I purchased Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech, during a visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in the summer of 2017. It sat on my “To Read” shelf for over a year as I worked through my queue, but it finally popped to the top this December.
The book’s chapters are broken up into different stories detailing the slow movement away from the English Common Law understanding of Seditious Liable and the emergence of freedom of speech as a political expectation. These stories begin in the middle Colonial Period, and detail how Seditious Liable was used to prevent the public from challenging the government’s control of social order. The story arc then moves through the emergence of the Sons of Liberty as a political force during the Stamp Act Crisis, and into the Constitutional Ratification debates in the 1780’s. Its last chapter deals with the how freedom of speech began to be defined by the struggle against the Alien and Sedition Acts by the Federalists during the Adams Administration. It is a fascinating journey.
When set against the backdrop of today’s political climate, Revolutionary Dissent, serves as a reminder that freedom of speech is not something which should be taken for granted, nor it is gentle. It highlights how “mob” protest has an historic place in American Political Thought – one which finds its roots inside a group now championed as the pinnacle of patriotism in American mythology, the Sons Of Liberty. While the actions this group undertook were sometimes ugly, and could even be described cynical, they sprang from a well which declared people had a right to protest their government. Tories despised the Sons of Liberty because they upended the social order with their insistence of freedom and their defiance of Parliament. They looked upon the Sons Of Liberty as uncouth, which the group often was, and had no respect for personal property. Then, as now, the organized protests were called a “mob 1.”
Revolutionary Dissent lays out a decent overview of one of the most important struggles in U.S. History. It wasn’t pretty, and it could even be called hypocritical 2 – but it helped form a freedom we assume today. We live in a world where non-favorable narratives are routinely called “fake news” by the president, a portion of the population has been led to believe “the media” is the “enemy of the people” by the party in power, and defenders of free speech are first in line to protest any voice with which they find offense. It’s the type of world where Revolutionary Dissent ought to be required reading.
Read this book.
- If you hear people complaining that today’s protests are organized, don’t respect the social order, or damage people’s property what they’re indicating is that they’d likely have been Tories during the Revolution. ↩
- Tory newspapers were not immune from ransacking by patriots who were themselves demanding freedom of speech. ↩