Revolutions cannot succeed without effective communication
among the people who are rebelling. Without the existence of a
relatively free press, the American Revolution might never have happened.
And interestingly, America owes the development of the free press to
the long struggle in England for individual rights. In 1215, a
group of British nobles and clergymen forced the king to limit his powers
by signing the
Magna Carta. From that point up through the time of the American
revolution, English history can be seen as a progression of attempts
to expand the rights of the people. At each stage of the struggle, the
press was regarded as a bone of contention. The force in power
would attempt to control the press as a means of suppressing rebellion.
And at each stage, a group of printers would defy the laws as a way
of contributing to the fight for rights. It is no coincidence, then,
that the end of the licensing laws that long controlled printers came
shortly after "The Glorious Revolution," when William and
Mary agreed to sign the Declaration
of Rights as a condition for coming to the throne.
Perhaps one of the best ways of understanding the American
revolution is to see it as a continuation of the British struggle for
individual rights and a free press. Thus, to understand the American
revolution we need to have an understanding of the interlinked struggle
for freedom and a free press that took place in England in the long
years leading up to the 1770s.
While colonial postmasters were well placed to gather the "intelligence"
necessary for printing newspapers, they were also particularly subject
to the power of the authorities. As government appointees, postmasters
needed to stay in the favor of officials to keep their jobs. If they
also operated presses, their incomes were largely dependent on contracts
to do official printing for the government. The ongoing struggle between
printers and the authorities represents one important story in the
larger narrative of the struggle for individual rights in both England
and America. Indeed, the easing of the government's tight control
over the press at the end of the seventeenth century probably is one
factor that contributed to the success of the revolution.
We often hear the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword,"
but pause for a moment to consider its meaning. It is difficult
for an individual to stand up against a powerful government.
One sword cannot accomplish much in the face of a large army.
Yet, by spreading negative information and opinions about the government,
one person has the potential to create a groundswell of dissatisfaction
that could weaken the control of those in power.
1275: Criticizing Becomes a Crime
Understanding the power of the pen, British monarchs placed restrictions
on the dissemination of information long before the invention of the
printing press. In 1275, "De Scandalis Magnatum" prohibited
the distribution of "any false News or Tales, whereby discord,
or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the King and his
People, or the Great Men of the Realm." [3 Edw. 1, ch. 34 (1275)].
Although this might at first sound like a reasonable way of protecting
officials from slander, in fact, the application of "De Scandalis"
established the principle that even those who made negative comments
about the King or government could be called before a select group
of officials without need for any warrant or other legal proceeding
even if the comments were truthful. Known as the Star Chamber
because of the decor of the room in which they held their proceedings,
this tribunal had the power to confer any punishment they pleased
for the crime of "endangering the public peace" by criticizing
a monarch or other official.
Knowledge is Power and The Printing Press
Threatens to Give Knowledge to the People
If the pen is mightier than the sword, the printing press is certainly
mightier than the pen. Gutenberg's
invention of moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century suddenly
made it possible to disseminate printed information in a relatively
quick and inexpensive fashion among a large and geographically disparate
body of readers. The power of the press was immediately evident to
those who were accustomed to wielding power by granting privilege
or punishment. As one Elizabethan wag put it:
To come to the presse is more dangerous, then to be prest
to death, for the payne of those Tortures, last but a few
minutes, but he that lyes upon the rack in print, hath his
flesh torne off by the teeth of Enuy, and Calumny euen when
he means no body any hurt in his graue. (Elizabethan
By 1585 the Star Chamber ordered that any one who wished to print
a book would first need a license. By 1637, "epigram(s) or rhyme(s)
in writing sung and repeated in the present of others . . . (or) an
ignoninious or shameful painting or sign" were cause for punishment.
Attempts to demonstrate the power of the press only led to more strictures,
and De Scandalis Magnatum was reenacted in 1554 and later expanded. The
licensing act of 1637 placed a limit on the number of printers.
While this rule meant that only a limited number of readers would
be able to have access to a limited number of publications, it also
insured that only those printers who met government approval would
have the opportunity to circulate publications.
1637: Chopping Off Ears and Cheeks
Fails to Keep Printers in Check
It took more than a little courage to challenge the Star Chamber.
Consider the case of Prynne, Burton, and Bastwicke, three printers
who were found guilty of libel in June, 1637. One of their offenses
had been their pronouncement that they would follow the Bible rather
than the dictates of a king. (Prynne had already been found guilty
of a similar charge five years' earlier and sentenced to stand in
the pillory on two occasions, and to have one ear cut off each time.
He also lost his university degree, was disbarred, had to pay a fine
of 5,000 pounds, and was supposed to be perpetually imprisoned, without
books, pen, ink, or paper.). Here is a description of their public
spake much while in the pillory to the people. The executioner
cut off his ears deep and close, in a cruel manner, with much
effusion of blood, an artery being cut, as there was likewise
of Dr Bastwick. Then Mr Prynne's cheeks were seared with an iron
made exceeding hot which done, the executioner cut off one of
his ears and a piece of his cheek with it; then hacking the other
ear almost off, he left it hanging and went down; but being called
up again he cut it quite off. --John Rushworth (1706, abridged
edition) Historical Collections volume two, pp. 293
Of course, Prynne had not taken any pains to disguise
his disagreements with the King, as is evident from the title page
of one of his works shown below.
1640s: The Power of the Press is Briefly Unleashed
When Parliament itself began to vie with the king for
control of the country during the English civil war, both sides in
the battle hoped to use the press to stir up public support for themselves.
