Publishers Beware! Libel Law in Eighteenth-Century America
Though they may have been willing to lower their guard against neighborhood gossips, the colonial elite kept their legal weapons primed and ready for libelers who entered the public field. And during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most colonial officials did not lack for potential targets. If the dominant idea remained one of order and harmony, the clash of factional groups suggested a somewhat different reality. Shifting coalitions of political "outs" formed and reformed in many communities and in most provinces. This intermittent factionalism gave birth to bitter political debates that authorities could not always terminate by the old system of controls.
Most areas of English North America endured severe, sometimes violent, political troubles during the late seventeenth century, and colonial authorities often invoked new controls over political expression. Responding to continued unrest in the Old Dominion, for instance, Lord Effingham's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1685 warned Virginians that "the Rise and Growth of Sedition and Faction proceeds and encreases by the over lycentiousness of people in their discourses," and his Lordship charged all governmental officials to act resolutely against "seditious discourses" lest they upset "ye Giddy headed Multitude." Disturbed by opposition in Pennsylvania's lower counties to William Penn's proprietary rule, the provincial legislature passed a comprehensive sedition law in 1684. And in the wake of Leisler's Rebellion of 1689 in New York, authorities stepped up prosecutions for "contempt of authority."1
By the early eighteenth century, many colonial officials faced a new political threat--the printing press. In New England, for example, introduction of the printing press gave the literate public access to a great deal of information about politics and government; after the first decade of the eighteenth century, pamphlets and then newspapers appeared regularly. Through these publications, citizens could learn about the actions of their political representatives and could read English and colonial political essays, many of which offered alternatives to the views presented by New England's political and religious establishment.2
Not everyone welcomed the printing press. Governor William Berkeley of Virginia, for example, once thanked God that in his colony "there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world,