I’m halfway through this new history of free speech and can already tell it’s a winner. A history of the world framed in terms of the evolution of free thought and expression is just what we need today. I’m surprised by how much I’m learning from it.
I’m astonished by how many historical figures began as strong advocates for free speech and expression, only to become the most virulent censors and monuments to intolerance when confronted with the free speech of others. As Mchangama says at the outset:
“Almost invariably, the introduction of free speech sets in motion a process of entropy. The leaders of any political system — no matter how enlightened — inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far.”
In some ways this is the old story of “free speech for me but not for thee”, but I never grasped the epic scope of the problem, and how differently it manifests in different places and times. It’s sobering — and I’m only halfway through. That will be a sizable enough agenda for now. I’ll review chapters 1-7 below (which will take us up to the year 1800), and then the subsequent chapters in later posts.
Chapter 1: Ancient Beginnings
Our story doesn’t start where some open minds might suggest that it should. Not with Persia, for example. The clay cylinder of Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 BC) has been hailed as an ancient declaration of human rights — permitting freedom of religion throughout Cyrus’s vast empire — but that religious tolerance was offset by the emperor’s practice of burning down temples, cutting off peoples’ noses and ears, and burying people neck-deep in the desert, when they disobeyed him for any reason at all.
Nor can we look to India’s Ashoka the Great (304-232 BC) for any real free-speech inspiration. While he did declare that “all religions should reside everywhere”, that wasn’t an endorsement of anything like religious expression or free thought by a long shot. Ashoka also insisted on restraint in speech — in other words, not praising one’s own religion, and not condemning the religion of others.
Likewise, the so-called “primitive democratic strains” among the Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, and Phoenicians weren’t much to speak of. Some of their assemblies and tribunals allowed for degrees of representation and political debate, but it was a far cry from anything that could be considered free speech in any genuine sense.
We start where the start really began: in Athens and Rome. In his first chapter Mchangama contrasts the Athenian Democracy and Roman Republicanism, which valued free speech in different ways. These political institutions were nice while they lasted. After their falls, the world would have to wait for the printing press and Protestant Reformation to pursue free thought with the same level of commitment.
Athens (527-322 BC)
For the most part the Athenians practiced an impressive democracy during this period. Citizens debated and voted for their own laws. Power was in the hands of the whole people, and everyone was equal before the law — “everyone”, of course, meaning those who weren’t women, foreigners, or slaves. Still, the idea of all native free men living in an egalitarian society was radical for its time. Athenians could criticize their own constitution. There was no public institution of censorship to ensure conformity in writing, science, and public discourse. The Old Comedies took scathing pot-shots at elitist citizens, and even the gods.
And as Mchangama notes, it was recognized that what made the Athenians so great as a society was precisely its practice of free speech. Herodotus (484-425) said that while living under tyranny the Athenians had been an unremarkable people, and that they only attained greatness when they were granted equality of speech. Pericles (496-429) likewise said that free popular discourse was a key to social strength. The orator Demosthenes (384-322) said further that what marked out Athenians as especially enlightened was that they could criticize their own constitution and praise the Spartan one (while the Spartans could not criticize their own and had to tread carefully in praising others). The ability to freely criticize one’s own political system would become a critical litmus test of future democracies.
The Athenians valued two kinds of free speech: isegoria (the equality of public speech in the Athenian Assembly) and parrhesia (frank and uninhibited speech outside the Assembly, in the marketplace, schools, theaters, etc). For them, free speech wasn’t just a political principle (like the American First Amendment is today); it extended to the cultural sphere more broadly. If the Athenians could have seen into the 21st century, I doubt they would have made much distinction between governmental censorship in a town square and big-tech CEO censorship on social media.
And yet, the Athenian tolerance for free expression wasn’t air tight. There was at least one individual who got so under everyone’s skin that he eventually had to die for it: Socrates (470-399 BC). He was basically the first recorded martyr for free speech. We don’t know exactly why he was executed, but the charge was that he “refused to recognize the gods that were recognized by the state” and that he “corrupted the youth.” Something he said was evidently too offensive, even by Athenian standards, and I suspect it had to do more with the way he thrived on humiliating his oponents. As Mchangama describes him:
“Socrates delighted in humiliating his verbal sparring partners by luring them down logical dead ends, forcing even the most prominent of Athenians to admit their own ignorance. His opponents would start sweating or break down in tears when verbally stripped naked and slowly roasted.”
I can see how a guy like this would eventually make people snap, especially in the honor-shame world of the ancient Mediterranean. Socrates’s parrhesia evidently took free speech too far, though probably more in its delivery than its content. As we’ll see as we proceed through Mchangama’s history, modern democracies are prone to repeat the same outbreaks of intolerance, for any number of reasons. On whole though, Athenian democracy did quite well while it lasted.