In fact, Burton, Prynne and Bastwick were released from prison and
celebrated as heroes. William B. Warner describes the situation
clearly when he writes in
A Global Mutation in Media:The Invention and Expansion of Print Media:
History ran an early experiment in unlicensed printing:
during the English Civil War (1641-1649), when Parliament had won
effective control of London and the Stuart monarchy raised its standard
at Oxford, England experienced a suspension of the informal system
of censorship developed by the Crown and the Stationery's Company
in the first century of printing in London (Feather). Civil War
brought an unregulated explosion of print--much of it propaganda
designed to advance one side or other in the war. Citizens began
to experience, and perhaps enjoy, unfiltered access to a wide variety
The loosening of controls led to an immediate, dramatic
rise in publishing. Between 1640 and 1660, at least 300 news
publications were produced.
1644: Milton Defends
the Right of Free-Born Men to Speak Free
Parliament attempted to regain some control on printers when it passed
the Licensing Order of June 16th, 1643. This order was designed to
bring publishing under government control by creating a number of
official censors to whom authors would submit their work for approval
prior to having it published. The impact of this act? Only 20
master printers were still in operation by the end of the century.
(See "The Literary Era"
In protest, English poet and political writer, John Milton, published
A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.The work opened
with the following epigraph:
This is true liberty, when free-born men,
Having to advise the public, may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise;
Who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace:
What can be juster in a state than this?
-- from Euripid. Hicetid
Milton's argument, in brief, was that precensorship of authors was
little more than an excuse for state control of thought. Recognizing
that some means of accountability was necessary to ensure that libelous
or other illegal works were kept under control, Milton suggested this
could be achieved by ensuring the legal responsibility of printers
and authors for the content of what they published. Predicting
that restrictions on the press would never work over the long term,
Milton wrote:"Methinks I see in my mind a mighty and puissant
Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking
her invincible locks. . . . You cannot make us now lesse capable,
lesse knowing, lesse eagerly pursuing of the truth." The
basic message of these lines is quite simple: The truth will
out! The printing press would eventually shift information and
power into the hands of the people.
1660s-1680s: The Return of the Monarchy Brings Stricter
Controls -- But Only Briefly
With the downfall of the republican parliamentary government
and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660s came even tighter controls
on the press. A single individual was given the authority to
publish an official newspaper along with the responsibility of serving
as censor for all other publications. Roger L'Estrange, one
of the series of men who served as the enforcer of the licensing act
during part of that period, offered the following thoughts about a
Supposing the press in order, the people in their
right wits, and news or no news to be the question, a publique Mercury
should never have my vote; because it makes the public too familiar
with the actions and counsels of their superiors, too prag matical
and censorious; and gives them not only an itch, but a colorable
right and license to be meddling with the government. --quoted in.F.B.
and Journalists, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 34, Issue
201, July 1874 (at MOA)
History: The London Gazette for a description of licensing practices
during the restoration and an account of L'Estrange's own "official"
1695: The "Glorious Revolution" Brings
the End of English Licensing Laws, a New Age of Print --
and an Age of Revolution?
With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William and Mary
were invited to ascend the throne on the condition that they agree
to the terms spelled out in the Declaration
of Rights. This came to be understood as part of the British "constitution"
that American patriots cited as the source of their own freedoms as
"Englishmen." (For more on this subject, see The
Rhetoric of Rights:
Americans are "Englishmen" and Englishmen Have
Constitutional Rights elsewhere on this site.)
Milton proved to be right after all. Although most accounts
stipulate that "the Licensing act expired in 1695," the
"expiration" was not the result of a simple lapse of attention
on the part of the government. Instead, the freedoms established
by the Declaration of Rights created a more open society, and an explosion
of print was the result. In England, the emergence of publications
like the Tatler
and the Spectator
are given credit for creating a 'bourgeois public sphere' that allowed
for a free exchange of ideas and information. In America, the
end of the Licensing Act also sparked the creation of new publications
and set the stage for the battle of words that would lead to the American
revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Kent's Commentaries on "De
ENQUIRY Into the QUESTION, Whether JURIES are, or are not, JUDGES
OF LAW, As well as of FACT; With a particular Reference to The CASE
of LIBELS, by Joseph Towers London, 1764 -- argues that
"though the freedom of the press may often degenerate into a
censurable licentiousness, yet it is certain, that a free people have
much more danger to apprehend from a restraint of the Liberty of the
Press, than from any, even the worst abuse of it." This transcription
is available through the Liberty
Library Constitutional Classics, a treasury of primary source
materials that document English and American political history.
Thomas Paine, Liberty
of the Press, October 19, 1806, courtesy of the Thomas
Paine National Historical Association .
For more on the History of Print from other sites, see:
Global Mutation in Media: The Invention and Expansion of Print Media
on the Market and the Ideal of Public Culture at U. C. Santa Barbara
Telecommunications and Media Encyclopedia
of the History of Information
in England from William Caxton to Christopher Barker, an online
exhibition at the University of Glasgow
Rise of a Free Press, a timeline
History of Printing, this page was designed to demonstrate the
usefulness of newsletters, but the sample page offers a helpful explanation
of the rise of (and restrictions on) printing
although this web page from Japan is made up entirely of excerpts
from the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the resulting overview provides
a clear description of the evolution of the newspaper.
Infancy of Printing: Incunabula at the Golda Meir Library:
Renaissance & Reformation, an exhibit at the Thomas Cooper
Library, University of South Carolina;
Industry Born from Dot.Print.
Print Culture from The
Media History Project at the University of Minnesota.
Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead by James
A. Dewar in Ubiquity online magazine. This article on the question
of freedom and the internet includes an analysis of the impact printing
had on the politics of earlier ages.
Impact of the Printing Press is the work of student Jerry Huang
of the University of Texas at Austin, it offers useful information,
particularly on the Timeline