Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech

By Charles Walton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
From the Cahiers de doléances
to the Declaration of Rights

Individual freedom of thought must remain in accordance with the morality and
manners of a people.

—Réponse aux instructions envoyées par S. A. S. monseigneur le duc d’Orléans, à ses chargés de
procuration dans ses bailliages, relativement aux États-généraux
, 1789


Press Freedom on the Eve of the Revolution

The turbulent conditions that Condorcet believed would justify restricting press freedom in his 1776 Fragments sur la liberté de la presse were precisely those reigning in France when this freedom was declared. Futile assemblies of intractable notables, an unbridled speculation war accompanied by a vicious libel war, pitiless calumny campaigns directed by and against ministers, the impending bankruptcy of the monarchy, and highly contested judicial reforms were rocking the Old Regime at its foundations, paralyzing government and sparking popular violence.1 Yet, amid the storm, calls for press freedom were made across the political spectrum, from the crown, clergy, and parlements to the most progressive elements of the nobility and third estate. Indeed, desire for this freedom was so widespread in 1789 that it is difficult to find signs of outright opposition to the principle.

But the devil was in the details. Demands for press freedom were often accompanied by demands for regulations and restrictions on it. We have seen that most philosophes and progressive royal administrators during the Old Regime were rarely naive in conceptualizing this freedom. Whether they saw it as a means for spreading enlightenment or regarded it as a pragmatic solution to an unstoppable clandestine print market, they nearly always envisaged limits. But what did communities throughout France think about press freedom on the eve of the

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