De L’Esprit de Lois’
The French political thinker Montesquieu issues his De L’Esprit de Lois or ‘Spirit of the Law’ in 1748. It contains an argument for free speech and a seperation of words from actions:
“Words do not constitute an overt act; they remain only in idea … Since there can be nothing so equivocal and ambiguous as all this, how is it possible to convert it into a crime of high treason? Wherever this law is established, there is an end not only of liberty, but even of its very shadow …”
– Montesquieu, De L’Espirit de Lois (1748) bk. 12 ch. 12-13
1776: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
In early 1776, the anonymous pamphlet Common Sense takes America by storm. The author Thomas Paine makes a merciless case for separation from the British empire. According to Paine’s own claims, it sells as many as 500,000 within the first year. Some historians think the actual number is closer to 75,000. But regardless, the pamphlet has a tremendous effect on the popular opinion regarding the question of separation.
“As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensible duty of every government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle, which the niggards of all professions are so unwilling to part with; and he will be at once delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us: it affords a larger field for our Christian kindness. Were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle, I look on the various denominations among us, to be like children of the same family, differing only, in what is called, their Christian names.”
– Thomas Paine: Common Sense (1776)
1776: United States Declaration of Independence
(Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images/Tetra Images RF)
On July 4th, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is adopted by the Second Continental Congress. From this day, the 13 American colonies regard themselves as independent.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
– United States Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)
1776: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights
In September, 1776, Pennsylvania becomes the first state in America to elevate freedom of speech, press and religion to constitutional rights. The Pennsylvania Constitution or Declaration of Rights of 1776 states:
“II. That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent … And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.”
“XII. That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments; therefore the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained.”
– Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776