Academic journal article Journalism History

John Wilkes and the Constitutional Right to a Free Press in the United States

Academic journal article Journalism History

John Wilkes and the Constitutional Right to a Free Press in the United States

Article excerpt

Englishman John Wilkes was widely admired in the American colonies as a political journalist, a radical politician, and a fighter for liberty. He greatly influenced the revolutionaries who fought for American independence, but modern historians of America have by and large ignored the essential role that Wilkes played in establishing the right to freedom of the press.1 Wilkes published stinging criticism of the British ministry in the infamous issue no. 45 of his newspaper, The North Briton, and was accused of seditious libel, thrown out of Parliament, and made an exile from his homeland. His battles with an oppressive government received constant attention in the colonial American newspapers. His arrest was noted critically in many papers, including this one in the Boston Post-Boy of June 1763: "The Hand of Authority being lifted up in order to fall heavily on such Political Writers as may displease."2 While he was the political darling of the London radical lower classes and the colonial press paid him lavish attention, his constant indebtedness, his licentiousness, and his eventual rejection by his radical followers has left his image badly tarnished and his contributions largely ignored. Despite his downfall, Wilkes was critically important to the development of freedom of the press as a constitutional right in the United States. Our enjoyment of this essential freedom owes much to this nearly forgotten radical British politician.

John Wilkes and his disputes with the British authorities over press freedom had a greater influence on the American First Amendment than has been previously acknowledged. There are many theories about the origins of this important constitutional protection: Leonard Levy's premise was that American press freedoms emerged directly from the British legal tradition and did not include freedom from seditious libel prosecution.3 Other theorists argued that colonial legal developments (especially the celebrated John Peter Zenger case) were the impetus for a more extensive liberty of the press. Still other historians explored how Enlightenment philosophy directly influenced American ideas, leading to a more liberal concept of this freedom. Several historians have recognized Wilkes's importance to the development of colonial concepts of liberty in general. Wilkes has even been referred to as the "father of civil liberty,"4 but the direct connection between Wilkes and the U.S. constitutional right to a free press has been underdeveloped. This research builds upon all of those theories of press freedom and Wilkes's influence on American rights by exploring more deeply his role in the development of the ideal of liberty of the press. Close examination of colonial newspaper reports on Wilkes's struggles for liberty-specifically press freedom-placed side-by-side with the historical origins of liberty of the press in the colonies add to our understanding of its genesis by demonstrating a straightforward, positive, and critical influence by Wilkes upon those who enacted the first constitutional protection for the freedom of the press.

Most theories of the origins of the constitutional right to a free press largely ignore Wilkes's contributions. Leading theorist Leonard Levy briefly noted Wilkes's battles with British authorities, even reporting that he had an "inflated reputation among the colonists," and that they associated Wilkes with freedom of the press. Levy, however, does not recognize any connection between Wilkes and the development of the American constitutional right, directly stating that Wilkes "did nothing whatever to advance freedom of the press," since he never actually repudiated the legality of prosecution for seditious libel and did not write any detailed theory of what liberty of the press actually meant.5 Rather than focus on Wilkes or the contemporary British political struggles, Levy's premise was that American press freedoms emerged directly from British legal tradition, which precluded the need for a license prior to publication, but did not include freedom from seditious libel prosecution. …

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