First Federal Judge 1799

Liberty of Speech, and of The Press.

A CHARGE to the GRAND JURIES of the COUNTY COURTS of the Fifth Circuit of the State of Pennsylvania.

By ALEXANDER ADDISON*, President of those Courts.

(*Alexander Addison was the first Federal Judge appointed to the position of president judge of the Fifth Judicial of Pennsylvania.)


IT is of the utmost importance to a free people, that the just limits of their rights be well ascertained and preserved: for liberty without limits is licentiousness; and licentiousness is the worst kind of tyranny, a tyranny of all.–To preserve ourselves against this, and maintain true liberty, a line must be drawn between the rights of each; so well marked, as that it be known by all, and so well guarded, as that it cannot be passed by any with impunity. Thus every man will be free; for every man may exercise his rights to the extent of their just limits, and cannot go beyond those limits and encroach on the rights of others. My right to enjoy implies that no man shall disturb my enjoyment. And it is no restraint on my liberty, that in the exercise of my rights, I am restrained from in fringing the rights of others. The rule is, So use your own rights as not to injure those of others. Invasion of the rights of others is tyranny, and if this invasion may be made by every one, it is tyranny of the worst kind, for in proportion to the number of oppressors will be the desire and opportunity of oppression. The true friend of liberty, therefore, is he who will set such strong limits round the rights of every man, that, in the exercise of them no man can interrupt the rights of any other. And they are not friends of liberty, but promoters of licentiousness, tyranny, and oppression, who contend, that every man ought to have an unlimited exercise of his own rights, without any regard to the rights of others. I can have no right to injure the rights of another; and if I claim this, I am a tyrant and oppressor.

Reputation, character, good name or opinion is a kind of property or possession, which every man, who has honestly acquired it, has a right to enjoy*. Like any other possession or property, it cannot be taken away from us, but by our own acts. The man who invades the reputation invades the right of another. And not only individuals, but more especially men in public station, branches or departments of the government, the whole administration, and the principles, constitution, or system of government, and the principles or system of public religion and morals, have a right, for the sake of the benefits we receive from them, to reputation, good name and opinion; and the invasion of the reputation of either of those, is an invasion of right, a lessening of our comfort, and motives to duty.

But Man is indued with faculties of communicating sentiments, of investigating principles, and of forming opinions and judgments. The exercise of those faculties is a source of pleasure and instruction. A knowledge, and a just judgment of principles, of facts, and of characters, may be useful for the improvement of our minds, and the regulation of our conduct. The exercise of those faculties of opinion, reasoning, judgment, and communication is part of our natural rights†. But the principles of liberty require, that this right, like all other rights, be limited, so that it never infringe the right of reputation. It must not represent a solemn truth or exercise of religion, as false or ridicuulous, an established and useful principle or form of our government as odious and detestable; a regular or salutary act or motive of the administration as unlawful, pernicious, or dishonest; or an upright man as corrupt. For this would be exercising our right of opinion or communication, so as to infringe the right of reputation, and be violating the principles of liberty and natural right.

The principles of liberty, therefore, the rights of Man, require, that our right of communicating information, as to facts and opinions, be so restrained, as not to infringe the right of reputation. Unless it be so restrained, there is no liberty; for there is no just enjoyment of our rights. And if every man’s right of communication be unrestrained, every man’s right of reputation is unguarded; and there is, in this respect, universal licentiousness, and each man is at the mercy of every man; the most precarious and oppressive of all states. Therefore the freest governments, which have the most regarded and cultivated the principles of liberty, as they have so described and limited other rights, that none should infringe any other, have been careful so to define and limit the rights of reputation, and of communication of sentiments, that the right of either should not infringe that of the other.