Rome (509-27 BC)
The Romans valued free speech, but not like the Athenians. The Athenian democracy was bottom-up, direct, and egalitarian; the Roman Republic was top-down, hierarchical, and elitist. Cicero (106-43 BC), for example, was all for free expression — for the benefit of the elite. It was reserved for the “best men” in the Senate, not “the plebs, artisans, shopkeepers, and that scum”, as he saw them.
There’s no denying the overall Roman idea of libertas was enlightened and progressive in the ancient world. All citizens were granted civil rights and equality before the law (even if as plebs they couldn’t speak their heart’s content). No citizen could be executed without a fair trial, and everyone had the right to protest the decisions of magistrates. Libertas included the freedom enjoyed by commoners through voting in the assemblies. But when it came to speaking one’s mind, there were no Roman equivalents of isegoria and parrhesia. Roman free speech was the privilege of senators, magistrates, and orators.
Indeed, as Mchamgama notes, the Roman Republicans were at once thin-skinned and heavy-handed when it came to offensive speech from the wrong mouths. One of their laws prescribed scourging for slander. “The early Romans had no problem applying sticks and stones to break the bones of name-callers.” This was basically a “free speech for me but not for thee” policy, grounded in social class.
The Roman martyr for free speech was Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), who was unwilling to live in a world led by Julius Caesar. Cato refused to even grant Caesar the power to pardon him, and so he killed himself, saying,
“I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right of free speech, cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead.”
It was free speech reserved for Roman elites, admittedly, but free speech just the same compared to the empire of the Caesars that followed. And it would be Cato, ironically, rather than Socrates, who would be an inspiration for James Madison’s draft of the First Amendment, which harked back to the Athenian egalitarian model of free speech, rather than the Roman elitist one.
Chapter 2: The “Not-So-Dark Ages” — Inquisition in Medieval Islam and Christendom
This chapter isn’t bad but it is the book’s weakest. Mchangama tries to salvage more from the dark ages than is really there, especially from the Islamic world, where free speech was anathema. I’ve explained why the Dark Ages are an entirely appropriate term for the 7th-10th centuries, and that avoiding the term amounts to PC pandering more than anything else.
In the Islamic World
As a preliminary point, regarding the supposed enlightenment of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th-10th centuries: medicine, math, and philosophy never originated in any part of the Islamic world. Medicine came from the Nestorian Christians; mathematics from the Hindus; philosophy from the Persians. When the Arabs conquered the Christian world and took over Christian Greek universities, it’s true that they started teaching subjects like medicine, math, and philosophy; but the only degrees you could get at their schools was in religious law. Philosophy was a hobby for the select few and had no impact on daily life, for that was the role of sharia. As for most of the arts — sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric — they mostly weren’t taught at all, deemed unseemly if not blasphemous. It’s thus a bit misleading to say, as Mchangama does, that “The Abbasid Caliphate contributed vastly to expanding the limits of medieval thought and reason and preserving the learning of the ancient world.” Preserving, yes, to a degree; “contributing vastly” in the manner suggested, no.
He acknowledges that the death penalty for speech and thought crimes (like blasphemy and abandoning Islam) derives from Muhammad himself, in the Sunnah and in many Hadith — a famous passage involving the prophet having two girls executed for ridiculing him in poetic songs. He also acknowledges that all four Sunni schools of Islamic law (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanafi) prescribed (and still prescribe) the death penalty for such thought crimes, but also tries to find some wiggle room:
“But the Shafi’i and Hanafi schools that dominated the eastern part of the Abbasid Caliphate stipulated that in order to warrant a death sentence apostasy must be openly declared, and that the apostates must also be given the chance to repent and escape execution. As a result, punishment for apostasy was rare. That would change in the eleventh century…”
Frankly we don’t know how rare it was. Arguments from silence are dicey. Mchangama also uses fringe examples, like Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911), who became a virtual atheist, criticizing the Qur’an as absurd, miracles as tricks, pilgrimages and prayers as worthless — and “took delight in the shock and outrage that followed in the wake of his one-man demolition show of revealed religion”. This guy may have managed to escape execution, but as Mchangama notes, none of his works have survived, as there was zero tolerance for such beliefs. There was also Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (864-925), the Persian physician and philosopher — said to have written more than two hundred books medicine, chemistry, astronomy, math, and philosophy — who was critical of the restrictions that religion placed on free thought. But these two fringe radicals were certainly not mainstream or exemplary in their day.
Mchangama is on better ground here. He correctly notes that while laws against heresy stretch back to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, heresy virtually disappeared as an issue in the Latin West from the seventh to eleventh centuries. Then, in the eleventh century, thought crimes became a thing under the reformist popes (especially Gregory VII), though up until the late twelfth century, the first line of defense against heresy was usually persuasion instead of persecution. That changed in 1184, when Pope Lucius III ordered heretics to be unremittingly punished — and thus was born the medieval inquisitions. In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared heresy to be a crime of actual treason. Heretics were not yet executed (as they had always been, and are still today, in the Islamic world), but they had their goods confiscated, and their children were consigned to a life of poverty. In 1231, however, execution was on the board: Pope Gregory IX demanded that unrepentant heretics pay “the debt of hatred”, which was death at the stake. And even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who as an elitist scholar enjoyed the privilege of studying pagan philosophy, supported the execution of unrepentant and obstinate blasphemers.
