Jefferson and the artillery of the Press

Libel vs. Free Speech

The Jefferson statement concerning the artillery of the press originated in the president’s second inaugural address.

Jefferson devoted a good deal of his second inaugural address to championing a strong freedom of the press but also lamented the corrosive effects of a libelous press on the workings of liberty and government. The president asserted that what we call today fake news, outright lies, and conspiracy theories, act on our institutions to “lessen its usefulness and to sap its safety”.

Thomas Jefferson is remembered as a staunch supporter of a strong free press. In commenting on the First Amendment he said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”.

Indeed, the Federalist newspapers of the day hurled regular barbs concerning the president’s character and painted his dealings in the most negative light. Today’s mythical Thomas Jefferson has caused many of us to forget that he was also a top-flight politician with sharp elbows. Jefferson once said, years before the Constitution was ratified, that if he had to choose between free newspapers and government, he would take newspapers. It appears that he viewed free speech differently after completing his first term as President.

Connecticut was Federalist country. It was one of two states that yielded no electoral votes for the president in his second term reelection. A handful of federal libel cases against Federalist newspapers, known as the “Connecticut Libels”, arose at the start of Jefferson’s second term.

Jefferson has provided us a wealth of statements supporting small government and warning against concentrating power in a large federal government. Jefferson proved to be a pragmatic chief executive. He did not let his belief in a limiting federal power stop him from making the Louisiana Purchase that paved the way for a transcontinental United States.

Jefferson had been on record opposing federal involvement in a great number of state issues, including federal libel and sedition laws. Indeed one of the issues he ran against in his first presidential election was his disdain for the Federalist passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

American libel and sedition laws in Jefferson’s time were drawn from English law. The British considered it illegal and libelous to criticize the government. These kinds of libel suits against newspapers became infrequent by the 1900’s as American law has considered them protected by the First Amendment.

Jefferson pleaded ignorance about being aware of the “Connecticut Libels” cases, but his correspondence of the day proves not only his awareness but his encouragement of these federal prosecutions. Connecticut was so thoroughly Federalist that the president had no surrogates in that state government that could prosecute libel and sedition on his behalf. He would have to use the federal courts to quiet his opposition.

There were several libel cases brought against Connecticut newspapers, but the case against Rev. Azel Backus in particular caused Jefferson to intervene for dismissal. From his pulpit, the Rev. Backus charged Jefferson with being a liar and debaucher. I will not even detail the other charges made, but they were strong words to say the least.

One of the charges Rev. Backus leveled concerned an old story that Jefferson had an affair many years in the past with Betsy Walker, the wife of a close friend, John Walker. The defense lawyers for Rev. Backus were ready to call several prominent Virginia men as witnesses to testify about the long-finished affair. These included James Madison and John Walker, who was now a Federalist. It was no surprise that Jefferson used his influence to dismiss the Rev. Backus case, which was in federal court.

The Connecticut libel cases demonstrated the pragmatic and rough and tumble partisan politician side of Jefferson. That side of him that had no qualms shelving principle for political convenience. Our third president also had a talent for keeping his reputation untarnished at the same time. Talented indeed.

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