A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.
—Donald Trump, February 23, 2017
On February 18, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined “Memo to Trump: Thomas Jefferson Invented Hating the Media.” Apparently, Trump got the memo; that afternoon, at a rally in Florida, he quoted Jefferson to burnish his claim that the media’s agenda “is not your agenda.” The Post may have been annoyed about supplying the president with his talking points, because a week later, it ran another piece assuring readers that Jefferson “truly believed—and acted always in accordance with the belief—that free speech and a free press were…indispensable.” “If Trump is channeling any historical figure in calling out the press as ‘enemies of the people,’” the Post concluded, “it is Joseph Stalin, or possibly Robespierre, not Thomas Jefferson.”
First of all, Jefferson liked Robespierre. Second, as my Aunt Suzie likes to say, “You’re both wrong.”
Let’s institute a moratorium on exploiting Thomas Jefferson to comment on the liberal media, Breitbart, or the First Amendment until we sort out what he really thought. Jefferson was indeed an eloquent defender of a free press. He was also a scheming purveyor of fake news. And he was an inveterate whiner about being the butt of media scrutiny—so much so that he tried to suppress the scrutinizers. He was a complicated guy, an “American Sphinx,” as one of his biographers would have it.
The key is to forget everything you know about journalism. The modern media and Jeffersonian Era newspapers aren’t apples to oranges; they’re gluten-free bagels, selfie sticks, and hover boards to pillories, dueling pistols, and Yellow Fever epidemics. In the 18th century, objectivity was barely a concept. Investigative reporting didn’t exist. Information travelled as fast as an exhausted horse.
Imagine, instead, just the opinion page of your local paper, but with these changes: it’s (secretly) funded directly by politicians, nobody signs their name to anything (Hamilton sometimes wrote under the byline “An American”), and the rhetoric is extra nasty. One of the most talented editors of the period, William Cobbett, wrote under the pen name Peter Porcupine, which marvelously evokes what he considered his duty to be. Cobbett was so needling that he even hated Canada.
Protestations of impartiality I shall make none. They are always useless and are besides perfect nonsense, when used by a news-monger. Peter Porcupine
These were the newspapers to which Jefferson referred when he famously said he preferred “newspapers without a government” to “a government without newspapers.” Revolutionary Jefferson feared corruption and tyranny more than anything, and he believed an enlightened citizenry was the antidote to both. “Our first object,” he said, “is to leave open to [man] all avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.”
Even this liberty-loving version of Jefferson didn’t understand freedom of the press the way we do. Basically every American Revolutionary rejected prior restraint—that is, government censors didn’t get to approve what you wrote before you published. There was plenty of debate, though, about what you might call subsequent restraint—that is, how much trouble you could get into for saying something deemed libelous. Jefferson was more liberal on this than most, but almost nobody thought editors should be allowed to publish whatever they wanted, even if it were true. Benjamin Franklin, himself a printer, said he would “cheerfully consent to exchange my liberty of abusing others for the privilege of not being abused myself.”
At some point, liberty crossed over into what Jefferson and his peers called licentiousness, which led right back to corruption and tyranny. But liberty and license were slippery concepts. It was tempting for Jefferson to decide that what he liked was liberty and what he hated was license. When the newspapers started criticizing President Jefferson after 1800, he changed his relationship status from “married to freedom of the press” to “it’s complicated.”
Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion. New England Palladium
The liberty period: A year into Washington’s presidency, Jefferson already worried that the United States was on the verge of collapse. Seriously. This was a full century before the Founders were the faces on money. The United States was still a startup, and everybody had a very personal stake in its success, because everybody thought they had invented it. Think of the undignified cock fight between the Winkelvosses, Eduardo Saverin, and Mark Zuckerberg about who founded Facebook.
In this crisis, in 1791, Jefferson, the secretary of state, hired the poet Philip Freneau to work as a translator with the understanding that he’d actually spend his time editing a newspaper and roughing up Jefferson’s enemies: most notably Adams, Hamilton, and Washington, who in his mind were betraying the Revolution and bringing monarchy back. Hamilton, Freneau wrote, was determined to “devour liberty in the bud, and suck the vitals of the honest industrious farmers, merchants, and tradesman.”
Washington asked Jefferson to rein in “that rascal Freneau.” Jefferson not only refused to fire him; he also lied, swearing to Washington “in the presence of heaven” that he had nothing to do with Freneau’s paper. Meanwhile, Jefferson was urging his friends to “cut [Hamilton] to pieces in the face of the public.”
Imagine that Rex Tillerson just hired Michael Moore to work in the State Department cafeteria while making propaganda films ridiculing Trump. That’s roughly what was happening in the 1790s.
John Adams, Washington’s successor, lost patience with the repeated beatings he took in the papers, so he made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish” anything “scandalous or malicious…against the government of the United States.” Jefferson savaged the so-called Sedition Act, which people who need Jefferson to be the father of the free press like to point out. But his opposition had as much to do with the politics of 1798 as with timeless principles. It’s easy to harp on freedom when you’re obsessed with using it to embarrass your enemies.
The license period: The tables turned quickly after Jefferson was elected president. In 1802, an editor named James Callender reported the rumor that Jefferson fathered several children with his “slave concubine,” Sally Hemings. (DNA tests have established this as a fact, not a rumor, which makes it even harder to fathom that Jefferson said of his slaves that he “consider[s] a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm.”) Jefferson called Callender “hideous,” even though he’d had him on the payroll in 1797 when he was exposing Hamilton’s blackmail payments to his mistress’s husband. Callender had the distinction of being prosecuted for sedition by one side and sued for libel by the other.
By 1803, Jefferson was writing that Adams and Hamilton were “pushing [the press’s] licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution” that it was a danger to the public safety. When the governor of Pennsylvania suggested suing some obnoxious newspapers in Philadelphia for libel, Jefferson agreed “that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect.” Jefferson’s friends pursued more than a few, though never as many as his enemies did.
In 1807, Jefferson wrote the letter in which he said, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” This is the embittered Jefferson that Trump chose to quote when the Washington Post gave him the idea.
So who was Jefferson? A staunch defender of the freedom of the press? The mastermind behind campaigns to ruin his enemies with fake news? A liar and a censor? Lucky for us, we don’t have to find a way to make Jefferson an internally consistent human being to know for sure that CNN is not the enemy of the people.
There is a vast historical literature about freedom of the press in the 1790s. Don’t bother. Start with The Free and Open Press by Robert W.J. Martin, the introduction to which includes the historiography you need. Jeffery L. Pasley’s The Tyranny of Printers and Marcus Daniel’s Scandal and Civility are also excellent recent studies of slightly different aspects of the general subject. As for Jefferson, you could spend the rest of your life reading biographies, but I recommend American Sphinx, which deserved the National Book Award even if Joseph Ellis lied about his war service. Joyce Appelby knows more than anyone–and way way more than I do–but I have to say that her entry in the American Presidents series feels a little enthusiastic. She really likes Jefferson, I get it. But it’s as if by acknowledging what a racist he was, she gets credit for being fair and balanced and can just pangloss the rest of it.