Mchangama cautions, however, that despite the horror stories of sadistic cruelty and widespread burning spread by Protestant partisans, Enlightenment thinkers, and liberal historians (not to mention wild exaggerations in popular novels like The Da Vinci Code), “the medieval inquisitions were less bloody than one might imagine”. Torture and execution happened, but they were not the norm as they were in Islam. Indeed, the burning of a heretic was considered a failure on the part of the Christian inquisitor — a failure to reform the misguided heretic. The norm was rather social shaming (heretics forced to wear distinctive dress) and “prison on remand”, by which heretics were isolated from others and subjected to clerical persuasion without interference.
The Spanish Inquisition, on the other hand, was something else, created not by the church, but by the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, and it targeted primary Jews for (supposedly) undermining Christianity on the Iberian peninsula. There were about two thousand executions between 1492-1520, and then about a thousand from 1520-1834, when the Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished. Three thousand people is considerably less than the tens or hundreds of thousands in popular imagination, but it’s nonetheless accurate to call the Spanish Inquisition a reign of terror. It was often characterized by oral evidence motivated by personal grievances. People were burned at the stake thanks to neighbors who “remembered” how, decades before, someone changed his sheets on a Friday, or nodded his head as if praying in a Jewish manner, etc.
To repeat, chapter two of this book isn’t bad, but the author is snared into making a false equivalence with “the institution of the Inquisition in the West and the ‘closing of the Muslim mind’ through the hardening of Islamic law”. Islamic law had been hard from the get, and it’s no accident that the Catholic inquisitions (starting in the 1180s) were launched in the wake of trials and tortures committed by the Islamic Almohads of Spain (who ousted the Almoravids in 1147). That doesn’t excuse the Christian church, but it does suggest a causal connection: the church may have never gotten inquisitorial ideas if not for Islam.
Chapter 3: The Great Disruption — Gutenberg, Luther, and the Viral Reformation
With 1440 came the first explosion. The invention of the printing press expanded access to knowledge like nothing before it (and like nothing after it until the internet’s social media). Societal growth and innovation followed — for that’s what the spread of knowledge does — and with it the acceleration of certain ideas about intellectual freedom and the right to speak one’s mind.
The flip side is that the printing press also churned out political and religious propaganda, hate speech, obscene cartoons, and all sorts of unwelcome (to Christians) pagan heresies. Erasmus, for example, complained that
“Printers fill the world with pamphlets and books — foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious, and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their greatness.”
That sounds a lot like some 21st-century reactionary attitudes to social media, for good reason. Printers allowed moral panics to go viral, with consequences far more devastating than those of today’s Twitter storms. Books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) fanned the flames of witch hunts between the late 15th and early 18th centuries, in which an estimated 45,000 “witches” were executed.
With 1517 came the second fireball: “Martin Luther and Johannes Gutenburg were a match made in heaven (or hell, according to the church)”, enabling Luther to peddle his heretical ideas to the tune of 300,000 publications in the space of three years (1517-20). Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to the Diet of Worms in 1521, and demanded that Luther recant all his blasphemous words. To which Luther famously replied:
“Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.”
If Socrates was the first watershed moment in the history of free thought, and Cato the second, then Luther was the third. The emperor promptly issued an edict declaring it illegal to buy, sell, read, preserve, copy, print any of Luther’s books.
There is a big difference, however, between Luther and Socrates & Cato. What’s so entertaining about free speech is that no one really likes it when it catches on. Luther became quickly horrified by the consequences of making his Bibles available to everyone — when they fell into the hands of all the peasants and serfs he disdained. With affordable and easy-to-read vernacular Bibles, those peasants could now read passages that were never preached from the pulpits. Like the letter of James, which warned oppressors on behalf of laborers who break their backs toiling in the fields. (And Luther hated the epistle of James.) Emboldened by these subversive texts, peasants staged a mass revolt in 1524-25, demanding the abolition of serfdom in the name of God, and razing castles and monasteries in the name of the Gospel. Point counterpoint, Luther used other Biblical texts to enjoin princes to hunt down and massacre these peasants “for the mad dogs that they are”.
Luther, in other words, was a flaming hypocrite, and ended up using censorship to stifle the spread of Protestant doctrines that he disagreed with — which was basically all of them except for his. Mchangama writes that
“In retrospect, it was rather naive of Luther to actively democratize access to the Bible and expect everyone to toe his line. If the pope had no divine authority to determine universal Christian truth, why should Christians slavishly follow the theology of some constipated German monk?”
