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Impearls: Alexis de Tocqueville's Bicentennial

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Earthdate 2005-07-30

Alexis de Tocqueville's Bicentennial

Yesterday was the bicentennial of the birth of profound French observer of early America Alexis de Tocqueville, born 1805-07-29 in Paris, died 1859-04-16 in Cannes in that country.  His monumental work Democracy in America is considered by many to belong among that small, select group of documents which constitute America's “Crown Jewels,” including such notables as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.  Impearls has had occasion to extract from Tocqueville's Democracy in America in the past, for instance, here and here; no doubt we will post from his work again in the future, including excerpts from his remarkable travel diary, published as Journey to America, but for now in celebration of Tocqueville's 200th birthday, we'll include the following little piece. 

Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America: 1, 2

It was in April, 1704, that the first American newspaper appeared.  It was published in Boston.  {…}

It would be a mistake to suppose that the periodical press has always been entirely free in America; there have been several attempts at establishing forms of anticipatory censorship and bail.

This is what appears in the legislative documents of Massachusetts under the date of January 14, 1722.

The committee appointed by the General Assembly (the legislative body of the province) to examine the affair of the newspaper called The New England Courant “thinks that the tendency of the said journal is to turn religion to derision and to bring scorn upon it; that the sacred writers are there treated in a profane and irreverent manner; that the conduct of the ministers of the Gospel is interpreted with malice; that his Majesty's government is insulted; and that the peace and order of his province are troubled by the said journal; in consequence, the committee proposes that James Franklin, the printer and editor, should be forbidden from printing or publishing in the future either the said journal or any other writing before he has submitted them to the secretary of the province.  The justices of the peace of the county of Suffolk shall be responsible for obtaining bail from Mr. Franklin, to answer for his good behavior during the coming year.”

The committee's proposal was accepted and became law, but its effect was nil.  The newspaper escaped the prohibition by putting the name of Benjamin Franklin instead of James Franklin at the bottom of its columns, and public opinion found the expedient fair.


References

1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 12th Edition, 1848, edited by J. P. Mayer, translated by George Lawrence, Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York, 1969; p. 719.  For more on Tocqueville check out Impearls' previously posted “Tocqueville acknowledgments and links.”

2 For more on Benjamin Franklin and his works, see also Impearls'Benjamin Franklin and WMD.”


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