2.4 Fighting Censorship


Censorship in Britain and the Colonies
Nathaniel Bacon, William Berkeley, John Peter Zenger, Benjamin Franklin, Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry


Censorship of publications was originally a function of the church, beginning in the early 1500s, when  Pope Alexander VI issued a bill against the unlicensed printing of books.  In 1559 the church issued the Index Expurgatorius, or List of Prohibited Books, for the first time.  It was not formally abolished until 1966.

When Henry VIII of England broke away from the Church in the 1530s, one of the new duties of government became censorship. It was enforced in two ways:  

  • Licensing of printing presses: and a 1538 law establishing prior restraint was formalized with a 1557 charter given to the Stationers Company. Members of the company were given the authority to seize and destroy copies of any unlicensed work;
  • Star Chamber hearings for political opponents.

The main concern was to root out religiously controversial or seditious publications. Under Queen Elizabeth I, even Catholic literature was unofficially tolerated. Attempts to control printing during the early 1600s had only sporadic success,

During the English Civil War (1641-1660) the Licensing Order of 1643 was applied to the rapidly expanding printing business. These were the laws that Milton found objectionable when he wrote Areopagitica.  They included:


  • Pre-publication licensing
  • Registration of all printing materials with the names of author, printer and publisher in the Register at Stationers’ Hall
  • Search, seizure and destruction of any books offensive to the government
  • Arrest,  imprisonment and (in many cases) execution of any offensive writers, printers and publishers.

Censorship laws could be harshly enforced, especially during times of political turmoil. As late as 1692, a printer was hung, drawn (disemboweled), quartered (cut into pieces) for  sedition and “compassing” (discussing) the death of the king

Executions for these offenses ended in 1694 with the lapse of the Licensing Act, due in large part to the efforts of John Locke, although courts would sentence printers to jail time or transportation for sedition or libel in the 1700s.  Prior restraint censorship also ended with the Statute of Anne in 1710, and the lack of prior restraint was considered a hallmark of British freedom in the mid- to late-1700s.

Censorship in the English Colonies  

Laws in the new Virginia colony were harshly stacked against individual liberty, with 300 items that could be punished by torture or execution.  These  included the death penalty for for sedition against the governor or for speaking against the articles of the Christian faith.

In 1620, the Virginia House of Burgesses  stripped Capt. Henry Spellman of rank for “treasonable words.” During the period, thousands of people are brought before Virginia and other state  assemblies and punished for  daring to criticize them, even in the mildest terms.

Truth was not a defense in such cases. In fact, truthful criticism is seen as even worse since it further undermines authority.

In 1640, Sir William Berkeley (1606 – 1677) was appointed governor of Virginia and immediately banished the Puritans. In 1649 he invited Charles II, son of the king executed in 1648, to come over during this exile and be King of Virginia. Charles II stayed in France, and was restored to power in 1660 after Cromwell’s death.

Berkeley was a brutal governor and it is widely held that his approach to government led to the insurrection known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Berkeley suppressed the rebellion without mercy and hanged so many rebels that even Charles II, restored to the throne in 1660, exclaimed, “That old fool [Berkeley] has put to death more people in that naked country (Virginia) than I did here (in England) for the death of the father!”

Berkeley was removed from the governorship and recalled to England, and Virginia celebrated his departure with bonfires. Berkeley sought an interview with the King, who always postponed it. The old man died, still waiting for his audience.

Meanwhile, the first newspapers printed in the colonies, such as Publick Occurrences in 1690 and the Franklin brothers New England Courant, printed in the 1720s,were also suppressed for sedition.

Maryland Toleration Act (1649) prohibited all but Christianity under pain of death but declared toleration among Christians. “And whereas the inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those commonwealthes where it hath been practised… noe person or persons whatsoever within this Province … professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled…”   It was a first tentative step towards freedom of religion.

The trial of John Peter Zenger   1735   — A landmark case in American free speech issues was the John Peter Zenger trial. Zenger’s newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, published two ballads celebrating the election of some of Gov. William Cosby’s opponents to positions of city magistrate. The ballad said their opponents were “pettyfogging knaves” and that the newly elected would “make the scoundrel rascals  fly.” Zenger was charged with seditious libel and spent eight months in jail before the trial. At the trial, Andrew Hamilton, a  Philadelphia  lawyer, gave an eloquent argument to the jury, insisting that truth should be a defense against seditious libel. 

“The question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the jury, is not of small or private concern. It is not the cause of one poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequence affect every free man that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty. And I make no doubt but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens, but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny…”

The Jury returned a not guilty verdict, which usurped  judge’s prerogative to decide whether libel had been committed Zenger. The case had tremendous psychological impact in colonies and was widely accepted as a precedent in English  law. In 1740, for example, William Parks, printer of the Virgina Gazette, published a story about conviction of a House of Burgesses member for stealing sheep some years previously. Parks was tried by the legislature on criminal libel. Citing Zenger, he used truth as a defense and was acquitted. 

CATO: Of Freedom of Speech: That the same is inseparable from publick Liberty. (No. 15, 1721)

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech, which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.This  sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the security of property and the freedom of speech, always go together; and in  those wretched countries where a man can not call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a thing terrible to publick traitors.   (The CATO   LETTERS, were   political opinion columns from two English journalists, are widely published in newspapers in the American colonies and England in the early to mid-1700s. It is interesting that very similar words, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, are engraved over one entrance to the US Senate in Washington DC.)  

Ben Franklin 1706 – 1790 The model journalist and elder statesman of the American
Revolution, Franklin’s ideas about press freedom were an important foundation
of the First Amendment.
He said printers are educated in the belief that “when
men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage  of being heard by the Public. When Truth and Error have fiar Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”

Franklin was also a cautious businessman, and said he would avoid “printing such Things as usually give Offence either to Church or State.” Later in life he said that people who publish
lies deserve to be punished. But then, he asked:

“To whom dare we commit the care of [punishing liars]? An evil magistrate entrusted with power to punish for words would be armed with a weapon most destructive and terrible. Under pretence of pruning off the exuberant branches he would be apt to destroy the tree.”

Therefore, under no circumstances should anyone be punished for publishing
what is true. Anyone who tries to use the powers of government to  bring legal action against a publication that tells the truth “ought to be repudiated as an enemy to liberty.”


Sam Adams (1722 – 1803)

Sam Adams (1722 – 1803), brewer and patriot, seems less radical today. His argument for natural rights is straight from John Locke. And his religious tolerance would not extend to Catholics because, he thought, they would obey the Pope before any secular government.

“Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they  can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of  self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.” 1772Samuel  Adams on the Rights of the Colonists


Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (1736-1809), wrote COMMON SENSE (1776) a call to arms for America, and  THE CRISIS (1776-77) encouraging fellow  revolutionaries, THE RIGHTS OF MAN (1791-92) Paine’s reply to an attack  on the French Revolution by Edmund Burke. and AGE OF REASON (1794, 1796) Paine’s biting criticism of the Bible and religion.

“The revolutions of America and France have …   provoked people to think  by making them feel… Such is the irressistible nature of truth,  that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.   The  sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness.” 

 “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.   Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” —  The Crisis


Patrick Henry

In Virginia, Patrick Henry took the podium at the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, in Saint John’s Church in Richmond:

“… Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there  is no peace. The war is  actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already  in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be  purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”  

Other countries

Other nations were also in the process of reconsidering freedom of speech and the press. Sweden was among the first to abolish complete censorship with a law guaranteeing freedom of the press in 1766. Denmark and Norway followed with their own law on freedom of the press in 1770. An interesting historical discussion is found at the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression.