NO. 15. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 1720 [February 15, 1721].
Of Freedom of Speech: That the same is inseparable from publick
Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no
such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the
right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right
of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only
bounds which it ought to know.
This sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the
security of property; and the freedom of speech, always go together; and
in those wretched countries where a man can not call his tongue his own,
he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the
liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a
thing terrible to publick traitors.
This secret was so well known to the court of King Charles I that his
wicked ministry procured a proclamation to forbid the people to talk of
Parliaments, which those traitors had laid aside. To assert the undoubted
right of the subject, and defend his Majesty's legal prerogative, was
called disaffection, and punished as sedition. Nay, people were forbid to
talk of religion in their families: For the priests had combined with the
ministers to cook up tyranny, and suppress truth and the law. While the
late King James, when Duke of York, went avowedly to mass; men were fined,
imprisoned, and undone, for saying that he was a papist: And, that King
Charles II might live more securely a papist, there was an act of
Parliament made, declaring it treason to say that he was one.
That men ought to speak well of their governors, is true, while their
governors deserve to be well spoken of; but to do publick mischief,
without hearing of it, is only the prerogative and felicity of tyranny: A
free people will be shewing that they are so, by their freedom of speech.
The administration of government is nothing else, but the attendance of
the trustees of the people upon the interest and affairs of the people.
And as it is the part and business of the people, for whose sake alone all
publick matters are, or ought to be, transacted, to see whether they be
well or ill transacted; so it is the interest, and ought to be the
ambition, of all honest magistrates, to have their deeds openly examined,
and publickly scanned: Only the wicked governors of men dread what is said
of them; Audivit Tiberius probra queis lacerabitur, atque perculsus
est.1 The publick censure was
true, else he had not felt it bitter.
Freedom of speech is ever the symptom, as well as the effect, of good
government. In old Rome, all was left to the judgment and pleasure of the
people; who examined the publick proceedings with such discretion, and
censured those who administered them with such equity and mildness, that
in the space of three hundred years, not five publick ministers suffered
unjustly. Indeed, whenever the commons proceeded to violence, the great
ones had been the aggressors.
Guilt only dreads liberty of speech, which drags it out of its lurking
holes, and exposes its deformity and horror to day-light. Horatius,
Valerius, Cincinnatus, and other virtuous and undesigning magistrates of
the Roman commonwealth, had nothing to fear from liberty of speech. Their
virtuous administration, the more it was examined, the more it brightened
and gained by enquiry. When Valerius, in particular, was accused, upon
some slight grounds, of affecting the diadem; he, who was the first
minister of Rome, did not accuse the people for examining his conduct, but
approved his innocence in a speech to them; he gave such satisfaction to
them, and gained such popularity to himself, that they gave him a new
name; inde cognomen factum Publicolae est;2
to denote that he was their favourite and their friend. Latae deinde
leges. Ante omnes de provocatione, adversus magistratus ad populum,3 Livii lib. ii. cap. 8.
But things afterwards took another turn: Rome, with the loss of its
liberty, lost also its freedom of speech; then men's words began to be
feared and watched; then first began the poisonous race of informers,
banished indeed under the righteous administration of Titus, Nerva,
Trajan, Aurelius, &c. but encouraged and enriched under the vile
ministry of Sejanus, Tigellinus, Pallas, and Cleander: Querilibet,
quod in secreta nostra non inquirant principes, nisi quos odimus,4 says Pliny to Trajan.
The best princes have ever encouraged and promoted freedom of speech;
they knew that upright measures would defend themselves, and that all
upright men would defend them. Tacitus, speaking of the reigns of some of
the princes above-mention'd, says with ecstasy, Rara temporum
felicitate, ubi sentire quae velis, & quae sentias dicere liceat:5 A blessed time, when you might
think what you would, and speak what you thought!
The same was the opinion and practice of the wise and virtuous Timoleon,
the deliverer of the great city of Syracuse from slavery. He being
accused by Demoenetus, a popular orator, in a full assembly of the people,
of several misdemeanors committed by him while he was general, gave no
other answer, than that he was highly obliged to the gods for granting him
a request that he had often made to them; namely, that he might live to
see the Syracusians enjoy that liberty of speech which they now seemed to
be masters of.
And that great commander, M. Marcellus, who won more battles than any
Roman captain of his age, being accused by the Syracusians, while he was
now a fourth time consul, of having done them indignities and hostile
wrongs, contrary to the League, rose from his seat in the Senate, as soon
as the charge against him was opened, and passing (as a private man) into
the place where the accused were wont to make their defence, gave free
liberty to the Syracusians to impeach him: Which, when they had done, he
and they went out of the court together to attend the issue of the cause:
Nor did he express the least ill-will or resentment towards these his
accusers; but being acquitted, received their city into his protection.
Had he been guilty, he would neither have strewn such temper nor courage.
I doubt not but old Spencer and his son, who were the chief ministers
and betrayers of Edward II would have been very glad to have stopped the
mouths of all honest men in England. They dreaded to be called traitors,
because they were traitors. And I dare say, Queen Elizabeth's Walsingham,
who deserved no reproaches, feared none. Misrepresentation of publick
measures is easily overthrown, by representing publick measures truly:
When they are honest, they ought to be publickly known, that they may be
publickly commended; but if they be knavish or pernicious, they ought to
be publickly exposed, in order to be publickly detested.
To assert, that King James was a papist and a tyrant, was only so far
hurtful to him, as it was true of him; and if the Earl of Strafford had
not deserved to be impeached, he need not have feared a bill of attainder.