But even the worst hypocrites set positive precedents that set things in motion. Today the populations in Lutheran states like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are among the most secular and liberal in the world, distinguishing sharply between religion and morality, and valuing free speech over religious doctrines. Luther certainly didn’t intend that (his Lutheran churches were still instruments of the state) but then the snowball effect of free speech takes on a life of its own.
Across the English Channel, Henry VIII became another freedom-fighter turned oppressor, and in his wake, the Bloody Mary and the other Tudors. However, Mchangama distinguishes between the Tudor censorship in England and the Catholic/Protestant censorship in Continental Europe. While they both used draconian laws to suppress speech and ban books, most of the English censorship dealt with forms of defamation or libel rather than heresy, while the continental censorship dealt with thought crimes — ideological offenses, and wrong ideas that clashed with whatever Protestant or Catholic doctrine was in question. The English also stressed the importance of intent. “Accordingly, the English censorship regime was generally milder by sixteenth-century standards, although certainly oppressive by modern ones.”
The Catholic response to the Protestants was to double down on censorship in the Counter Reformation and restrict access to scripture for the lower classes, who could not read Latin (which of course created the perfect conditions for a booming black market in underground literature). Pope Paul III created the Roman Inquisition in 1542, which was used as an internal affairs bureau to smoke out heretics. In its first two centuries of operation, it conducted around 50,000 formal trials and handed 1250 of those over to the state to be executed for thought crimes.
All in all, thanks the printing press and revolts against the church, Europe became a fertile ground for experiments in freedom of conscience and speech.
Chapters 4: The Seeds of Enlightenment
These seeds were sown on a 17th-century battleground left by 16th-century clashes and counter-clashes, especially in Holland and Britain.
The Dutch Radicals
The reasons why free speech found a home in the Dutch Republic were pragmatic as much as principled. Holland was a decentralized nation with provincial institutions, and a large number of sects shared the same territory. Put simply, they all had to get along. This gave rise to a cosmopolitan and learned culture, and a remarkably high degree of tolerance for free speech.
The playwright Dirck Coornhert (1522-1590) was a radical champion of tolerance and open debate. While he didn’t promote absolute free speech (he made an exception for seditious speech), he was still way ahead of his time. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) argued that free speech was a necessary precondition for peace, prosperity, and progress. He too carved out an exception for seditious speech, but like Coornhert argued that free speech was a precondition (instead of a danger) to social peace.
Naturally the States of Holland caved in to ecclesiastical pressure (of the Reformed Church) and banned Coonhert’s and Spinoza’s books. They were “books forged in Hell”, “as vile and blasphemous as the world has ever known”, indeed “utterly pestilential”. That pestilence continued with the French Huguenot, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), who fled Louis IV’s anti-Protestant policies and came to the Dutch Republic in 1681. Bayle went so far as to claim that atheists could be more virtuous than Christians (which none of his fellow Calvinists accepted).
Over in Britain
There were great strides here as well, but the British heroes are overrated and they overshadow the lesser known and truer heroes. I agree with Mchangama that it’s one of the injustices of free-speech history that John Milton (1608-1674) is remembered as the great 17th century champion, while the names of John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Wayne have been forgotten. Those three were part of the movement known as the Levellers (1646-49), committed to popular sovereignty, equality before the law, religious tolerance, and freedom of speech and the press. Their ideas of democracy and almost limitless free speech were a pipe dream at the time, but they suffered arrest and imprisonment for their courage, and they deserve to be remembered far more than Milton.
The reason is that Milton fell into Luther’s Trap, and became the thing he hated. Mchangama doesn’t call it “Luther’s Trap” as I do, but rather “Milton’s Curse”, but we mean the same thing: the selective defense of free speech. Milton’s central argument in Areopagitica was that censorship led to “the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of truth, by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made, both in religious and civil wisdom.” He thus declared, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
But that eloquent defense of free speech came with a slew of buts. Milton advocated press freedom, but not for pro-papist writings. He condoned the burning of “mischievous and libelous” books. He was basically a free-speech advocate when it came to facilitating open discussion between Reformed Protestant sects, but he certainly didn’t believe in free and equal speech for all. Milton also praised the enactment of a law from 1650 against “Atheistical, Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions.” He even joined the censors under the military dictatorship of Richard Cromwell. After Martin Luther, John Milton was the most colossal hypocrite on the subject of free speech.
John Locke (1632-1704), known as the father of liberalism, is also overrated compared to the Levellers. He argued commendably that neither pagan, Jew, or Muslim should be excluded from the Civil Rights of the Commonwealth due to religion. But he thought Catholics and atheists should be excluded, and he didn’t defend free speech as consistently as the Dutch radicals or the Levellers. Still, Locke did deliver a killing blow in 1695, by lobbying a friend in Parliament to end the Licensing Act of 1662, which regulated the press and prohibited certain forms of speech. Parliament replied, however, with the Blasphemy Act of 1697. Prepublication censorship was finally gone in Britain, but postpublication punishment for speech crimes (like blasphemy and sedition) remained very much alive.
