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David Hume and the Danish Debate about Freedom of the Press in the 1770s

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 59, Number 1, January 1998
pp. 167-172 | 10.1353/jhi.1998.0004

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Journal of the History of Ideas 59.1 (1998) 167-172

John Christian Laursen

When the reception history of David Hume's political writings is written, there will have to be some discussion of their fate in "peripheral" countries like Denmark. Hume's "Of Liberty of the Press" was translated into Danish as early as 1771. It is not widely known that Denmark was the first country officially to declare freedom of the press and that a lively debate broke out once such freedom was declared. Hume's essay was put to work in that debate. The story of this translation provides insights into the influence of Hume's ideas in peripheral countries in Europe, and of Denmark in continental European ideas. Among other things, here we have an example of Hume's work used in a concrete propaganda battle.

The Danish translation of Hume's essay was published as the last of three supplemental essays in a 31-page pamphlet entitled Mr. F. A. de Voltaire's Letter to His Majesty the King of Denmark concerning freedom of the press in his states, together with some essays of relevant content. A copy can be found at the Royal Library in Copenhagen in volume twenty of the forty-five bound volumes of pamphlets and booklets from 1770 to 1773 which make up Luxdorph's Collection of Press Freedom Writings. These pamphlets, in German, French, and (mostly) Danish, were collected at the time by Bolle Willum Luxdorph, a Danish man of letters and court counselor.

The occasion for Voltaire's letter and our pamphlet was King Christian VII's declaration of freedom of the press in his territories (the Kingdoms of Norway and Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein) on 4 September 1770. It was in the form of a Cabinet Order to his Danish Chancellery, in the following words:

We are fully convinced that it is as harmful to the impartial search for truth as it is to the discovery of obsolete errors and prejudices, if upright patriots, zealous for the common good and what is genuinely best for their fellow citizens, because they are frightened by reputation, orders, and preconceived opinions, are hindered from being free to write according to their insight, conscience, and conviction, attacking abuses and uncovering prejudices. And thus in this regard, after ripe consideration, we have decided to permit in our kingdoms and lands in general an unlimited freedom of the press of such a form, that from now on no one shall be required and obliged to submit books and writings that he wants to bring to the press to the previously required censorship and approval, and thus to submit them to the control of those who have undertaken the business until now of inspecting them; so have we graciously revealed and made known this our will concerning our kingdoms to our Danish Chancellery. Given at Friedrichsberg, the 4 September 1770. Christian.

The foregoing cabinet order was largely the idea of Johann Friedrich Struensee, court physician and soon to be Prime Minister for Christian VII. Less than ten years earlier, two periodicals he was involved with when he lived in Danish Altona had been suppressed, and when he came to power by a series of accidents, one of his first acts was to arrange for the king to declare freedom of the press.

Response to this declaration was immediate. In Denmark it led to a flurry of pamphlets on a myriad of topics, including the high cost of living and the salaries of ministers, monopolies and trade issues (vol. III), coinage (vol. IV), civil servants, the public debt, the agricultural economy (vol. V), the abolition of tenant farmers' work obligations (vol. VI), the Iceland trade (vol. VII), marriage law, breweries (vol. VIII), banks, lotteries (vol. IX), soldiers' and sailors' pay (vol. X), the Norwegian economy (vol. XI), the universities and academies (vol. XII), the power of women (vol. XIII), irreligion and impiety (vol. XIV), prophecies of doom (vol. XV), fables, allegories and libels (vols. XVI-XVIII), and the eternity of hell (vol. XIX).

Many pamphlets discussed press freedom itself. Some were dedicated largely to that issue, including the pamphlet with the Voltaire and...


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