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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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The argument for freedom of speech and press during the ratification of the US Constitution, 1787–88

The argument for freedom of speech and press during the ratification of the US Constitution, 1787–88

(p.192) Chapter 10 The argument for freedom of speech and press during the ratification of the US Constitution, 1787–88
Freedom of speech, 1500-1850

Patrick Peel

Manchester University Press

Americans did not initially view the Constitution’s commitments to freedom of speech and press as individual, counter-majoritarian rights, standing over and against the structural, democratic directives of the American constitution. Instead, they held an alternative theory: to have the status of a free person (a liber homo) is to live in a free state, such that one has a set of fundamental liberties secured from relationships of dependence, which in turn requires some exercise of control over one’s government so that the institutions necessary for one’s political independence (e.g. courts, legislatures, executives) do not themselves become sources of oppression. Political liberty, they argued, is rooted in an analysis of what it means to speak of being a free person, a member of a free society living in a free state. In making this argument, Americans were reaching back to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European debates regarding freedom of speech and press within free states, in contrast to monarchies, but doing so in a revolutionary context and expanding public sphere. The effect of inserting this argument into the American ratification debates was to establish for Americans the premise necessary to justify continuous, organised, oppositional political speech. Where political parties and the speech of factious men were once viewed as antithetical to responsible republican self-government, the development of the idea of legitimate contestatory, fiery speech, as part and parcel of party opposition within a constitutional democracy, marked a new turn in the history of American political thought.

Keywords:   constitutionalism, liberty, US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Anti-Federalists, Federalists, James Madison, William Blackstone

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