“Dickinson ‘Penman of the Revolution,’ on Freedom of the Press”–Professor David Forte in Law and Liberty

In an eloquent essay for the Library of Law and Liberty, JWI Senior Scholar Prof. David Forte articulates the “radical premises” Founding Father John Dickinson used as justification for independence. Dickinson’s chief contributions to The Bill of Rights and Declaration of Grievances, along with the implementation of the Articles of Association, make him one of most significant thought leaders of the colonial era. Perhaps, according to Forte, his most valued contribution to current American law is his emphasis on a free press, which Dickinson communicates in his urgent call to French Catholics to support the American resistance in a Letter to the Inhabitants of Quebec. Dickinson understood a free press to be rooted in the natural right of free expression, a premise Forte terms “radical” but would later be adopted in the Declaration of Independence.

Excerpts from the piece:

“On October 17, 1774, John Dickinson entered Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia and took his place as a delegate from Pennsylvania at the First Continental Congress. The Congress had begun on September 5, but Joseph Galloway, a conservative opponent of Dickinson’s, had managed to delay Dickinson’s election. Among Dickinson’s fellow delegates were John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, and Robert Treat Paine from Massachusetts; Roger Sherman and Silas Deane from Connecticut; John Jay and Philip Livingston from New York; William Livingston from New Jersey; Thomas Johnson and Samuel Chase from Maryland; Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Patrick Henry from Virginia; and John Rutledge from South Carolina. When Dickinson appeared, the delegates must have been gladdened to have the most erudite and most celebrated of the American patriots at last among their number.”

“Dickinson had drafted the Declaration and Resolves and the Petition to the King of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, and two years after that, he wrote his famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. In 12 installments, Dickinson pulled apart the what he saw as Parliament’s unconstitutional assertions of its own powers. Forrest McDonald has written that the “impact and circulation” of the Letters “were unapproached by any publication in the revolutionary period,” at least until Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776).”

“When Dickinson took his seat in Carpenters’ Hall, he was gratified to find that Congress has just passed its Declaration and Resolves, otherwise known as The Bill of Rights [and] Declaration of Grievances, of which Dickinson, working out of doors, had been the primary drafter. This, the most significant of the Congress’ papers, was a rejoinder to Parliament’s “Intolerable Acts,” which had been a massive retribution for Dickinson’s rhetorical tack was to warn the Canadians of perfidious Albion—to persuade them that the English promises to respect French Civil Law could not be trusted and that their uncertain fate lay in the hands of a deceitful British Governor. They ought, Dickinson urged, to join with the other colonies in a constitutional order in which one’s rights would be guaranteed against any arbitrary deprivation. Dickinson listed a number of rights that he clearly thought would be of signal importance to the French Canadians. They included the right to representative government, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and the end of feudal servitudes. Boston’s Tea Party.

“It is significant that of the four desiderata of a free press in the Letter, the first three—truth, public virtue, and union—are primarily normative. Only the last—shaming public officials—is political in the most narrowly consequential sense of the term. It is this, interestingly, that seems to many in the judiciary and in the press to be the Letter’s central guarantee. But as a summary of the sense of the right of enquiry and expression, Dickinson’s formulation crystallizes the scientific, political, artistic, and legal values of the American colonies in the third quarter of the 18th century if not also before.”

“It was not until the 1960s that the Dickinsonian view of a free press as articulated in the Letter to the Inhabitants of Quebec finally expunged Blackstone from American jurisprudence on the First Amendment. The original original understanding of a free press had triumphed at last.”

Read the whole essay here.