We communicate our sentiments by words spoken, written, or printed, or by pictures or other signs. The restraints laid on the exercise of this right, so as it may not infringe the right of reputation, differ, according to the way in which the right of communication is exercised. If the right of reputation of a private citizen be infringed by words spoken, no indictment will lie for this injury, which is only a ground for a civil action to recover damages.–“In foro conscientić,” says a learned Author, before the tribunal of conscience, “it is no excuse, that the slanderous words are true; for if a man have been guilty of any thing which the law prohibits, he is liable to answer for it, in a legal way; but it can answer no good purpose for a private person to accuse him thereof; there is a degree of cruelty in so doing, and it must create ill blood. Yet the law does, in compassion to man’s infirmities, allow it to be a justification in an action, for words spoken, that they are true‡.” But when slanderous words are spoken of the constitution, or administration, or any of its acts or officers, they are ground for an indictment; as a misdemeanour, or breach of the duty of a citizen§. The reason of this is evident: for, as for an injury affecting an individual, the remedy is by action, so for an injury affecting the public, the remedy is by indictment.

With respect to Libels, or slander expressed by words written or printed, or by pictures or other signs, and infringing the right of reputation; “they have,” says the same Author, “at all times, and with good reason, been punished in a more exemplary manner than slanderous words: for having a greater tendency to provoke men to breaches of the peace, quarrels and murders, they are of much more dangerous consequence to society. Words which are frequently the effect of a sudden gust of passion may soon be buried in oblivion. But Libels, besides that the Author is actuated by more deliberate malice, are for the most part so lasting, as to be scarce ever forgiven.”∥ For this reason, a libel affecting the reputation of even a private citizen, is restrained by being considered as a public offence, and subject to an indictment. {Omitted text, 1w} whether, on the trial of such indictment, the truth of the libel may be given in evidence, will depend on the nature of the libel.

Justice Blackstone* defines libels, “taken in their largest sense, to be writings, pictures or the like of an immoral or illegal tendency, and in a more particular sense, any malicious defamations of any person, and especially a magistrate, made public by either printing writing, signs, or pictures, in order to provoke him to wrath or expose him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. It is immaterial, with respect to the essence of a libel, whether the matter of it be true or false; since the provocation, and not the falsity, is the thing to be punished criminally. Therefore in a criminal prosecution, the tendency, which all libels have to create animosities, and to disturb the public peace, is the whole that the law considers¶.

The constitution of our state provides, “That the Printing presses shall be free to every person who undertakes to examine the proceedings of the legislature, or any branch of government:–and no law shall ever be made to restrain the right thereof. The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print in any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty. In prosecutions for the publication of papers investigating the official conduct of officers, or men in a public capacity, or where the matter published is proper for public information, the truth thereof may be given in evidence.–And in all indictments for libels, the jury shall have a right to determine the law and the facts, under the direction of the court, as in other cases*.”

From this statement of the law respecting libels, the following deductions seem evident.

  1. This right of free communication of thoughts and opinions is, like all other rights, limited by responsibility for its abuse; and laws to punish its abuse, are not, in a constitutional or just sense, restraints on the liberty of the press.
  2. The general rule is, that, in indictments for libels, truth cannot be given in evidence.
  3. This rule is excluded only from the cases mentioned in this section of the constitution, and remains yet applicable to all other cases.
  4. It is only in so far as the paper charged as a libel investigates the official conduct of officers, or men in a public capacity, or where the matter published is proper for public information, that the truth thereof can be given in evidence. In all other cases, truth is no justification; for it is the provocation which constitutes the offence.
  5. As grand juries hear evidence only in behalf of the prosecution, and in indictments for libels, as in other cases, the jury determine the law and the facts under the direction of the court (that is, conforming to this direction in point of law, have a right to give a general verdict) the grand jury, generally speaking, cannot ascertain whether the libellous matter be true or not; but, if the making or publishing of the libel be proved, they will find the bill, and on the trial before the traverse jury, the court will direct, whether evidence of the truth be admissible or not, and whether the matter be libellous or not; and, under the direction of the court, the traverse jury will determine the law and the facts. If a traverse jury should determine that a paper is a libel, which is not, and convict a man who has committed no offence, the court has a control over their verdict, by granting a new trial, or arresting judgment. But if the jury determine that a libel is no libel, and acquit a man really guilty of an offence, the court has no control over this verdict: for a man acquitted of a criminal charge, can never be tried again on the same charge.
    Such seems to be the state of the right of communication of thoughts and opinions, according to the law of Pennsylvania. Any thing may be spoken in terms of decency proper to the subject, of the government, an officer, or an individual, provided the speaker can prove it to be true. But all truths are not useful or proper for publication, therefore all truths are not to be written, printed, and so uttered or published. And therefore, except in the case of papers investigating the official conduct of officers, or men in a public capacity, or where the matter published is proper for public information, if any man write, print, utter, or publish a libel, he may be indicted, convicted, and punished, whether the libellous matter be true or not.

