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A Distant Heritage

The Growth of Free Speech in Early America

Larry Eldridge

Publication Year: 1995

Historians often rely on a handful of unusual cases to illustrate the absence of free speech in the colonies—such as that of Richard Barnes, who had his arms broken and a hole bored through his tongue for seditious words against the governor of Virginia. In this definitive and accessible work, Larry Eldridge convincingly debunks this view by revealing surprising evidence of free speech in early America.

Using the court records of every American colony that existed before 1700 and an analysis of over 1,200 seditious speech cases sifted from those records, A Distant Heritage shows how colonists experienced a dramatic expansion during the seventeenth century of their freedom to criticize government and its officials. Exploring important changes in the roles of juries and appeals, the nature of prosecution and punishment, and the pattern of growing leniency, Eldridge also shows us why this expansion occurred when it did. He concludes that the ironic combination of tumult and destabilization on the one hand, and steady growth and development on the other, made colonists more willing to criticize authority openly and officials less able to prevent it. That, in turn, established a foundation for the more celebrated flowering of colonial dissent against English authority in the eighteenth century.

Steeped in primary sources and richly narrated, this is an invaluable addition to the library of anyone interested in legal history, colonial America, or the birth of free speech in the United States.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

Many people made significant contributions to this work. The most obvious, perhaps, are the members of my dissertation committee at Vanderbilt University. Paul Conkin, the dissertation director, imparted his work ethic and always treated me with tolerance, good humor, and respect. James Ely, the...


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pp. xiii-xv

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Introduction: Leaving the Shadow

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pp. 1-4

Historians have long stood in the shadow of a presupposition masquerading as a conclusion, namely that no political free speech existed in seventeenth-century America. Leonard Levy, an eighteenth- century specialist and still the premier historian of colonial free speech, summarized the state of scholarly opinion on the subject in his 1985 revision of...

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ONE. The Boundaries of Colonial Speech

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pp. 5-19

Governments regulate expression across a wide spectrum, and to accomplish varied ends. Ultimately, the goal is to maintain a well-ordered society—to uphold prevailing moral and social values, to preserve public peace, to maintain respect for authority. Colonial governments were no different. In this chapter I outline the various areas of expression that colonial authorities...

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TWO. Seditious Speech Law

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pp. 20-41

English seditious speech laws originated in the thirteenth century, eventually crossing the Atlantic to become established in the colonies. Those laws were the foundation upon which prosecution and punishment stood. They were also, in a sense, the one major constant in an ever-evolving universe of control over expression. To appreciate the important changes in...

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THREE. The Nature of the Words

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pp. 42-66

Early colonial authorities sought to control expression across a wide spectrum in the interests of maintaining ordered society and stable government. Within that spectrum, laws against seditious speech of various types figured prominently, and they retained their essential elements throughout the seventeenth century. Yet the gulf between theory and practice, between statute...

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FOUR. Between the Millstones

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pp. 67-90

Throughout the seventeenth century, colonists well understood William Hoskins's observation that to be a defendant drawn into the criminal justice system was to be "ground as copper between two millstones."1 Here we will explore the nature of that system as seditious speakers confronted it, from discovery and arraignment through trial and conviction. What...

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FIVE. Sanctions in Decline

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pp. 91-113

Colonists tried for seditious words in the 1600s more often than not found themselves convicted and facing punishment. Early in the century, that prospect was a looming terror, for the possibility of disfigurement and other hardly less alarming forms of corporal punishment was very real. Short of those, profound...

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SIX. A Growing Leniency

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pp. 114-131

Across the seventeenth century, colonial officials increasingly abandoned a variety of harsher sanctions in punishing seditious words, adopting in the process milder penalties as replacements. Here we examine those expanding penalties, then explore in turn the decline of multiple sanctions, the rise of remittances, and the growing inclination to either forgo prosecutions...

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SEVEN. Fruits of Circumstance

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pp. 132-142

Across the seventeenth century, colonial authorities came to punish seditious speech much more mildly, abandoning humiliation, exclusion, and bodily injury in favor of milder sanctions including small fines and admonition. They also abandoned the older propensity for multiple punishments of a...


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pp. 143-173


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pp. 175-194


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pp. 195-198

E-ISBN-13: 9780814722534
E-ISBN-10: 0814722539
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814721957
Print-ISBN-10: 0814721958

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 1995