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.
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.