Congress, in its last session, has passed a law†, enacting, that if any persons shall unlawfully combine together, with intent to oppose any measure of the government of the United States, o? impede the operation of any law of the United States, or to prevent any person holding any office under the government of the United States from performing his duty; or shall, with such {Omitted text, 1w} , advise or attempt to procure any {Omitted text, 1w} , riot, unlawful assembly or combination; {Omitted text, 1w} shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and be punished by a fine, not exceeding five thousand dollars, and by imprisonment, so not less than six months, nor more than five years; and may further be holden to sureties for good behaviour. And it further enacts, that if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly aid in writing, printing, uttering, or publishing, 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 intent to defame the said Government, or either House of Congress, or the President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them or either of them, the hatred of the people of the United States; or to excite unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers vested in him by the Constitution of the United States; or to oppose or defeat any such law or acts; or to aid, encourage, or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government;–such person shall be punished by a fine, not exceeding two thousand dollars, and imprisonment, not exceeding two years.

This act, which seems to be best known by the name of the Sedition Bill, provides, “That if any person shall be prosecuted under it, for writing or publishing any libel, it shall be lawful for him, on the trial of the cause, to give in evidence, in his defence, the truth of the matter contained in the publication, charged as a libel. And the jury who shall try the cause shall have a right to determine the law and the fact, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.” This clause, clearly borrowed from the section already quoted of the constitution of Pennsylvania, confirms, so far as concurrent expressions of different persons on the same subject can, the construction which I put on that section, that the {Omitted text, 1w} for giving in evidence the truth of the liberous matter is at the trial of the cause by the traverse jury.

No law seems to have been resisted in Congress with more vehemence and passion, by those who opposed all the measures adopted as measures of defence against the hostile spirit of France. And, out of doors, it has been attacked with sullen rancour, as a death-wound to the progress of that detestable system of slander, which has been pursued with such malignant industry, and calamitous success, against every measure of the administration. And yet strange as it may seem, this law does not create any new offence; for every thing forbidden by it appears to me to have been, before, an offence at common law. The combinations and attempts therein forbidden are misdemeanors. Any writing of an immoral or illegal tendency is a libel.‡ And slanderous words spoken of the government or its acts or authority, are punishable by indictment.§

It may be said then, why was this law made? Several reasons may be given for it.

  1. It is no uncommon thing for a Legislature to make an act declaratory of the common law. At this time, it was peculiarly proper to make such an act, as a solemn admonition to wicked or unthinking men, to abstain from practices, which spread slanders and falsehood, foment divisions and seditions among the citizens, weaken the energy of the government, and thus rendering the nation defenceless, encourage France, by a prospect of impunity and success, to measures of aggression and hostility.
  2. A doubt had been suggested whether the Courts of the United States had cognizance of any offences not expressly declared by the Constitution, or some law or treaty of the United States.–I do not think this doubt well founded. The judicial power of the United States extends to all cases arising under the Constitution, the Laws, and the Treaties of the United State∥. Hence results a jurisdiction to try and punish, as misdemeanors, all acts tending to violate or weaken the authority of the Constitution, or of any act or measure of the Government of the United States. For it cannot be supposed, that such misdemeanors should pass unpunished, or that the government of the United States should be obliged to beg protection from the individual states. The doubt however existing, it might be thought proper to remove it.
  3. It might be thought proper to pass this law, in order to limit the extent of punishment which might be inflicted on the offender; and to give him the advantage of proving the truth of the libel in his defence.
    Whatever may have been the motive of making this law, it was opposed on two grounds: 1, as unconstitutional, and 2, as inexpedient.
  4. It was said to be unconstitutional, because the Constitution declares, that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,”¶ and more expressly, that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.*”
    The Constitution, like every other instrument, must be construed by taking the whole together. Among the powers which the Constitution delegates to Congress is a power “to make all laws, which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution all powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or any department or office thereof†.” It is evident, that the attempts and writings declared punishable by this law, have a direct tendency, differing only in degree from force, to prevent or obstruct the execution of the powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States. Therefore, a law declaring that such attempts and writings are punishable, is constitutional as necessary and proper for the execution of the powers of government.

