Sometimes — why not now? — you just have to reflect on what an amazing man Thomas Jefferson was. I mean, he really got the whole idea of liberty, maybe better than anyone before him, and far better than most people today. What a man! What a dream he had!
I’m reminded of his bravery and brilliance from reading this magisterial work: Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism by Geoffrey R. Stone. It’s a strangely thrilling history of villainy, wickedness, despotism and lies by the U.S. government.
Yet the book gives great comfort. It shows that there’s nothing new about the current repressive climate. I mean, you can land yourself in jail pretty quickly these days with the wrong Tweet or Facebook status. It’s dreadful, but it’s happened many times in the past. Yet liberty has always won over the tyrants.
Another point: This book shows precisely why government fears words more than anything else…because ideas are more powerful than guns. Otherwise, what would be the point of cracking down?
But back to Jefferson. He would have been happy to retire in his Virginia home, living in peace and contentment, but duty called him to run for president. What was happening? Incredibly, the new central government was cracking down on free speech. A 1798 law criminalized “false, scandalous and malicious writing,” and 25 people were arrested for saying nasty things about the president.
Keep in mind: The ink was still wet on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which included the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Two states refused to go along, and there was talk of secession in the air. People were shocked and appalled and even then commented on the sheer farce that we fought a revolution against exactly the actions the new government was taking. It was out of the frying pan and back into the frying pan.
In 1800, Jefferson was swept into office on popular acclaim. How his enemies must have burned with fury at these words in his inaugural address: “And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.”
(In the same address, he blasted taxes, standing armies, high spending, regulations and every manner of despotism.)
The incident is hugely important for many reasons. Knowing of it helps sweep away the mythology that our “Founding Fathers” were universally in love with liberty. It turns out that once they got control of the government, liberty began to slip and slip on the list of priorities, which is one reason that no man should ever be trusted with power (another subject well covered by the great Jefferson). It helps put into historical context just what a threat war always and everywhere is to human rights and liberties.
The author, a law professor at Chicago (along with an army of researchers), covers the six great periods in which government chilled the environment for free political speech:
- 1798, when war with the French was heating up
- The Civil War, when the “Great Liberator” suspended habeas corpus and persecuted and jailed his enemies
- World War I, when thousands were sentenced to prison for daring to disagree
- World War II, when Japanese citizens were rounded up and you got your name on a list for bad associations
- The Cold War, when every political dissident was called a communist
- The War on Terror, which has turned into a war on freedom itself.
Professor Stone chronicles them all in amazing and riveting detail. His biographies of each of the victims (this guy can really write well!) make you realize at every step that this could have been you or me. It causes you to respect the people who dare to go against the government line, which always ends up meaning that the dissidents go against the dominant strain of public opinion, too.
I loathe communism, but I have to admit that the commies often spoke truth during wartime!
It takes guts to stand up to the state, yet it is enormously necessary. Chances are that if the government criminalizes some words, those words need to be said more than ever, probably because they embody a truth that no one wants to hear. And even if the words aren’t true, the cause of freedom is well served by those who dare to speak out.
Some people have written that this very book has changed their life. I can see why. For one thing, it is hard to stop reading because the detail is so vivid, the historical sweep is so good and the writing itself is so compelling. It is also right up to the minute in terms of timeliness. We are blasted in every public space these days by Orwellian messages to rat out any suspicious people to the authorities. Yes, it is creepy, but hardly new.
Stone himself is not nearly as much an absolutist on free speech as I’ve come to be after learning of all these cases. He seems to think that there might be good reasons to suppress speech, even if the government gets carried away; my own view is that government should never be trusted with that power and that any that exercise it deserve to lose power. This power will always be abused.
We might say that controls on free speech are the great compliment that government pays to the power of words. And you wonder why the power elite hates the Internet? It’s the worst enemy that would-be despots have ever faced. We’ve seen its power at work not only in Arab countries, but also every day in the U.S. It has recruited millions into the ranks of the dissidents.
Imagine how much worse our times would be if the government had the same amount of control today as it had during World War I or the Cold War! Thanks to digital technology, that cannot happen. The cat’s out of the bag, and every attempt by the government to put it back in produces protests of the type that put Jefferson in office in 1801.
It’s the highest compliment I can give to say that Jefferson himself would have loved reading Perilous Times. So will you.