Basically in the 1600s, those who pursued free speech consistently (the Dutch Radicals, the Levellers) suffered for it, while those who settled for half measures (Milton’s Curse) made some headway. And sure enough, Milton’s Curse would keep boomeranging back in the centuries ahead.
Chapter 5: Enlightenment Now
For all the skepticism and enlightened thinking that was gaining ground, censorship didn’t fade in the late 17th and early 18th centuries; it just passed from the church to the secular hands of the state. Censors redirected their efforts from doctrinal matters to “toxic” philosophy, political dissent, and obscenity.
But there was no stopping the free speech movement by this point. Mchangama notes that coffee houses became the 18th-century equivalent of social media, where pamphlets, newspapers, and books were shared and discussed. The number of coffee houses in London increased from 83 in 1663 to 550 in 1700; and in Paris from 280 in 1720 to 900 in 1789. The coffee houses were egalitarian to the core; neither your bloodline or wealth mattered, just your capacity for reasoned discussion.
Then, in the radical Dutch Republic, came the equivalent of our 21st-century Dark Web: clandestine printing, a lawless black hole of filth, crime, and sedition, such that works like The Treatise of the Three Imposters (1719) attacked Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad with atheist glee. Censors fought tooth and nail to destroy these screeds. When Man a Machine (1747) was published, the book was banned and burned across Europe — including in the Dutch Republic itself. Its publisher Elie Luzac was outraged at the book burning, which is very notable since he had no sympathy with the book’s atheist viewpoint, being a pious if liberal Calvinist. He believed passionately that atheism should be countered in open debate, not by censorship.
Mchangama is right to underscore Luzac as watershed moment in the history of free speech, as the publisher
“provided pious Christians a justification for tolerating impious speech at a time when such tolerance was rejected out of hand even by liberals. His truly groundbreaking contribution to the history of free speech was his defense of the right to publish a book containing ideas widely deemed utterly loathsome, even by himself… The fact that Luzac, like Dirck Coornhert and the Levellers, has largely faded from the history of free speech is a travesty, given the trailblazing nature of his arguments.”
Britain produced some important underground literature during this time as well, especially the Whigs John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. They wrote Cato’s Letters (in 1720-23), taking their pseudonym from the Roman senator Cato the Younger, the martyr (as we saw above) for free speech under Caesar. Gordon’s words in one of the letters are now famous:
“Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together. And it is the tenor of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them.”
This was an argument to protect all individuals against abuse of power. Of course, the historical Cato believed in the elitist free speech of the Roman tradition, not the egalitarian free speech of the Athenian tradition, but regardless, Cato’s Letters would become enthusiastically cited in the New World and pressed into service of the Athenian model when the Constitution was written. The letters further conceded that while libelous statements are indeed unlawful, truthful ones could not be punished, laying the foundations for “truth is a defense” in American libel lawsuits.
Like Holland and Britain, France had its own black market and crusaders for free speech, like the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), who was famously imprisoned. Those who were shrewd used the VPN of the time, publishing their works anonymously abroad and then having them smuggled into France.
The two heroes that need attention here are Voltaire and Diderot. Voltaire (1694-1778) is famous for his (surely apocryphal) words, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That’s a wonderful sentiment, but as Mchangama says, the real Voltaire would doubtfully have died to defend the speech of his enemies. He was not the free speech absolutist suggested by his legend. His inspiration was basically England, where press freedom meant the right to publish without prior censorship, but not without subsequent punishments. To him people had “the right to make use of their pens at their own peril”. And like the Romans (not the Athenians), he believed that free speech was a privilege for the enlightened few; like Cicero he held the common people and their opinions in complete contempt.
But even if Voltaire succumbed to Milton’s Curse, his contributions shouldn’t be minimalized. They played a key role in advancing the cause of free speech in 18th-century Europe, and well beyond. After the Islamic jihadist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015, Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance became a sudden bestseller in France.
Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was the other free speech advocate who succumbed to Milton’s Curse. In 1772 he called for censorship when someone pissed him off by sharply criticizing the Encyclopedists and their works. Diderot was one of the editors of the Encyclopédie, which was compiled from 1751 to 1772 with the ambitious goal of presenting “all the knowledge in the world”, for the purpose of “changing the way people think”. Needless to say, the Encyclopédie was filled with subversive ideas that infuriated loads of people. But instead of replying to the challenger of the Encyclopedists, Diderot went straight to the lieutenant general of the police and asked him to suppress the rival work for impugning the honor of the Encyclopedists. Milton’s Curse indeed.
But as with Voltaire, Diderot still deserves immense credit, as Mchangama notes, for “his often lonely and desperate fight to keep writing, editing, and publishing the Encyclopédie against all the odds, surviving vicious abuse and intimidation, mass defection by his contributors, heavy official suppression, and the very real threat of prison and worse.”
