David Hume’s contribution to the eighteenth-century debate about the limits of the freedom of the press – ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’ (1741) – has usually been considered in the context of the Scotsman’s extensive revisions of the essay in the wake of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Plenty of historians have already written about how and why Hume, in response to popular discontents in London, removed his initial and more positive conclusion about press freedom and instead called it one of the inconveniences of mixed governments. By contrast, little has been said about what initially prompted the essay. When the first version of the essay is considered in its original setting in the late 1730s and early 1740s, we learn that the essay was written in the context of the paper war between Walpole’s Court Whig administration (1721–42) and a Country/Patriot opposition consisting of Tories, Whigs and Jacobites. In this context, the ‘Liberty of the Press’ had become an opposition slogan, as Walpole sought to rein in freedom of speech by harassing opposition journalists and printers, outlawing parliamentary reporting during sessions and introducing censorship of stage plays. In contrast with later editions of the essay, Hume took a clear stance in favour of the liberty of the press, referring to it as ‘the common right of mankind’. However, although Hume was very loosely associated with oppositions Whigs at this time, for example the Marchmont family, this should not be regarded as an unconditional espousal of anti-Walpole propaganda. Crucially, Hume appears to have favoured conciliation rather than confrontation with Spain in 1739. As will be shown, his argument was distinctly independent, and his defence of press freedom was much more sceptical than that of Protestant thinkers who called it a human or natural right.
Arguments for free speech and their limits in early eighteenth-century Britain and France
This chapter approaches the question of eighteenth-century discussions of the freedom of speech from the angle of the truth, and the argument for the freedom of speech based on the need to be free to seek the truth, as defended for example by Milton. It begins in England after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695; this led, in the context of debates about censorship and toleration, to criticism of subversive and irreligious pamphlets, together with arguments for free speech based on the right to seek the truth. Across the Channel, the lack of censorship in England was admired, and writers like Voltaire defended freedom for philosophers to publish the truth, on the basis that their writings had no effect on the mass of the people. Thus the defence of free speech founded on the need to seek the truth entails its limitation to those who are capable of exercising their reason in this search, which excludes the mass of the population. There was also discussion of scurrilous or untruthful works, which should not be published with impunity. This chapter brings out the underlying tension between arguments about the freedom to seek the truth and recognition that certain opinions cannot be circulated without restrictions and must be punished. It is to a large extent the commitment to the truth which is behind these limitations. The few defences of completely unrestricted freedom of the press abandon the argument based on the need for the individual to seek the truth and ground it in rights and the interest of the state. And despite certain claims that the truth can be recognised by all, there remains the unresolved question of who can decide on the truth when it is contested.
This chapter is about how what was unsayable in late sixteenth-century England became sayable by mid-seventeenth-century England. The dynamics of what we might call free speech were worked out in a series of tensions, and sometimes conflicts, between the duty of certain public men to defend the public interest – crudely that of the commonwealth and of true religion – and the constraints placed on who got to talk about such things and where and to whom they got to talk about them. The result was a very restricted circle of persons comprising in secular affairs Privy Counsellors, in practice certain courtiers and favourites, and in ecclesiastical matter the bishops and certain godly leaned clergy, and on some topics, but not on others, Parliament-men. Under the right circumstances, most often those created by actual or perceived crisis and threat, these very restricted ranks of the counsel-giving classes could be expanded. While one should not ignore, or even play down, the contingency of the political events that drove this narrative, one can also surely see a dialectical progression at work here, as acts of free speech, each designed to describe, unmask and denounce various conspiracy-based emergencies, practised by one group or another – by the state and its (either Catholic or Puritan) critics, by various Parliament-men and the defenders of the court, or the Crown, or indeed by the monarch himself, by the opponents or defenders of the Spanish Match – elicited other such acts from their opponents. The result was a series of claims to and outbreaks of ‘free speech’ of increasing frequency, if not intensity. But what this was not was the rise of free speech in anything like the modern sense, since the aim of each of these exercises in parrhesia was to achieve a situation in which certain groups got to speak and certain things got to get said while others most definitely did not.