If the clause of the Constitution which prohibits Congress from making 257 law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, is to be construed as prohibiting Congress from making any law declaring libels against the government, acts, or measures of the United States, to be punishable; then by the same construction of the constitution of Pennsylvania, which declares, that no law shall ever be made to restrain this right, the most false and malicious libels might be published against the government, acts, or measures of this State (and of course of the United States) and the Assembly would have no power to make any law, declaring such libels punishable; and thus absolute impunity for them would be established. This is a construction, too absurd to be received as true. Nor will it justify such construction of the Constitution of the United States to say, that it was intended by that Constitution, that the authority of passing laws against libels should be left to the individual States: for this would be supposing that the government of the United States must, unless the individual states choose to afford it, be with out defence against the most dangerous enemy that can attack it, slander; against which, if unrestrained, no government can support itself.–This, therefore, would only remove one absurdity by another, and some other construction of this clause of the Constitution must be sought for.

When the press was abused by being made a vehicle of slander, governments laid restraints on it. Books were to be printed only in certain places, only of a certain nature, and only by license of certain persons. In England, these restrictions were imposed first by the authority of the King, part of whose prerogative the regulations of printing was considered; then by the Star-Chamber, an organ of the executive authority; and in the time of the Commonwealth and after the Restoration, and after the Revolution, by the Parliament. The law restraining the liberty of the press expiring in 1694, was not renewed, and the press became free.‡ For freedom of the press consists in this, that any man may, without the consent of any other, print any book or writing whatever; being, in this, as in all other freedom of action, liable to punishment, if he injure an individual or the public.

For thus understanding the liberty of the press, I shall quote the respectable authority of Sir William Blackstone. “Where blasphemous, immoral, treasonable, schismatical, seditious, or scandalous libels are punished, the liberty of the press, properly understood, is by no means infringed or violated. The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state: but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every free man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public:

{Begin handwritten}105061{End handwritten}

  • Penn. Const. Art. ix. Sec. II.

† ib. Sec. 7.

‡ 4 Bac. Abr. 480.

§ ib.

∥ ib.

¶ 4 Comm 150, 1.

¶ Const. Art. ix. Sec. 7.

¶ 14 July, 1798.

¶ 4 Comm. 150.

¶ 4 Bac. 480.

¶ Const. Art. iii. Sec. 2.

¶ U. S. Const. add. Art. xii.

¶ Ib. Art. iii.

¶ U. S. Const. Art. i. Sec. 8.

¶ Hume’s England, App. James i. vol. 4. p. 318.–4 Comm. 151, 2.

{page image}

to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity. To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion and government. But to punish any dangerous or offensive writing, which, when published, shall, on a fair and impartial trial, be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundation of civil liberty. Thus the will of individuals is still left free; the abuse only of that free will is the subject of legal punishment.–Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry: liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating or making public of bad sentiments, destructive of the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects. A man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly to vend them as cordials.–And the only plausible argument heretofore used for the restraining of the freedom of the press, that it was necessary to prevent the daily abuse of it will entirely lose its force, when it is shewn (by a seasonable exertion of the laws) that the press cannot be abused to any bad purpose, without incurring a suitable punishment. So true will it be found, that no censure the licentiousness is to maintain the liberty of the press§.

