When you think about the Founding Fathers, you probably think of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and, these days, Alexander Hamilton. There’s another founder whose legacy isn’t a monument, memorial or Broadway musical.
He’s James Madison, and he left behind words that protect U.S. citizens — the Bill of Rights.
To mark Madison’s 266th birthday, which is Thursday, we decided to examine one part of his legacy: a free press. Let’s look at why Madison included free press guarantees in the Bill of Rights.
As a British subject, Madison knew it was a crime for newspapers to criticize the king’s government. This was called seditious libel, and in England it didn’t matter whether the criticism that the newspaper printed was true.
“That was the baseline that the American colonists were working with,” said Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington.
But even before Madison’s time, American laws had begun to change. In 1735, a New York newspaper publisher had been found not guilty of libel because what he had printed about that colony’s governor was true.
“That’s probably where the idea of free press was born,” Nott said. “If you say something true, you shouldn’t be charged with any sort of a crime.”
As the colonies were separating from Great Britain, there was a lot of talk about freedoms. Just before Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, fellow Virginian George Mason championed a free press in that colony’s Declaration of Rights. He said it was something that “can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” (In a “despotic government,” one or a few leaders have all the power.)
Madison didn’t see the need to protect individual freedom with a bill of rights when he and others wrote the Constitution in 1787.
“Madison’s feeling was the checks and balances would keep authority in check,” Nott said, referring to the separate powers of the three branches of government.
But some lawmakers, including Mason and Jefferson, strongly supported the idea of guaranteeing freedom of the press.
In 1789, Jefferson wrote to a fellow lawmaker: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
So Madison agreed to come up with amendments to protect citizens’ rights. He included this:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Congress approved this amendment, and by December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states ratified, or agreed to, it and nine others, adding them to the Constitution.
It didn’t take long for some lawmakers to decide they didn’t like a free press. In 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government and President John Adams.
More than a dozen newspaper editors were fined or jailed, and even a member of Congress, Representative Matthew Lyon, was arrested for writing that Adams had “an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp.”
“People were being thrown in jail for expressing opinions,” Nott said.
The law expired when Adams left office in 1801, but that challenge to the First Amendment intensified Madison’s support for an independent press, according to Hilarie Hicks, a research associate at Montpelier, Madison’s home in Orange County, Virginia.
“I would definitely say that the freedom of the press was always important to him, but he didn’t see it challenged until the … Sedition Act,” she said.
Presidents before and after Madison weren’t entirely supportive of the press.
“As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers,” Jefferson wrote while in office.
But there’s nothing in Madison’s papers to suggest that he changed his opinion about a free press, Hicks said. “I don’t think things got under his skin.”
Even after two terms as president, Madison didn’t waver. As he wrote to a former senator from Kentucky, “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with power which knowledge gives.”
We would like to hear your thoughts on a free press in the 21st century. Is it still important, and if so, why?
If you are in grades four through eight, write us a short essay on the subject (no more than 300 words). Send it, along with your name, age and home town, to KidsPost, The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or fill out our form at kidspost.com. A parent or teacher must give permission for you to enter and provide their contact information. The deadline for entries is April 13. The winner will receive four tickets to the Newseum in Washington and will have the essay published in KidsPost on May 3, which is World Press Freedom Day.