“The Liberty of the Press”: The French Revolution Debate to Present by Hanna Warsame

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The Reign of Terror ignited a widespread moral debate on both sides of the English Channel, at the same time creating a ripple effect of meta-discourse on the value and influence of the printing press on the public sphere. In response to legislation in England designed to limit the writings of revolutionary sympathizers, William Godwin exclaimed:

The liberty of the press! If anything human is to be approached with awe, it is this […] The press [is] that great engine for raising men to the dignity of gods, for expanding [the] human understanding, for annihilating, by the most gentle and salubrious methods, all the arts of oppression… (229, 231)

While an expression such as “free speech” might have added political associations in the modern day, Godwin’s argument for “the liberty of the press” is far less anachronistic, making the debates concerning print culture in the long eighteenth-century relevant for today.

In particular, post-revolutionary discourse may help us navigate the current social and political discussions centered on human rights in the United States. The Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd opened up a series of clashes between police and protesters that made people reflect on similar instances of oppression and violence witnessed in history, such as that of the Arab Spring, and farther back, the French Revolution itself (Serhan).

According to the Helsinki Commission, there have been “nearly 500 reported press violations since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests [on] May 26.” As Yasmeen Serhan states in The Atlantic, these attacks and arrests made by police have made it clear that those “who identified themselves as members of the press” were being targeted. Much like revolutions and protests of the past, journalists were arrested at a much higher rate than usual – six times as many, in fact – in an effort by authorities to limit and control the media landscape (Serhan).

The similarities in public violence are glaring in the case of the French Revolution. While Godwin formed his arguments regarding press freedom in 1795, it was only one year earlier that the famous Treason Trials were taking place in judicial courtrooms. Thomas Paine was perhaps the most memorable victim of these trials designed to imbue punishment on reformist writers in England. Paine was one among many Jacobins under “intensified criminal surveillance” by the government, who intended to “curb the circulation [of] political texts” and deter revolutionary sympathizers from creating further publications (Keen 197). The English government finally attempted to convict Paine, whose famous text Rights of Man was written as a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The Treason Trials followed the publication of Paine’s second book and Paine’s subsequent escape to France.

Thomas Erskine, who acted as the leading defendant in the trials, argued that Paine’s book was “addressed to the intellectual world upon so profound and complicated a subject,” that it was incapable of deserving the accused charges of sedition and libel (32). However, prosecutor Sir Archibauld Macdonald proposed that the text preyed on “the ignorant” and “the desperate,” who were altogether vulnerable to “[the anarchist] doctrine that there is neither law nor government among us,” (32).

The Treason Trials of 1794 marked a distinct moment in history where a democratic government chose to target and punish members of the press for their political, anti-authoritian views. While the English government were unsuccessful in their attempt to convict Paine, the arguments presented by the prosecution, concerning the power of the printing press to influence the reading public, was a view shared by both reformists and conservatives alike. Burke repudiated the printing press as a whole for its role in guiding English citizens towards support of the French Revolution, when he warned that “writers, especially when they act in a body, and with one direction, have great influence on the public mind,” (202). Perhaps this is what too caused the police officers in the United States to choose members of the press, out of any other group, as a target during the Black Lives Matter protests. Limiting the public’s access to knowledge is almost a priority for figures of authority who knowingly break the law. At the Helsinki Commission hearing on U.S. Press Freedom, journalist Christiane Amanpour testified to this extent when she stated that “the polarized political climate [has] forced elements of the media in the United States into political corners, and this undermines trust and the ability of the press to inform the public,” (17:31).

