The Origins of a Free Press in Prerevolutionary Virginia: Creating a Culture of Political Dissent

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The Origins of a Free Press in Prerevolutionary Virginia: Creating a Culture of Political Dissent. Roger P. Meilen. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2009. 320 pp. $119.95 hbk.

It is ironic, as Roger P. Mellen points out, that the Virginia colony, most aristocratic of the thirteen colonies of prerevolutionary America, should have become the home of the great proponents of press freedom for the new democracy. Virginia was a slave-holding colony where the aristocratic lords of the manor were given great deference by the common classes, a deference that extended to both politics and newspapers.

The very first issue of the colony's first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette (August 6, 1736), promised it would not seek

any licentious Freedom, to revile our Governors and Magistrates' to traduce the establish'd Laws and Religion of our Country; or any attempts to weaken and subvert by opprobrious Writings that sacred Respect and Veneration which ought always to be maintain'd for Authority, and Persons in Authority....

In this examination of the Virginia press, the author, an assistant professor at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, focuses primarily on the newspapers of the "Chesapeake region," meaning Virginia and Maryland. He points out that Maryland did not have Virginia's kind of aristocracy, and its first newspaper, the Maryland Gazette, was started in 1727, almost a decade before Virginia's. The Maryland paper was far less deferential to authority and quicker to publish articles critical of government than its sister newspaper, the Virginia Gazette.

Maryland was the first colony to guarantee religious freedom, with its Toleration Act in 1649, and one of that Act's phrases, "the free exercise of religion" ended up in the First Amendment.

But Maryland did not produce the great statesmen and philosophers that ultimately came out of Virginia.

Mellen does note that competition in the newspaper business was one of the crucial goads to the push for press freedom. But he does dispute that it was Thomas Jefferson who arranged for a new newspaper to be started as competition to the royalist Virginia Gazette, by bringing the Maryland Gazette editor, William Rind, to Williamsburg to start a less royalist paper. Mellen writes that "the more radical political element in Virginia turned increasingly to the Maryland press for distribution of their ideas, and this partly fulfilled their goals, as the Maryland newspaper was read by a substantial number of readers in Northern Virginia."

Rind had been co-editor of the Maryland Gazette (with Joñas Green) until 1765. …