Freedom of speech, therefore, being of such infinite importance to the preservation of liberty, every one who loves liberty ought to encourage freedom of speech. Hence it is that I, living in a country of liberty, and under the best prince upon earth, shall take this very favourable opportunity of serving mankind, by warning them of the hideous mischiefs that they will suffer, if ever corrupt and wicked men shall hereafter get possession of any state, and the power of betraying their master: And, in order to do this, I will shew them by what steps they will probably proceed to accomplish their traitorous ends. This may be the subject of my next.
- Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letters, #15
The fate of millions, and the being of states, must not stand and fall by the distinctions of monks, coined in colleges, or by the chicane of petty-foggers; who would bring every thing within the narrow verge of their own knowledge, under their own jurisdiction and cognizance; and would determine all things by the rules of inferior judicatures, the gibberish of private practisers, and the sayings of old women, or of those who are like old women; whose brains are addled by being long jumbled and always turned round within the scanty circle of private courts, not daring to venture at a bold and free thought out of them, however self-evident; like some carriers’ horses, that are used to a track, and know not how to travel in an open road.
But questions of this kind belong ad aliud examen, and ought to be brought before an higher tribunal: The legislature are the only proper and safe judges: What is done against all, should be judged by all. Nor are their resolutions to be confined by any other rule than Quid est utile, quid honestum, general justice, and the general good. Religion, virtue, common sense, and the publick peace and felicity, are the only counsel to be admitted either for the publick or the prisoners.
- Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letters #12
A couple weeks ago I pointed to the interesting circumstance that the Craftsman, while relying on the indirect speech of the eighteenth-century public sphere, at the same time attempts to close off excessive or too-deep interpretations. I wonder if it might be possible to generalize this tendency. We might say that the public sphere constitutes (constituted?) a double movement: an opening--of public space, of venues for discussion, of the limits of what could be said--but also a closing, the pathological need to police discussion, squabble over legitimacy, and conceive of the public sphere as a power with an ideological basis.
It is this last aspect that interests me the most, I think. The accounts of freedom of speech and of the press given in Cato's Letters, a periodical just slightly older than the Craftsman (1721), were probably among the most significant defenses of that right, both for those fighting for it in the 18th century and for those who came after. But, as scholars from Leonard Levy to Michael Warner have pointed out, the kind of free speech it outlined was something rather peculiar: it was not so much about the unfettered expression of ideas as the supervision of the government, the most ready means for the discovery and punishment of traitors.
In fact, this supervision permeates Cato's Letters from top to bottom; it is only incidentally a journal of liberty, being occupied mainly in howling for blood. No. 16, the very next issue after its celebrated defense of free speech, addresses its public thus:
Let neither private acquaintance, personal alliance, or party combination, stand between us and our duty to our country: Let all those who have a common interest in the publick safety, join in common measures to defend the publick safety: Let us pursue to disgrace, destruction, and even death, those who have brought this ruin upon us, let them be ever so great, or ever so many: Let us stamp and deep engrave, in characters legible to all Europe at present, and to all posterity hereafter, what vengeance is due to crimes, which have no less objects in view than the ruin of nations, and the destruction of millions: They have made many bold, desperate, and wicked attempts to destroy us; let us strike one honest and bold stroke to destroy them.If we read this kind of passage together with the lines from no. 12, we find a clear message spelled out: the press is not a neutral ground for discussion, and it should not be considered as such. The press is a tool for destroying those whom we oppose. If the interests of "publick justice" are in any way impeded by the interests of public debate--as they are necessarily, because debate can always be controlled by monks and pettifoggers--the latter must go. Freedom of speech, it seems, was just a way of forging a weapon out of the public of print. The threat of violence could always be legitimately applied if justice was at stake.
The explanation for this phenomenon, I think, is a similar one to that which I sketched out for the Craftsman. We are accustomed to a strict division of levels of abstraction, and good liberals get angry when they're violated. On the one hand, I can make any argument I want; on the other hand, I can't subvert the medium to promote my own opinion at the expense of others--"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In the eighteenth century, no such separation was conceivable--if only because the creation of a neutral substrate for discussion was itself, thoroughly and completely, an ideological move. Trenchard and Gordon understood this well.