Where does the notion that the press is both precarious and overpowering originate? It may be argued that it was the language of the Jacobins themselves that augmented the conservative belief concerning the dangers arising from political discussion. For instance, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, William Godwin stated that literature is the means of obtaining truth, through “the collision of mind with mind” (4). For Godwin, it was a virtue of literature that it “failed to produce universal conviction,” but rather created “irrefragable argument,” (4). Godwin’s early emphasis on the “collision” of ideas and arguments necessary for meaningful discussion paired well with William Hazlitt’s later view concerning the power of the press. Hazlitt argued that the reading public became the engine for extracting justice for the oppressed, in a manner that aimed to remain both “impartial and disinterested,” (23). Thus when the misconduct of a nobleman was brought to light, “he could no more stand against [public opinion] than against a train of artillery placed on the opposite heights to batter down his stronghold,” (Hazlitt 24).

These descriptions of literature and the reading public advanced, whether intentionally or not, an active and violent connotation of what may lie at the end of intellectual discourse and discussion. Consequently, these terminologies of political action provided the fuel for conservatives and anti-Jacobins in England who traced the source of revolutionary fervor, as well as the blame of extremist acts – such as riots, massacres, and attacks on the Crown – to the printing press itself.

Anti-revolutionaries therefore emphasized wherever they could that reformists were not interested in the exchange of ideas, but rather the instilling of violence. This is a matter we still see introduced and debated today when it comes to revolutions, although in its modern reconstruction: protesters are deemed as only interested in creating chaos, not merely calling for change. While it was possible for writers such as Burke in the late eighteenth-century to convince the general public on the flaws of the revolutionaries, this reasoning lead to the censorship and punishment of writers themselves, which transformed the debate from an issue of intellectualism to one concerning human rights. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, regarding restrictions on press freedom in France, “if you establish a censorship of the press, the tongue of the public speaker will still make itself heard,” (213). In other words, the censorship of the press was neither the moral nor the logical answer to those who found that their dogma was in opposition to leading reformists.

Today, creating an honest depiction of Democrats and Republicans in media and in print is as much of a difficulty as it was in the past to navigate the contrasting views of conservatives and reformists in the English public sphere. In Reflections on the Revolutions in France, Edmund Burke lamented the deaths of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, to which Thomas Paine famously responded that “Mr. Burke should recollect that he is writing History, and not Plays,” (206). Paine responded in such a manner to restate the point that Mary Wollstonecraft had made previously, that Burke’s excessive sentimentalism for the royal family was inappropriate at best (204). Paine’s emphasis on Burke’s failure to sympathize with those who had been imprisoned in the Bastille (206), in the same way that he sympathized with the nobility, is an appropriate criticism that can be applied to the modern day – it is indeed reminiscent of the victimization of police by partisan media during the Black Lives Matter protests. In contrast to the growing narrative in support of police, Matt Ford reported in June that,

Police officers have largely responded violently, with abusive and authoritarian tactics. Social media networks are flooded with footage and accounts of cops shoving elderly pedestrians and innocent bystanders into pavement, bludgeoning journalists or pelting them with rubber bullets, and dispersing lawful crowds with tear gas and overwhelming force. (The New Republic)

Despite the blatant misconduct and violence attributed to the police, certain media programs began shifting the optics: American protesters had, like those in the French Revolution, gone too far, and the oppressors of freedom began to become the victims themselves. “If we’re going to speak of rioting protesters,” argued Jamelle Bouie in The New York Times, “then we need to speak of rioting police as well.” For Bouie, the escalating violence from both groups was quintessentially symbolic of a much larger ideology: the “constant battle over who truly counts – who can act as a full and equal member of this society – and who does not.”

Thus with every revolution follows the eternal, enigmatic question: what are the limits of morality? The power of the printing press inspired Romantic writers to respond with ideas that were nonetheless dependent on historical and political contexts. Social inequality and economic instability are the paradigms of both past and present revolutionary times. The backdrop of centuries of systemic racism is an added issue that heightened the emotions reverberating through this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, and which helps to distinguish the cultural divide between the post-revolutionary debates of the eighteenth-century and the modern day. However, beyond the boundaries of historicism, it is the universality of oppression, the devaluation of human rights, and violent authoritarianism that are all implicit in the conversations that take place in both public spheres. How does one navigate the conundrums of right and wrong, particularly in an environment where strains are placed on one’s access to political knowledge and the intellectual discussions surrounding it?