If our directors and their confederates be not such knaves as the world
thinks them, let them prove to all the world, that the world thinks wrong,
and that they are guilty of none of those villainies which all the world
lays to their charge. Others too, who would be thought to have no part of
their guilt, must, before they are thought innocent, shew that they did
all that was in their power to prevent that guilt, and to check their
Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die
together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier
against them. It produces excellent writers, and encourages men of fine
genius. Tacitus tells us, that the Roman commonwealth bred great and
numerous authors, who writ with equal boldness and eloquence: But when it
was enslaved, those great wits were no more. Postquam bellatum apud
Actium; atque omnem potestatem ad unum conferri pacts interfuit, magna
illa ingenia cessere.6
Tyranny had usurped the place of equality, which is the soul of liberty,
and destroyed publick courage. The minds of men, terrified by unjust
power, degenerated into all the vileness and methods of servitude: Abject
sycophancy and blind submission grew the only means of preferment, and
indeed of safety; men durst not open their mouths, but to flatter.
Pliny the Younger observes, that this dread of tyranny had such effect,
that the Senate, the great Roman Senate, became at last stupid and dumb:
Mutam ac sedentariam assentiendi necessitatem.7
Hence, says he, our spirit and genius are stupified, broken, and sunk for
ever. And in one of his epistles, speaking of the works of his uncle, he
makes an apology for eight of them, as not written with the same vigour
which was to be found in the rest; for that these eight were written in
the reign of Nero, when the spirit of writing was cramped by fear; Dubii
sermonis octo scripset sub Nerone — cum omne studiorum genus paulo
liberius & erectius periculosum servitus fecisset.8
All ministers, therefore, who were oppressors, or intended to be
oppressors, have been loud in their complaints against freedom of speech,
and the licence of the press; and always restrained, or endeavoured to
restrain, both. In consequence of this, they have brow-beaten writers,
punished them violently, and against law, and burnt their works. By all
which they shewed how much truth alarmed them, and how much they were at
enmity with truth.
There is a famous instance of this in Tacitus: He tells us, that
Cremutius Cordus, having in his Annals praised Brutus and Cassius,
gave offence to Sejanus, first minister, and to some inferior sycophants
in the court of Tiberius; who, conscious of their own characters, took the
praise bestowed on every worthy Roman, to be so many reproaches pointed at
themselves: They therefore complained of the book to the Senate; which,
being now only the machine of tyranny, condemned it to be burnt. But this
did not prevent its spreading. Libros cremandos censuere patres; sed
manserunt occultati & editi:9
Being censured, it was the more sought after. "From hence," says
Tacitus, "we may wonder at the stupidity of those statesmen, who hope
to extinguish, by the terror of their power, the memory of their actions;
for quite otherwise, the punishment of good writers gains credit to their
writings:" Nam contra, punitis ingeniis, gliscit auctoritas.10 Nor did ever any government,
who practiced impolitick severity, get any thing by it, but infamy to
themselves, and renown to those who suffered under it. This also is an
observation of Tacitus: Neque aliud [externi] reges, [aut] qui ea[dem]
saevitiae usi sunt, nisi dedecus sibi, atque gloriam illis peperere.11
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
Valerius Maximus tells us, that Lentulus Marcellinus, the Roman consul,
having complained, in a popular assembly, of the overgrown power of
Pompey; the whole people answered him with a shout of approbation: Upon
which the consul told them, "Shout on, gentlemen, shout on, and use
those bold signs of liberty while you may; for I do not know how long they
will be allowed you."
God be thanked, we Englishmen have neither lost our liberties, nor are
in danger of losing them. Let us always cherish this matchless blessing,
almost peculiar to ourselves; that our posterity may, many ages hence,
ascribe their freedom to our zeal. The defence of liberty is a noble, a
heavenly office; which can only be performed where liberty is: For, as the
same Valerius Maximus observes, Quid ergo libertas sine Catone? non
magis quam Cato sine libertate.12
I am, &c.
1. The correct quote is: ...
audivit Tiberius probra, quis per occultum lacerabatur, adeoque perculsus
est... ("Tiberius heard reproaches that wounded him deeply, and
he was disquieted.") Tacitus, Annales, 4.42.
2. "Then he was named
Publicola." Livy, 2.8.2. The word Publicola means one who lives among
3. "Then laws were proposed,
the first of them a law concerning appeal against the magistrates to the
people." Livy, 2.8.1-2.
4. "We may well complain that
only those leaders who inquire into our secrets are those we hate."
Pliny the Younger, Panegyricus, 68.6.
5. "The rare good fortune of an
age where one is allowed to feel what one wishes and to say what one
feels." Tacitus, Historiae, 1.1.
6. "After the battle of Actium,
when the interests of peace required that all power should be conferred on
one man, great geniuses ceased work." Tacitus, Historiae,
7. "Unspoken and fixed
necessity to assent." Pliny the Younger, Panegyricus, 76.3.
8. "Under Nero he wrote eight
books concerning linguistic problems — when tyranny made all free and
elevated study dangerous." Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 3.5.
9. "The Senate ordered the
books burned, but some, having been hidden, remained and were afterward
published." Tacitus, Annales, 4.35.
10. "On the contrary, the
authority of genius, once punished, grows." Tacitus, Annales,
11. "Nor have foreign kings and
those who imitated their cruelty achieved anything except shame for
themselves and glory for their victims." Tacitus, Annales,
12. "What liberty without Cato?
No more than Cato without liberty." Valerius Maximus, 4.2.4.