Such is the liberty of the press which the people of the states of America, for its greater security, have made part of their fundamental law. In their state Constitutions, they provided, that their legislatures should not make any law restraining the liberty of the press, that is, should lay no previous restraints on the press; or as the Pennsylvania Constitution expresses it, that “every citizen may freely speak, write, and print, on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.∥” The same principle was afterwards adopted into the Federal Constitution; and the section establishing it there is to be construed in the same manner. So that the liberty of the press is precisely as stated by Sir William Blackstone, its being free from all previous restraints, but, as all other rights or liberties are, subject to correction for abuse.–On this liberty of the press in England, Parliament may, at any time impose previous restraints; but here a constitutional provision puts it out of the power of any legislature to do so.

This law then is no abridgment of the freedom of speech, or of the press, and is therefore no infringement of the Constitution. So far from this, that, as it makes no new offence, it is no alteration of the criminal code, only as it enlarges the bounds of defence, limits the punishment, and (if this be an alteration) gives express jurisdiction to the federal courts. It is not injurious either to the Constitution, or to the liberty of the press, but is intended and adapted for the support of both: for it cannot be too often repeated, that “to censure the licentiousness is to maintain the liberty of the press.”

To restrain the abuse of my right, or such an exercise of it as shall encroach on a right of another, is no restraint or abridgment of my right: for I can have no right to lessen the right of another. And to claim such an unlimited use of my right, as to encroach on the right of another is to claim, not liberty, but tyranny; not right, but oppression. “I may freely speak, write, and print, on any subject;” but “I am responsible for the abuse of this liberty.” Unless I may speak, write and print, my right will not be sufficiently secured; and unless I be responsible for the abuse of this liberty, the rights of others, the rights of others would not be sufficiently secured–Therefore to secure all, and establish true liberty, I must be free to speak, write and print, but be also responsible for the abuse of that liberty. This is a sound principle, and applies to all rights whatever.–It applies to our right of action, as well as to our right of expressing our sentiments in every way. I may ride a horse, but I must not ride over a man. I may walk where I please, but not on my neighbour’s garden. I may use my cane, but not to strike any man I meet. Such is the liberty of speech or of the press. A law that any printing press should be locked up, and the key kept by a certain officer, or that no book should be printed without permission from a certain officer, would be a law abridging the liberty of the press. A law, that a man should not speak without permission, should speak only on certain subjects, or should have a gag put in his mouth, not to be taken out but by a certain officer, would be an abridgement of the freedom of speech, would be indeed a gagging law. But because the Constitution denies the legislature any power to make a law like this, or to make any law laying a previous restraint on speech or the press, to claim therefore a right, from the Constitution, to speak, write, or print sedition, impiety, blasphemy, or any falsehood, however gross, indecent, and dangerous, is claiming not liberty but licentiousness. Will any one say, that my right of freedom of speech entitles me to propagate with impunity any slander I please upon all my neighbours? What character would be safe, and what life would be free from misery, were this liberty of speech to be indulged? There is no such liberty. A liberty to destroy reputation would be as unjust, as a liberty to destroy life. Every man is free to speak, but he speaks at his peril, and is answerable for all he says, if it tend to the injury of another. It is not his opinion of its being proper or true, that will justify him.–When he utters it, he is answerable for its truth and propriety; and the opinion of a court or jury, not his opinion, must decide on its truth and propriety. Every repeater of the tale is, in like manner, answerable as the author. So of libels or written or printed slander, with this difference, that, as the provocation by them is more dangerous, they are less indulged; and, except in the case of matters proper for public information, the proceeding of government, and the official conduct of officers, or men in a public capacity, truth is no justification. Even in cases where truth is justification, the truth must be made out to the satisfaction of a jury.–That the libeller may have thought it true, though it may extenuate, will not justify the offence: for no man is to be judge in his own cause, and my opinion will not justify me in doing an injury to my neighbor, in his reputation, any more than in his person or property. Every man, therefore, writes and prints, as he speaks, at his peril; and the publisher of a libel is answerable, in like manner’s the author. And both are answerable, as in any other offence, to the judgment of a court {Omitted text, 1w} jury, by whose opinion, and not of the offender, must the guilt or the innocence of the action {Omitted text, 1w} determined. And such restriction, if I may {Omitted text, 1w} call it, or correction of the abuse, of freedom of speech and of the press, is not only perfectly consistent with the principles of civil liberty in general, and with the rules of our constitution: but is necessary for maintaining the genuine liberty of speech and the press. For, of all enemies to liberty, licentiousness is the greatest.