The advancements in the Dutch Republic, Britain, and France were impressive, but it was Scandinavia that became the first region in the world to provide legal protection for free speech and abolish any and all forms of censorship. The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act (1766) was a watershed moment, as such a firm protection of free speech didn’t legally exist anywhere else on earth. (Not even the Dutch Republic had any laws yet that positively protected free speech.) Granted this lasted for only six years — as a royal coup in 1772 brought an end to Sweden’s Age of Liberty — but what was accomplished in that short time frame inspired Sweden’s neighbors to outdo them in free speech reforms.
In 1770 the physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772) became the de facto ruler of Denmark and Norway, and persuaded the ailing king Christian VII to abolish all censorship of the press. Danes were now free to voice their opinions on any matter that concerned them, and they wasted no time publishing pamphlets commenting on the economy, religion, sex. Naturally that freedom opened the floodgates to literary bile, lies, and nasty invective. Struensee paid mightily for his accomplishment — arrested and charged with high treason in 1772, beheaded, quartered, and his dismembered body parts displayed in public for all to see.
The Swedish and Danish/Norwegian free-speech eras may have been short-lived, but their legacy continued to set free-thinking minds on fire.
Chapter 6: Constructing the Bulwark of Liberty
The next two chapters are really good, focusing on the New World and then France by way of contrast.
At first, Enlightenment ideas were slow as molasses to reach the New World. Throughout the 17th century people were flogged, maimed, fire branded, and killed for thought crimes like sacrilegious speech, profanity/swearing, blasphemy, and heresy. But once the new ideas reached the New World, Americans latched onto free speech was the great bulwark of liberty. The reason it took off so fast was for the same reason it did in the Dutch Republic. Lack of centralized government is one of the best catalysts for tolerant policies.
A watershed moment came in 1735, when a jury — just barely — acquitted newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger of libel charges against New York’s colonial governor. It did so on grounds that truth is a defense to seditious libel. Cato’s Letters had argued this a decade prior in Britain, and the American colonists loved Cato’s Letters.
Another moment followed in 1737, when Benjamin Franklin published an article, “On Freedom of Speech and the Press”, in which he advocated for free speech as a pillar of a free government. But Franklin later succumbed to Milton’s Curse, by not always practicing what he preached. In 1758 he defended legislative privilege against William Moore and William Smith, who were jailed by a Quaker-dominated assembly for criticism of the military policy in a Quaker-run colony. They were found guilty of scandalous libel against the House, government, and constitution of Pennsylvania. Smith’s publications were ordered to be burned and both he and Moore were denied bail or any writ of habeas corpus. Smith appealed his case in London, but Benjamin Franklin (the agent of Pennsylvania’s assembly in London) opposed him. As for why Benjamin Franklin would succumb to Milton’s Curse, Mchangama writes:
“The assemblies saw themselves as both the people’s representatives and defenders against the executive. Consequently, undermining the assemblies undermined the freedom of the people. The idea that the bulwark of liberty also had to protect the people from their own representatives had not yet clearly crystalized among American colonists. Independence was what forced Americans — finally free to regulated themselves — to consider where they should draw the line between collective and individual freedom.”
Eventually the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) broke out for the well-known reasons, during which time Americans formalized their freedoms into documents. The highlights:
— On July 4, 1776, Congress approved Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that liberty and the unalienable rights of man were self-evident truths — without saying exactly what those rights entailed. But several states were writing their own constitutions and bills of rights, and three of them (Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) protected freedom of speech, press, religion, or all three.
— On November 15, 1777, Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, and was ratified by all 13 states in 1781. They guarantee free speech and debate, but only to members of Congress (much like the English Bill of Rights from 1689, and in line with ancient Roman concept of libertas).
— On September 17, 1787, four years after the war was over, the Constitution was signed, but there was considerable debate over it, considering that free speech was barely mentioned in the document. The anti-Federalists pushed for a bill of rights while the Federalists opposed the idea. Anti-Federalist publications were already being stopped from wider circulation by the postmaster general, hinting that the Federalists could well be on the road to becoming the new royalists. Mchangama writes:
“You might say that the Anti-Federalists favored an egalitarian model of free speech — along the lines of the Levellers — with roots in the Athenian concepts of isegoria and parrhesia, while the Federalists favored a more narrow and elitist conception of free speech with roots in the Roman republican ideal of libertas.”
— On December 15, 1791 the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) was ratified. James Madison fused the idea of Athenian egalitarian free speech with Cato’s Roman assertion that free speech is the bulwark of liberty. That ultra-watershed moment was almost exactly 230 years ago as I write this today. It had taken over 2000 years for the Athenian ideal to become resurrected and codified in law. It would take only 7 years to be dangerously undermined by its own architects. We’ll see that in the next chapter.
Chapter 7: Revolution and Reaction
Meanwhile the French were fighting for their own constitution and bill of rights, in the wake of Louis XVI trying to push through a uniform land tax (even for the nobles and clergy who used to be exempt). On June 17, 1789, the Estates General was converted into the National Assembly, claiming sovereignty over France, and the French Revolution was under way. Feudalism was abolished, and the state assumed control over the Catholic Church in France.
