Sentinel under Siege: The Triumphs and Troubles of America's Free Press

By Stanley E. Flink | Go to book overview
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7
CRAFTING A CONSTITUTION

We can look to history for some of the right questions, and we can look to the Amendments for the principles that can help guide us. But each generation in American life must take the Constitution and make it live in the circumstances of that generation. And in no part of our life, I think, is that responsibility more complex than it is with respect to mass communications.

-- Benno Schmidt Jr., former president of Yale University

In their discussions and the drafting of documents, the "demi-gods" (as Jefferson described them) of Philadelphia found themselves closeted, isolated from their constituents, and immersed in an enterprise sufficiently protected from the curiosity of the press to permit a kind of fraternal bonding even among men of widely differing views. The composition of the Constitution took place against the background of tension among Federalists and anti-Federalists regarding social and political authority, but the newspapers had no access to the resolution of tensions among the delegates until the texts of agreement were made public.1

Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, had reflected his own political and religious views, which were shared by other prominent participants -- Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, and George Mason among them. They were rationalists. Arbitrary governments were anathema. Reason and experience would form the judgments of individual citizens, producing "self-evident" truths beginning with the realization that governments are derived from "the just consent of the governed." Politics of reason, created for the benefit of all men, were bound to provide human happiness. Jefferson had, in fact, changed the familiar priorities of "life, liberty and property" to the phrase that has inspired yearnings for freedom all over the world -- "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Later in life, Jefferson wrote that the initial draft of the Declaration -- composed with the agreement of Ben Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger

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