This book offers historical reappraisals of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the early modern anglophone world. Prompted by modern debates about whether or not limitations on free expression might be necessary given religious pluralism and concerns about hate speech, it brings together historians, political theorists and literary scholars, and offers a longue durée approach to the topic. It integrates religion into the history of free speech, and rethinks what is sometimes regarded as a coherent tradition of more or less absolutist justifications for free expression. Contributors examine the aims and effectiveness of government policies, the sometimes messy and contingent ways in which freedom of speech became a reality, and a wide range of canonical and non-canonical texts in which contemporaries outlined their ideas and ideals. It is shown that – on this issue at least – the period from 1500 to 1850 is a coherent one, in terms of how successive governments reflected on the possibility of regulation, and in terms of claims that were and were not made for freedom of speech. While not denying that change can be detected across this period, in terms of both ideas and practices, it demonstrates that the issues, arguments and aims involved were more or less distinct from those that characterise modern debates. As a collection it will be of interest to religious and political historians, intellectual historians and literary scholars, and to anyone interested in the history of one of the most important and thorny issues in modern society.
Amid considerable debate within modern societies about whether or not there ought to be limits to freedom of speech, this introductory chapter argues that historical perspectives have been all too lacking, and all too simplistic. This chapter sets the book in its modern context – in terms of the challenges that have emerged to Western liberalism as a result of religious pluralism and the challenge of hate speech – and highlights the rather simplistic ways in which freedom of speech has conventionally been anchored in ideas and developments that emerged in early modern Britain. It surveys the historiographical debates that have seen this ‘Whiggish’ narrative subjected to critical scrutiny, and sets up the volume by demonstrating both continuity and change across the early modern world. This means recognising the centrality of religious issues as well as secular concerns, and the complex ways in which contemporaries grappled with the theory and practice of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It means acknowledging the complex relationship that existed between regulation, restraint and liberty, and the dynamic interplay that can be observed between rights and duties, truth and error, genre and audience.
This chapter investigates the origins of concepts of press freedom in the anglophone world. It charts the ways in which arguments about freedom of speech in the English Parliament combined with practices and theories of petitioning to underwrite novel claims that press licensing should be temporarily loosened or suspended during the time of Parliament’s sitting. These claims for the relaxation of censorship during ‘Parliament-time’ were first extensively canvassed during the distempered parliaments of the 1620s. After 1640, and particularly after the convention of the Long Parliament in November of that year, rudimentary claims regarding the suspension of press licensing in ‘Parliament-time’ became more elaborate, and were articulated with escalating assertiveness, particularly by militant parliamentarians, and especially by so-called ‘independents’. During the English civil war of the 1640s, these formulations mutated into more general demands for the limitation or even abolition of press controls. In their most robust form, such arguments proposed that censorship and other forms of press regulation should be relaxed not merely in the ‘Parliament-time’ but at all times and under all just governments. This evolution represents an important development in the long, highly contested process whereby print controls were abandoned, as new assumptions and practices of press freedom and ‘freedom of speech’ gained purchase in the English-speaking world.
Limiting godly speech in early seventeenth century England
Seventeenth-century English Protestants believed that they possessed a ‘right’ to exercise something they called ‘freedom of speech’, which was a biblically mandated duty to speak the truth boldly by rebuking sin and proclaiming Christian doctrine. It is well known that early modern Christians sought to place limits on what they deemed ungodly speech, but, as this chapter argues, early Stuart Protestants also placed crucial limits on what they considered to be godly free speech. On their view, free speech should always be exercised to promote God’s glory and the good of those who heard it. There were circumstances in which even godly speech would not serve these ends, instead provoking blasphemous counter-speech, violence and spiritual harm to those who heard it. Stuart Protestants therefore identified various situations in which they advised private persons and ministers not to cast ‘pearls before swine’ (Matt. 7:6) and to remain silent rather than speak words of godly admonition or instruction. Their arguments drew together a series of terms that would (with different meanings and content) lie at the heart of later arguments about free speech and its proper limits: restricting ‘liberty’ of speech in order to prevent ‘harm’, ‘offence’ and violence. This combination of familiarity and foreignness, the chapter concludes, is precisely what makes these seventeenth-century discussions of free speech so relevant and useful for helping us to think more clearly about the purposes, circumstances and limits of free speech in our own time.