On August 26, 1789, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man — a landmark document drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette. It protected freedom of expression, religion, and equality before the law, though all with huge caveats. These rights didn’t extend to women or gays (despite passionate arguments from radicals like the Marquis de Condorcet), though blacks got a fair deal. Lafayette had proposed a draft with no limits on free speech based on what America was doing, but ultimately an “abuse clause” was added in that all but guaranteed Milton’s Curse would rear its ugly head.
The most passionate crusaders for free speech were the radicals known as the Jacobins (the most influential political club during the Revolution), but in the end they fell under Luther’s Trap, let alone Milton’s Curse. At first (in 1791) they insisted that only actions, not words, could constitute sedition. Maximilien Robespierre was the lead Jacobin, who played an important part in causing the fall of the French monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention. Soon he was leading the Reign of Terror (that went from September 5, 1793 to July 27, 1794), executing royal sympathizers, and revoking the freedom of religion he had earlier espoused. 25,000 clergy were deported or emigrated, and 10,000 priests were killed in the Jacobin Terror. In a speech in February of 1794, Robespierre stressed the need to terrorize “the enemies of liberty”. The man who had been a proto-libertarian in 1791 had fallen irredeemably into Luther’s Trap. Not surprisingly, he was executed without trial by a conspiracy of deputies in the summer of 1794.
Thanks to the Reign of Terror, the landmark achievements of the French Revolution were rolled back, and the Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen were revised with the new Constitution of 1795. The document was far more conservative and completely removed freedom of speech.
Not surprisingly, the French experiment caused Enlightened rulers elsewhere to realize that the ideas they had allowed to cultivate in their realms could bite them in the ass. Only a year after the French Revolution ignited in 1789, Russian author Alexander Radishchev published a book that criticized the social and political landscape of Russia under Catherine the Great (1729-1796). Back in 1767 Catherine had instructed the Commission on Laws to create a new legal code with government reforms based on liberal humanitarian political theories — that “all men should be considered equal before the law”, “the law should protect and not oppress the people”, etc. She loved Voltaire and Diderot and took inspiration from their ideas about free speech. Now, in 1790, she moved away from that liberal stance and instructed newspapers to avoid any potentially offensive news about the Russian court, Russia’s allies, and the royal families of Europe. Radishchev’s book was banned and he was exiled to Siberia. She also banned the complete works of Voltaire, with whom she had enjoyed so many correspondences.
Catherine the Great, in other words, was yet another who succumbed to Milton’s Curse, but quite notably as a monarch who spun 180 degrees. As Mchangama says:
“Catherine had been the first ruler in Russian history to champion freedom of speech and the press. She was now also the first ruler in Russian history to erect an official and systematic regime of censorship.”
The French Revolution had serious impact in Britain, not least with Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Paine had helped inspire the patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain, authoring Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776–1783). He also fully supported the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, against those like Edmund Burke who decried the Declaration as a “digest of anarchy”. In 1791 Paine blasted Burke in his Rights of Man, defending unconditional free speech and calling the idea of hereditary legislators as absurd as hereditary mathematicians. His ideas went viral, leading Prime Minister William Pitt to strike back viciously at Paine, with a royal proclamation from George III against seditious writings in 1792 — aimed mostly at Paine, but quickly spiraling into a Reign of Terror in Britain: a crusade of mass spying and informing which resulted in the largest number of trials for sedition and treason in British history. Bookshops selling Paine’s Rights of Man were harassed by police, and often arrested, prosecuted, fined, or imprisoned.
In 1793 Paine was officially charged with treason and fled to France, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He was elected to the French National Convention and became allied with the Girondins, while the Montagnards (especially Maximilien Robespierre) saw him as an enemy. He wrote The Age of Reason (in two parts, 1973 and 1795), this time assaulting another pillar of British society, Christianity. He panned the Bible as a useless document teaching rape, cruelty, and murder. No other book has been so frequently prosecuted for blasphemy in England.
Although Pitt’s Reign of Terror (1792-1798) was nothing like France’s shorter Reign of Terror (1793-1794), and though it permitted more dissent than in a place like Russia, it still amounted to a systematic campaign that made any British commitment to free speech seem empty.
You might think that the one place citizens didn’t have to worry about this stuff was in America. The Constitution had been signed (in 1787), and free speech enshrined in the First Amendment (in 1791). But believe it or not, a question mark hung over America’s commitment to free speech around this time. John Adams served as the second U.S. president from 1797-1801, and the events in France had polarized an already divided political landscape. On the one hand, the Federalists (like Washington, Hamilton, and Adams) favored a strong central government, were pro-British, and were increasingly worried that France’s Reign of Terror would infect America. On the other hand, the Democratic-Republicans (like Jefferson and Madison) saw danger in further centralizing the powers of the federal government and had loads of sympathies for the French.