  1. I think the expediency of this law can be as clearly shewn, as its constitutionality: and, if so, there will be not only duty, but pleasure in the obedience we yield to it.
    Speech, writing, and printing are the great directors of public opinion, and the public opinion is the great director of human action. Of such force is public opinion, that, with it on {Omitted text, 1w} , the worst government will support itself; and, with it, against it, the best government will fall.–All governments are supported by {Omitted text, 1w} ; and, without it, can no government be supposed. What is the force in the power of any government, compared to that of the people governed by it, if the people choose to resist? {Omitted text, 1w} will they not choose to resist, if their opinion be set against the government, their {Omitted text, 1w} roused to enthusiasm, and an opportunity offered for success. And all this may be done by means of clubs, societies, and the press.–Give to say set of men the command of the press, and you give them the command of the country; for you give them the command of public opinion, which commands every thing. Let therefore, clubs, societies, and the printing presses attack any government, however free, and however strong, they will infallibly destroy it.

It will not be pretended that the old government of France was good, nor denied, that it needed reformation; but in so far as it possessed strength, and as it was supported by the prejudices of the people in its favor, it is a proper instance of what I have stated. The French revolution was accomplished by a gradual operation on public opinion. For many years before, the seeds of insurrection had been busily sown in the minds of the people. Clubs, and societies, under various names and pretexts, were established through the kingdom. The printing presses were occupied. Pamphlets and books were dispersed. New principles were broached, supported, and established. Under the sanction of philosophy and reason, all prejudices in favor of religion and government were gradually sapped, to make way for, liberty, equality, and the rights of man; fine words, which, as they were little understood, were the more admired. All were men; and priests and princes were no more. All respect for office ceased: and an insult to a bishop or a king was no more than an insult to an equal. Religion was but a state trick, and its author and ministers but imposters. Public opinion the great pillar of this, as of every other government being thus withdrawn, the mighty fabric of the monarchy, which, supported by public opinion, had stood the blasts of ages, was touched by a flight shock, and, in a moment crumbled to pieces.

What was the consequence? Not satisfied with reformation, public opinion, directed by clubs and the press, was employed to lead the nation to excess, anarchy, and slavery. The {Omitted text, 1w} succession of tyrants, which hath since ruled France was supported by public opinion, directed by clubs and the press, till it acquired an enormous armed force. When, disgusted by its cruel and unprincipled oppression, public opinion began to revolt, and the printing presses to speak against it; even this tyranny, with its vast armed force, felt that it could not resist public opinion, and, to silence it, shut up the presses; and now extorts, from an unhappy nation, a sullen and reluctant submission, by its armed force, and an enslaved press.

The same seeds of dissolution were sown in most of the governments of Europe, by the corruption of public opinion effected by a combination of clubs and the press. Many have fallen sacrifices. And nothing but the dreadful example, which the French revolution furnished, of the fatal danger of substituting abstract principles instead of the maxims of experience, could have preserved many other governments.

One would have thought, that the United States of America, blest with the best practicable model of republican liberty, which human wisdom hath yet been able to suggest, would have escaped this greatest of all plagues, the corruption of public opinion; and that all men would have united in approbation of a system of government, which must be acknowledged excellent, and of an administration, which must be acknowledged to have been wise, enlightened and honest. Yet, unfortunately, this plague hath reached us also; and our government has been assailed with the grossest slanders, by many who perhaps believed, and by many who surely could not believe, the slanders which they uttered. The tongue, the pen and the press; conversations, letters, essays, and pamphlets, have represented our truly republican and balanced Constitution as a system of tyranny; and our upright and wise administration, as mischievous and corrupt. Our wisest and best public officers have had their lives embittered, and have been driven from their stations by unceasing and malignant slander. And thus has it been attempted to withdraw, from our excellent government, the only effectual support of any government, public opinion; and thus to withdraw all reverence from station and authority, deprive the Constitution, the laws and the administration, of all respect and efficacy, and surrender the nation a prey to any invader.

