Freedom of the Press – Created, Not Inherited

I finally finished Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience. It’s 372 pages long, divided up into bite-sized chapters of 5-10 pages each. For all that, it needs careful reading, and there’s something worth flagging in every chapter.

For instance, the press labored under government restrictions on this side of the Atlantic much longer than it did in Britain. Partially, this was because chronic shortages of paper, ink, and typeface made a successful press harder to run. But it’s also because the colonial governments passed press licensing laws here, and then kept them in force after similar laws in England had lapsed in the 1690s.

For instance, on page 329:

Authorities were still impressed by the great power for irresponsible attack which a press could put into any man’s hands. The European governing classes would no more have thought of leaving the manufacture of explosive printed matter unregulated than they would have permitted the unlicensed manufacture of gunpowder or the raising of private armies. In America control was exercised, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another, and the need to censor varied with the flow of events. But one fact is clear: the traditional European idea of monopolizing the press to cement the social order was successfully transplanted to American shores.”

We tend to think of our liberties as having been ancient, inherited from England, and being encroached upon by the Crown. But in at least this instance, freedom of the press was included in the First Amendment not from inheritance, but from the experience of not having had it.

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