It is to George Washington’s immense credit that as a Federalist president he had been willing to preside over the Bill of Rights in 1791. His Federalist successor John Adams was far less admirable and allowed his true colors to take over. When Republican newspapers started blasting Federalists as closet-royalists intent on reestablishing the monarchy, Federalist newspapers countered that the Republicans were a bunch of treasonous “American Jacobins”, preparing for the ground for an impending French invasion. [The background to that: In late 1796 French privateers began seizing American ships trading with the British, in response to the U.S. having failed to defend France against Britain and the Dutch Republic in the War of the First Coalition (1792-97). The French insisted that the Treaty of Alliance (1778) obligated America to come to their aid, but Congress didn’t see it that way.] Then, in July 1798, Congress passed the infamous Sedition Act, which Adams enthusiastically signed. This document made it a crime to
“write, print, utter, or publish any false, scandalous and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either house of Congress, or the President of the United States, with the intent to defame, or to bring them into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them the hatred of the good people of the United States.”
In other words, it was now a crime to simply criticize the president, Congress, or the federal government, whether by speech or press. Not even a decade after passing the First Amendment! Says Mchangama:
“A mere seven years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment’s promise that ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’, Congress had done just that. The Sedition Act paved the way for the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists, editors, and politicians, including a sitting congressman, engaging in political speech and satire — just as the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia had predicted eleven years earlier.” (p 196)
Federalists defended this gross betrayal of the Constitution by reverting to the way of things in Britain. Free speech once again meant protection against prior restraints, but once the words were spoken or written, people could be held to account and punished. The Democratic-Republicans were obviously aghast at this return to the English system they had just revolted against. The whole point of the First Amendment was to make free speech absolute; otherwise it was toothless.
The Virginia lawyer George Hay protested the Sedition Act, arguing that vile speech, though evil, was less an evil than the evil resulting from any law to restrain it. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, like Hay, argued forcefully that toxic speech and journalism could be dangerous, but that governmental punishment of what it deemed toxic was far more dangerous.
The consequences of the Sedition Act weren’t as bad as either (1) the Reign of Terror in France, (2) the crackdowns in Russia, or (3) Pitt’s anti-Paine crusade in Britain. They were bad nonetheless: there were 51 cases prosecuted under the Sedition Act (affecting 126 defendants), including 14 newspaper editors and various politicians. Some went to prison, and some newspapers had to fold. One man was fined and jailed just for making a joke about John Adam’s assbone.
And if George Washington had admirably kept his Federalist biases in check when he was president, he was now (in 1799) vocally supporting Secretary of State Timothy Pickering’s attempts to indict journalists and other “seditionists”. As Mchangama says, “The man who had led a revolutionary army against the tyranny of England’s King George now sounded like an American echo of King George’s Prime Minister Pitt.” Washington had succumbed to Milton’s Curse.
The good news was that the Federalists were utterly trounced in the elections of 1800, and under a Democratic-Republican Congress, and Democratic-Republican President Thomas Jefferson, the Sedition Act was allowed to expire in March 1801. The Federalists had tried to crush the Democratic-Republican party, but instead it had multiplied it.
America vs. France
It’s worth pausing to reflect on the differences between France after 1789 and in America after 1798. Mchangama suggests they have less to do with the precise wording of their declarations/constitutions (as some historians have suggested), and more with a nation’s commitment to sticking to that wording. The French were used to centuries of monarchical absolutism, and they had negligible experience to draw on when suddenly thrown into a public sphere of free expression. And with the collapse of the Old Regime, they had no natural seat of authority to keep things on track. Under these conditions the principle of free speech became weaponized by warring factions, who had no concept of how to “live and let live” with political foes. Of course, it didn’t help that the Declaration of Rights allowed for punishing the “abuse” of free speech (without defining the meaning of that), but even assuming the Declaration had been as pure and uncompromising as the American Bill of Rights, I doubt the French could have remained committed to that purity.
Americans in 1798, on the other hand, had so internalized the idea of dissent and free speech after long years of fighting the British. They were thoroughly used to a public sphere where views clashed, arguments were heated, and newspapers didn’t hold back their fire. That’s why the Sedition Act backfired on the American government so spectacularly, whereas the Reign of Terror brought a crushing end to the free speech experiment in France. It’s true that the wording of the First Amendment is uncompromising, but words don’t defend themselves. People do. And people certainly did against President John Adams.
I’ll cover the rest of Mchangama’s book in due course, but for now let’s list the heroes, quasi-heroes, and pseudo-heroes of free speech we’ve seen so far. The quasi-heroes are those who made important contributions to free speech but either later, or ultimately, fell into Milton’s Curse. The pseudo-heroes fell outright into Luther’s Trap, all but effacing their positive accomplishments.
The heroes of free speech
Cato the Younger
John Lilburne, Richard Overton, & William Wayne (The Levellers)
John Trenchard & Thomas Gordon
Johann Friedrich Struensee
Thomas Jefferson & James Madison
Catherine the Great