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Shall Make No Law

Among the enumerated rights in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the freedom of the press logically follows the clauses related to religious freedom and freedom of speech. Afterall, freedom of the press is a vehicle of public expression for thought, belief, and speech. With the 1791 ratification of the Bill Rights, the American people prohibited its federal government from abridging the freedom of the press, and Philadelphia is a central part of that story.  

World Changing Invention

Few machines have had a greater impact on the world than the printing press. Could Johannes Gutenberg have imagined in 1436 that his invention would contribute to a sweeping religious Reformation, a new Renaissance of learning, and world-changing political revolutions, like the American Revolution? The printing press exponentially extended the power of the pen, which was already mightier than the sword. Philosophers, theologians, scientists, activists and zealots of every stripe leveraged the technology and in doing so demonstrated that ideas have consequences - changed minds, converted souls, social and political reforms, and toppled tyrants.

Penn Was Mightier Than The Sword

Philadelphia’s story of freedom of the press begins with its founder. In 1668 William Penn was jailed in Tower of London for publishing an unauthorized book, The Sandy Foundation Shaken, criticizing Church of England doctrine. So, it is no surprise that 14 years later his experimental colony’s first constitution guaranteed not only freedom of conscience and religion, but freedom of the press too. What good is liberty of conscience, if religious practice including the publication of one’s religious views, is curtailed? Freedom of the press goes hand-in-hand with religious liberty. Penn’s pen and press resulted in Pennsylvania as a haven for the persecuted and a bold experiment in liberty, including freedom of the press. Pennsylvania’s freedom of the press was later put to the test by Philadelphia’s first printer, William Bradford, who dared openly criticize the ruling Quakers. The tussle resulted in jail time for Bradford, who later left the city.

Franklin’s Press

Only five years after Penn’s death, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on the run from Boston. What he found in Philadelphia was freedom and opportunity to begin life again. Trained as a printer, Franklin was soon engaged in Philadelphia’s vibrant publishing business and eventually owned his own shop.  And publish, he did - everything from books, to essays, to magazines, to newspapers, broadsheets, colonial currency, songbooks, hymnals, sermons, and of course Poor Richard’s Almanack. Some of his best-selling publications were by the Anglican revivalist preacher George Whitefield, whose popularity made his sermons, journals, and biography hot-sellers. Franklin made a fortune.

Franklin Inspired Others to Print and Opine

When the political agitator Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1774, he had a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Apparently it worked, for within a few months Paine became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine and went on to write Common Sense, the most influential publication for American independence. Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, followed in the family business and published the newspaper Aurora and General Advertiser, a partisan newspaper that made a lot of trouble for President Washington’s administration. Matthew Carey, an Irish Catholic immigrant first met Franklin in France where he was encouraged to go to Philadelphia and become a printer. With a small business loan from the Marquis de Lafayette, Carey did just that, building a thriving business.

Brotherly Love, Bibles, and Partisan Rancor

Philadelphia’s freedom and prosperity attracted publishing entrepreneurs of all sorts of religious, ideological, and political persuasions. Bradford and Franklin were the pathfinders. In their wake came many others: Col. William Bradford, the grandson of William, Robert Aitken, who published the first English Bible in America, and Jane Aitken, Robert’s daughter who followed in his footsteps. Then when Philadelphia became the temporary federal capital, there came the newspapermen John Fenno, editor of the United States Gazette and Philip Frenau, editor of the National Gazette. These dueling political newspapers raised the partisan rancor of the country in ways that might seem like FoxNews and MSNBC today. Responding to Frenau’s news coverage and editorials, Washington referred his critic as “that rascal Freneau.” Fenno’s paper, on the other hand, offered Washington favorable press, but for Thomas Jefferson and his allies there was bad press.

The First Amendment

With the ratification of the First Amendment on December 15, 1791, the United States embraced a freedom cradled in Philadelphia since 1682. Philadelphia, now the temporary capital of the new nation, was poised to demonstrate what a free press looked like in a democratic republic -- the free exchange of ideas and opinions however  offensive and unpopular.  The Founders knew it then, and it’s important that we not forget it now; a free and independent press is, in the words of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), “one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty.”

Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.

Benjamin Franklin, after Cato’s Letters


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