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Freedom of speech, 1500-1850$
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Robert Ingram, Jason Peacey, and Alex W. Barber

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781526147103

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.7765/9781526147110

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David Hume and ‘Of The Liberty of the Press’ (1741) in its Original Contexts1

David Hume and ‘Of The Liberty of the Press’ (1741) in its Original Contexts1

(p.171) Chapter 9 David Hume and ‘Of The Liberty of the Press’ (1741) in its Original Contexts1
Freedom of speech, 1500-1850

Max Skjönsberg

Manchester University Press

David Hume’s contribution to the eighteenth-century debate about the limits of the freedom of the press – ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’ (1741) – has usually been considered in the context of the Scotsman’s extensive revisions of the essay in the wake of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Plenty of historians have already written about how and why Hume, in response to popular discontents in London, removed his initial and more positive conclusion about press freedom and instead called it one of the inconveniences of mixed governments. By contrast, little has been said about what initially prompted the essay. When the first version of the essay is considered in its original setting in the late 1730s and early 1740s, we learn that the essay was written in the context of the paper war between Walpole’s Court Whig administration (1721–42) and a Country/Patriot opposition consisting of Tories, Whigs and Jacobites. In this context, the ‘Liberty of the Press’ had become an opposition slogan, as Walpole sought to rein in freedom of speech by harassing opposition journalists and printers, outlawing parliamentary reporting during sessions and introducing censorship of stage plays. In contrast with later editions of the essay, Hume took a clear stance in favour of the liberty of the press, referring to it as ‘the common right of mankind’. However, although Hume was very loosely associated with oppositions Whigs at this time, for example the Marchmont family, this should not be regarded as an unconditional espousal of anti-Walpole propaganda. Crucially, Hume appears to have favoured conciliation rather than confrontation with Spain in 1739. As will be shown, his argument was distinctly independent, and his defence of press freedom was much more sceptical than that of Protestant thinkers who called it a human or natural right.

Keywords:   David Hume, Anglo-Spanish War of 1739, patriotism, opposition, Whigs, Tories, licensing, Robert Walpole

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