Antipress Violence and Politics in the Early Republic
Revolutionary ideology emphasized unity, not division, in the body politic. At every point in the series of events leading to the break with England, patriot apologists invoked a luminous public interest, a mythical cause of liberty, with the rhetorical implication that there was one interest, one liberty, for all patriots. When patriots disagreed among themselves, it was concealed, if possible. Disagreements happened, and patriot leaders were no virgins when it came to politics, but ideologically they were ill equipped to justify partisan activities.
This changed in the early Republic. By the end of the 1820s, politics came to be characterized by permanent nonideological partisan divisions, and politicians praised political competition as a healthy means of promoting the public good. In the process, a realm of public discourse was created for peaceful combat among interested parties. Within this realm, "licentious" press conduct ceased to produce majoritarian violence; instead, editors and politicians stood ready to punish personal insults by fighting or dueling. Outside the realm of acceptable partisanism, of course, majoritarian violence persisted, with rioting and vigilantism flaring up, especially in the 1830s. The public learned to tolerate a certain range of political differences, then, even while tremendous social dislocations continually redrew the line between tolerable and intolerable expression and behavior.
The Revolution itself did not produce a popular habit of political tolerance. But it did produce constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, the most famous of which was the First Amendment to the federal Constitution. Because the First Amendment is such a key document, it will bear quotation in full: