Tag Archives: Libel

What to do about the fake news? Part 8

During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the Press has been levelled against us, charged with whatsoever it’s licentiousness [without moral or legal restraint] could devise or dare. these abuses of an institution [a stable and productive government], so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted … they tend to lessen it’s usefulness and to sap it’s safety. they might perhaps have been corrected by the wholsome punishments [of] … the laws of the several states against falsehood & defamation. but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.
Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders know there will always be serious detractors!
Thomas Jefferson’s naturally thin skin was rubbed raw by the unceasing attacks of his political opponents in the Federalist press. He thought their baseless charges were disrupting and degrading, an attempt to undermine the people’s government.

There was no pretense of an “objective press” in Jefferson’s time. To be fair, there was a Republican press sympathetic to the President that could be equally savage toward its opponents.

The First Amendment protected the press from any federal action, but there were state laws against libel. Those might have been used to correct an abusive press, but public servants had more important things to do than to pursue them. “Public indignation” would be the newspapers’ only punishment.

“Thank you for all your hard work …
You have provided a real service for the educators of Missouri.”
Co-Chair, Teaching and Learning Conference
MO Department of Elementary & Secondary Education
Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak and provide a real service to your audience.
Call 573-657-2739
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It’s fake news, my friend. (But I won’t say so publicly.)

those especially who read the Gazette of the US. need to be set to rights, for in the long  statement which appeared in that paper about a week ago, there was not one single fact which was not false …
the Gazette of the US. is evidence of this [opposition] … 4. pages of solid matter … & the whole so false and malignant, as shews it is prepared for the purpose of exportation, and to poison the minds of foreign countries against their own, which is too well informed to drink of the dose.
To William Short, January 23, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Strong opposition from some of the press comes to all leaders.
The previous post, from a letter to Jefferson’s daughter, dealt with diplomatic offense taken when he did not show favoritism to British and Spanish representatives at private dinners. In this long letter to a trusted friend, Jefferson explained the conflict in much greater detail.

He was particularly concerned about a report in an opposition newspaper, the Gazette of the United States, claiming every single fact in the account to be wrong. The entirety of the paper was “so false and malignant” that its only purpose was “to poison the minds of foreign countries” against the United States. Affirming confidence in his countrymen, he said Americans were “too well informed” to drink that poison.

Jefferson regularly shared strong opinions in his correspondence with trusted friends but almost never did so publicly, where he maintained an even-handed cordiality. Yet, he wanted to reassure those who knew him well with the benefit of his thinking, to combat what opponents thought of him.

“The “Dinner with Thomas Jefferson” … was a huge success…
Your command of Mr. Jefferson’s persona and mind,
and your facility in answering complex questions were impressive.”
Chairman, “3 Flags Festival,” The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial
Let Mr. Jefferson contribute to the success of your event.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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