France saw our condition, and attacked us: for France attacked a nation only when she has rendered it defenceless, by dividing the people from the government, and withdrawing from the government the support of public opinion. In this condition any nation is an easy prey. To our complaints she pretended no justification, and replied to our resentment, that she had a party among ourselves. She rested on the influence of clubs and the press, and on the devotion to her, which they had produced among us.–Some of our presses seem to have been constantly devoted to her views. Many of our citizens, and of our men in public stations, seem to have savored those measures, on which France must have depended for success against us.–And our government was threatened with the loss of its best support, the hearts of its citizens, by means of falsehood, misrepresentation, and the vile arts of foreign enemies, and discontented, sactious, and seditious men. In this situation, in which no government can long stand, and threatened with a war from France, was it not the duty of our government to disarm. France of that weapon, by which she could most effectually injure us, the power of spreading slander and sedition against the government, and alienating from it, its true support, the affections of its citizens? It was its duty, and it would have been inexcusable, if it had omitted this duty. Without suppressing slander and sedition against the government, the support of public opinion cannot preserved to it: and without the support to {Omitted text, 1w} public opinion, all other defence against France is vain.

On these grounds, it appears evident to me, that this law is not only expedient, but necessary. And it may be laid down as a general rule, that it will be impossible to prevent the corruption of public opinion, or to preserve any government against it; unless there be laws to correct the licentiousness of speech and of the press. True liberty of speech and of the press consists in being free to speak, write, and print, but being, as in the exercise of all other liberties, responsible for the abuse of this liberty. And whether we have abused this liberty or not, must, like all other questions of right, be left to the decision of a court and a jury. This is the universal test, by which the exercise of all our rights must be tried. Nor is the subjection of our right of freedom of speech and of the press to this test, any more a restraint on that right; than the subjection of our rights of life and of property to the same test, is a restraint on those rights. By this test must the exercise of all our rights be tried, or no man could enjoy any right whatever. If while our right to life and to property is submitted to this restriction, we yet believe we are free, shall we think our liberty infringed, by subjecting to the same restriction, our right to speak and print?

This law takes from no man any liberty but a liberty of doing mischief. And so far is it from being true, that this law is any violation of liberty, that it may be safely avered, without such laws, for punishing the abuse of the freedom of speech and of the press, liberty cannot be preserved: every man will be a slave to the malignant passions of every other, truth and justice will be banished, the authority of government destroyed, and malice, anarchy, confusion, and every evil work established.

Our constitution is excellent, our administration is wise and honest, and has no interest separate from that of the people. On the support of such an administration of such a government depends our liberty. But let me repeat, no administration or government can stand against the corruption of public opinion; and let me therefore solemnly admonish you, as you value the peace and liberty of yourselves and your posterity, seriously to reflect on the truth of this. We have seen an insurrection promoted by the corruption of public opinion. An invasion is invited by it.–How many shocks of this kind our government is doomed to stand, only the Ruler of the world knows. Let us take warning from our own experience, and the fate of other nations. Let all friends to liberty and order unite in suppressing slander: for, where it prevails, there will be no happiness, no government. Of all slanders those of the press are most dangerous. Presses established to run down the government are the most destructive of all treasons.–This ought to be well considered; for every one who encourages such presses, or contributes to their support, is a partner in their guilt. Every one who reads their productions with approbation, sucks in disease upon his mind; and every one who repeats them to others, spreads the infection. What would we think of a set of men, who should agree to hire a number of persons to run through the country, and report falsehoods and slanders? Precisely such, and more dangerous, is the guilt of those who contribute to the support of a slanderous Press. They are wounding their own and their country’s peace, and undermining the government.

