Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History

By Leonard Williams Levy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The American Colonial Experience

T he persistent image of colonial America as a society in which freedom of expression was cherished is an hallucination of sentiment that ignores history. The evidence provides little comfort for the notion that the colonies hospitably received advocates of obnoxious or detestable ideas on matters that counted. Nor is there reason to believe that rambunctious unorthodoxies suffered only from Puritan bigots and tyrannous royal judges. The American people simply did not understand that freedom of thought and expression means equal freedom for the other fellow, especially the one with hated ideas.

To be sure, the utmost freedom often existed on the frontier, but the test of free speech is not the right of a man to soliloquize or shout his outrageous ideas from the top of a lonely mountain; it is, rather, his right to speak openly and with impunity among his neighbors. Colonial America was the scene of the most extraordinary diversity of opinion on religion, politics, social structure, and other vital subjects, but every community, particularly outside of the few "cities," tended to be a tight little island clutching

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