Swift frequently fell foul of the post-publication censorship regime of Hanoverian England, yet notwithstanding these collisions with authority he was no advocate of free speech. This chapter positions Swift’s resistance to free speech against the backdrop of assertions of the principle of parrhesia from antiquity to the mid-twentieth century. It identifies Swift’s age as a moment when vindications of the right to free speech began to be couched in ever more absolute and unconditional forms. The underpinnings of those gradually more expansive claims (as they arose in an English context) in positions associated with nonconformity and forged in the heat of the mid-seventeenth-century conflict between Crown and Parliament goes some way towards explaining Swift’s suspicion of them and his tendency to characterise those engaged in free speech and free thinking as chaotic and confused. By contrast, Swift tended to characterise his own outspokenness before authority as a special kind of constrained speech, and hence not vulnerable to the accusations he levelled against the free and irresponsible speakers whose actions he deplored and despised.
This chapter uses the anti-blasphemy legislation of the late 1690s and early 1720s to consider how early Georgian England differed from late Williamite England regarding freedom of speech in general and freedom of religious speech more particularly. So, what had changed between the passage of the Blasphemy Act of 1698 and the failure of the Blasphemy Bill in 1721? Parliament’s resolute determination to maintain the civil peace had not. What had changed, instead, was what most in Parliament thought constituted civil peace; what most in Parliament thought threatened civil peace; and what most in Parliament thought should be done to deal with perceived threats to civil peace. Moreover, what had changed in the two decades after the Blasphemy Act’s passage in 1698 was that the established church itself was riven even more deeply not simply about how to deal with public expressions of untruth but about what even constituted truth and untruth. Indeed, one of the striking things about the 1721 Blasphemy Bill was that some of its chief opponents were clerics; were clerics who believed that heresy and blasphemy were real; were clerics who believed that early eighteenth-century England abounded with heretics and blasphemers; and were clerics who would later prove willing to act on that belief. And yet they voted down a piece of legislation that promised to punish heretics and blasphemers. Put another way, they voted against the Blasphemy Bill not because they thought heretics and blasphemers did not need to be restrained but because they thought they should be restrained only under certain conditions. Principled support of free speech did not drive clerical opposition to the bill; reasons of state did.
It is usually assumed that speech is ‘free’ if it is not met with punishment from governing authorities. ‘Freedom of speech’ involves a right to speak without fear of governmental reprisal. In the Tudor period, discussions around counsel, and the associated ideas of parrhesia and kairos, lead us to another way of considering the ‘freedom’ of speech: that it is not the absence of punishment which makes speech free, but rather the choice to speak freely regardless of such reprisal. In this way, the discussion is not about the limits and boundaries of free speech, but about the way in which speaking truth is itself freeing, regardless of the consequences. This chapter uncovers this way of thinking in the work of Thomas Elyot, especially his two pieces produced in 1533: Pasquil the Playne and Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man. Drawing particularly on the work of Isocrates and Plutarch, Elyot sets out that the demands of ‘right timing’ (kairos) necessitate frank speech in order to limit the otherwise unrestrained passions of a monarch, regardless if these will be met with punishment or not. Such speech, Elyot maintains is not just ‘free’ in itself but is itself liberating: for the speaker – no matter the consequences; for the listener – even when forced to listen or obey; and for the commonwealth. In this view freedom of speech moves from a right to a duty, and the mechanism of freedom from the extent of governmental control to the speech act of the individual. This freeing speech can (and ought to for Elyot) exist in contexts in which modern freedom of speech does not.