But will you say, We desire to hear both files, that we may know the truth. My friends, truth has but one side, and listening to error, and falsehood is indeed a strange way to discover truth. Take the representations which its friends have made of the conduct of government; have you ever found falsehood in them? Take the contradictory statements made by its enemies–have you ever found truth in them?

You may yet say, We have not the means of knowing on which side the truth lies; and we, therefore, give no preference to any, but bear all. What would you think of a Protestant who should say thus? The Lutherans and Calvinists differ in opinion, the Catholics from both, and the Mahometans from them all; I know not on which side the truth is; I will, therefore, pay a Lutheran minister, a Calvinist minister, a Catholic priest, and a Turkish dervis; and then I shall be sure of knowing the truth. Would we think that this man had any regard to truth or religion? Instead of acquiring knowledge, would he not confuse his mind, and lose sight. of both truth and duty? As in religion, so in government, a sincere enquirer after truth will always find means of discovering it. And it is only their enemies, and hypocritical pretenders to sincerity, who, under pretence of searching for truth, wander through the endless varieties of error, and affect to think, there is no certainty.

There is hardly any part of government, which, as of religion, has not been misrepresented by its enemies. Now, though of all its parts, the people generally have not had an opportunity of being fully satisfied, yet of some, they have had this opportunity. And wherever they have had such opportunity, they must be satisfied, that the conduct of government has been right, and the misrepresentations of it false and malicious. No part of the conduct of our government has been more misrepresented, than its conduct with respect to France. Yet, when fairly stated, in a way that the greatest slanderers dare not contradict, how honest, wife, and praise-worthy does it seem! Ought we not therefore to believe, that, if we understood all the rest, as well as this part, the whole would appear as unexceptionable? This would be our duty between man and man; and it is also our duty between citizens and the government.

Another duty, and a mean of information, is to search at the best sources of information. You ought never to believe a slander on government, merely because it is stated in a newspaper or a pamphlet, or reported by those on whose judgment, veracity, and opportunity of knowing, you have not confidence. As if the thing concerned your own house or estate, or the character of your friend, go to those in those veracity and judgment you would confide in matters of the greatest importance. For, be assured, no matter is of greater importance than a just confidence in government. The men, who endeavour to rob you of this, are the worst enemies of your peace. If they can succeed in robbing your minds of this confidence, they rob you of your liberty; for they deprive government of its authority; and government without authority is anarchy; and anarchy is the worst tyranny. No crime, therefore, is greater, than that slander, which diminishes the people’s confidence in the government, diminishes their security, and destroys their liberty. And no crime more deserves the vigilant and severe animadversion of a Grand Jury.


The EDITOR of the CENTINEL presents his patrons with Judge ADDISON’s Charge to the Grand Juries of Pennsylvania, as a New-Year’s gift. It is a word in season; and is, indeed, a pearl of price.–It is a plain, concise, and impartial Commentary on the Law of the United States, denominated the Sedition Bill; which has been made the cause of so much clamour and libellous abuse of the Government. It is an able and learned exposition of the true Liberty of Speech, and of the Press:–containing an ample refutation of ALL the objections to the Laws which have recently been enacted by Congress; and clearly illustrating the rights of the citizen, and the necessary restraints on his licentiousness. It is the Counsel of Wisdom and Patriotism, speaking from Experience. It is impressed on a separate sheet, that it may be preserved with care, or carried in the pocket, to be produced whenever the necessity of convicting slander against the Government shall occur. After the Sacred Oracles, it should be the duty of Parents and Heads of Families, to read it to their Households: And that pupil who first can repeat it memoriter, will merit the highest honors of the school he belongs to;–and, upon producing credentials of the fact, shall be intitled to a GOLD MEDAL from the Editor of the Colombian Centinel.

Boston, January, 1799.

§ 4 Comm. 151, 3.

∥ Art. ix. Sect. 7.


The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms shall NOT be infringed.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply