Protecting the Best Men: An Interpretive History of the Law of Libel

By Norman L. Rosenberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
Beyond Hamiltonianism: Libel Law Debates, 1840-1880

Mid- Nineteenth-Century Libertarianism: A Critique

In many ways claims that ordinary citizens contributed, through the channels of popular communication, to the formation of public opinion rang hollow. Even before the major wire services contributed to the standardization and industrialization of political reporting, the partisan newspaper networks exerted similar pressures toward uniformity. As early as 1826, Andrew Jackson's supporters had begun to fill smaller pro-Jackson papers with extracts from leading journals and newspapers. According to one of the closest students of nineteenth-century political journalism, the party presses produced "a manufactured or synthetic public sentiment."1

Similarly, the noisy penny presses, such as James Gordon Bennett New York Herald, preached a social-political view that ultimately squared with the interests of powerful elites. Although the penny presses liked to laud their political independence and feature bombastic exposés of public corruption, they still (in the words of one of their most perceptive historians, Dan Schiller) "assumed the institutional legitimacy of the republic" and used the cause of universal social justice "as a means to [their own] ever-enlarging circulation and profits." All the while, the penny-press operators could offer considerable deference to the best men. "We ought to guard the reputation of our great men--to whatever party they belong--better than to make them the sport of other nations, by revealing every little thing, by a forced construction to their discredit," advised James Gordon Bennett. The reputation of men such as Daniel Webster "ought to be cherished, encouraged, and taken care of."2

The mid- nineteenth-century marketplace of free expression contained other "distortions."3 Most obviously, it did not extend to the Slave South where the law of human bondage prohibited the enslaved from questioning their statuses, and where both law and custom effectively quashed criticism of the peculiar institution by whites. Even in the North, blacks encountered much more difficulty than white abolitionists when they spoke out on racial issues. In addition, the ongoing struggle to obtain political equality, including an equal right of free speech, involved women as well as blacks. Even Theodore Dwight Weld's libertarian speech to the citizens of Painesville acknowledged that women possessed an inferior position in the marketplace of ideas. "La-

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