Robert W. T. Martin. The Free and Open Press: The Founding of American Democratic Press Liberty, 1640-1800. Albany: New York University Press, 2001. 288 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-5655-3.
Reviewed by Carol Sue Humphrey (Oklahoma Baptist University)
Published on Jhistory (August, 2006)
Robert Martin's The Free and Open Press presents a thoughtful and well-researched study of the development of ideas and practices about freedom of the press in the United States. He reviews the variety of sources and precedents for American practice, pointing out a fundamental conflict between the ideas of a "free press" that works to benefit the public good and an "open press" that allows any and all to express their opinions. The result has been a tension between the rights of individuals and the good of the community. During the colonial era, this tension was not always clear, and many people assumed that both aspects could easily exist side by side, hence the term "free and open press" that was so popular in the eighteenth century.
Martin begins his study with an overview of English ideas that influenced American opinions. He summarizes the ideas of Milton, the Levellers, "Cato," and others who debated the role of the press in the political conflicts of the seventeenth century. The debates swung back and forth between which mattered more: giving people access to the press in order to express their ideas or the role of the press as "a bulwark against government power and, thus, to act as the essential defender of all the people's other liberties" (p. 32). John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon ("Cato") reflected the emphasis of the Enlightenment on man's rationality when they concluded that the press could be both free and open: "the champions of the public good and the people's liberties" will prevail in the end. These ideas became popular in the American colonies in the early eighteenth century and provided the basis for the discussion of press liberty during the Revolution and the formation of the United States.
Martin continues his study with a discussion of the eighteenth century, the growing crisis with Great Britain, and the revolution that the crisis produced. The language of the free and open press remained dominant through growing conflicts. Martin discusses the rise of an opposition press in Boston in James Franklin's New England Courant and the debates over freedom of the press reflected in the Zenger trial. Ultimately, the fight between the colonies and the mother country boiled down to a battle between power and liberty and which would dominate. The unity of the ideas of a free press and an open press did not hold up well in this context. The need for a united front against Great Britain broke down the ties between these two ideals. For the patriots, a "press of freedom" that led the fight against the tyrants proved much more important than an "open press" that would provide a forum for the Tories to express their ideas. The needs of the community outweighed the needs of the individual and thus justified the muzzling of the Tory newspapers.
Martin's discussion of the First Amendment shows how the terms "free press" and "open press" lost their distinctive meanings and increasingly came to be used interchangeably. The focus in the years after the War for Independence revolved around distinctions between public and private spheres. Increasingly, people hesitated about the importance of a truly open press, primarily because of the growing attacks on personal character. The gradual decline in the use of pseudonyms made it possible to identify authors in ways that had not existed in earlier years. Also, the increase in the number of newspapers available made it possible to acquire different viewpoints by subscribing to more than one newspaper. Increasingly, the need for a truly open press seemed to be less and less important.
Martin concludes his study with a look at the 1790s, particularly the Sedition Act controversy. He concludes that the growing perception that public opinion, rather than truth, constituted the final authority in the political realm pushed the United States in a more democratic direction and that our ideas about the role and function of the press changed as well. In the end, the ideas of an "open press" giving access declined in contrast to the ideas of a "free press" that operated with few restrictions. Martin concludes that we do early Americans an injustice when we fail to see the complexities of the debates over how the press should operate: "Early Americans ... clearly saw the tension between individual rights and the public good, between an open press and a free press. Even their open press discourse defended the right to press liberty not for individual expression in our current, increasingly self-indulgent sense but rather so that the community might hear and judge the merit of others' views. At its most individualistic, the Framing generation saw press liberty as serving the public good by contributing to the democratic public sphere" (p. 168). For the Founding generation, "the right of individual free expression" was subordinate to "the duty of public deliberation" (p. 168). Martin believes that we have to realize the full potential of the Founders' hopes for the press in the United States.
Martin's research is detailed and thorough and the result is a good discussion of the ideas and events involved in the development of theories about a free press in the early history of the United States. This is a thoughtful study that would prove useful to scholars of early American history, whether interested directly in the media or not. It would have helped the book had it been proofread a bit better, as there are a number of errors that sometimes interfere with reading the text. (The worst is identifying the Bradfords as the printers of the Pennsylvania Gazette rather than the Pennsylvania Journal. Benjamin Franklin was the printer of the Pennsylvania Gazette.) My personal criticism concerns the use of first-person throughout the book, but that may be a sign of my age and changes in the discipline of history.
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Carol Sue Humphrey. Review of Martin, Robert W. T., The Free and Open Press: The Founding of American Democratic Press Liberty, 1640-1800.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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