Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thomas Jefferson, the Press, and the Second Inaugural Address

American political figures have always felt antagonism toward the press. The emergence of multiple forms of digital and social media, the continuous, around-the-clock reporting, and the ease in which information can be accessed might have created a variation of scale in recent decades, but earlier politicians were just as frustrated with the "media" of their day, and just as prone to lash out, as well as lapse into self-pity from having their words misconstrued.

In his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson delivered the following stern rebuke to the press:

"During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation."

He went on to add that his re-election was a essentially a vote of no confidence of the press and its lies, and that no "salutary coercions of the law" in the form of defamation prosecution should be needed. It should be noted that this was less than a decade of the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which gave the federal government power to prosecute attacks on the administration and president. President John Adams, who signed the infamous acts, felt, in part, that the press had abrogated its responsibility to inform the people through their vituperative attacks on him and the policies of his party. Jefferson rode resentment of the Alien and Sedition Acts all the way to the White House. Yet, after his first term he was just as frustrated with what he saw as the unjust attacks on his own person and administration. Granted, it is highly unlikely that they would have included the same people, even if they spoke in general terms about the press. Adams meant the  Democrat-Republican partisan press, whom he considered Jacobins who would spread anarchy, chaos, and revolution. Jefferson referred to the Federalist partisan press, whom he considered monarchists who wanted to stifle the freedoms won in the American Revolution, bind the people to feudalism, and end the experiment in representative self-government. No wonder, both men thought their opponents would destroy the Republic! Sound familiar?!?

On a side note, I find Jefferson's complaints rich in irony. There is a poetic justice in an opposition press holding his feet to the fire. In the previous decade, he was instrumental in forming an opposition press to President Washington, and may have been one of the original "leakers" by providing information from within the government to his allies in the press.

Note: The above quotes are taken from Thomas Jefferson, Writings (NY: Library of America, 1984), 521-22.

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