Alexis de Tocqueville argued for an ideal: that “every citizen must be presumed to possess the power of discriminating between the different opinions of his contemporaries, and of appreciating the different facts from which inferences may be drawn,” (213). However, for Tocqueville, there was also a danger in “radical equality,” which was vulnerable to refashioning the cause of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité into an excessive form of individuality that distanced itself from the collective community (Wood).

It seems that Tocqueville’s concerns were anticipated by the English conservatives of the eighteenth century, nearly fifty years prior; particularly by Whig members of Parliament. However, for the reformists, “radical equality” was not the most pressing concern. It was only after the liberty of the press was established that there could be room for universal principles to start to form. Thomas Paine reflected these sentiments when he wrote to a critic that, “it is a dangerous attempt in any government to say to a nation, ‘thou shalt not read,’” (210).

For current times, a methodological approach resembling that of the English Jacobins and French revolutionaries is an undervalued form of political resistance, just as it was in the late eighteenth-century. Paine outlined the sources of opposition toward injustices made by the English government, highlighting issues such as disparities in education, the economy, and the class system under a monarchical government (211). In his view, the oppression faced by both the English and French alike could be challenged through rational arguments and, as Godwin might say, “the diffusion of knowledge through the medium of discussion,” – or, in other words – through literature itself (3).

“From what we now see, nothing of reform in the political world ought to be held improbable,” Thomas Paine wrote, in Rights of Man (206). “It is an age of Revolutions, in which every thing may be looked for.”

Works Cited

Bouie, Jamelle. “The Police Are Rioting. We Need to Talk About It.” The New York Times, 07 June 2020, nytimes.com/2020/06/05/opinion/sunday/police-riots.html.

Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (1790).” Keen, pp. 199-202.

Erskine, Thomas. “Speech as Prosecution in the Seditious-Libel Trial of Thomas Paine for Rights of Man Part Two (1792).” Keen, pp. 32-33.

Ford, Matt. “The Police Were a Mistake.” The New Republic, 02 June 2020, newrepublic.com/article/157978/police-violence-george-floyd-constitution.

Godwin, William. “An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793).” Keen, pp. 3-5.

—. “Considerations on Lord Grenville’s and Mr. Pitt’s Bills, Concerning Treasonable and Seditious Practices, and Unlawful Assemblies (1795).” Keen, pp. 227-32.

Hazlitt, William. “The Influence of Books (1828).” Keen, pp. 23-4.

Keen, Paul, editor. Revolutions in Romantic Literature: An Anthology of Print Culture, 1780-1832, Broadview Press, 2004.

Macdonald, Sir Archibauld. “Speech as Prosecution in the Seditious-Libel Trial of Thomas Williams for Publishing Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine (1797).” Keen, pp. 32.

Paine, Thomas. “Letter Addressed to the Addressers on the Late Proclamation (1792).” Keen, pp. 209-10.

—. “Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution (1791-1792).” Keen, pp. 205-7.

Serhan, Yasmeen. “The ‘Absurd’ New Reality of Reporting From the U.S.” The Atlantic, 19 June 2020, theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/06/journalists-united-states-press-freedom/613120/.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America (1835), edited by Henry Reeves, Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2006.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. “Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).” Keen, pp. 203-5.

Wood, James. “Tocqueville in America.” The New Yorker, 17 May 2010, newyorker.com/magazine/2010/05/17/tocqueville-in-america.

“Christiane Amanpour to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing on Press Freedom in the United States.” Helsinki Commission, 16 July 2020, csce.gov/international-impact/press-and-media/press-releases/christiane-amanpour-testify-helsinki-commission.

“Hearing: Human Rights at Home: Media, Politics, and the Safety of Journalists.” Youtube, uploaded by Helsinki Commission, 23 July 2020, youtube.com/watch?v=hC_tgX8S4p0.