University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Press and the Constitution

The press played a critical role in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution and early in the process the impartiality of printers became an issue. In Boston, a piece written in the Independent Chronicle proposed that Antifederalist materials should be published only if authors left their names with the printer to be divulged if anyone so requested. Benjamin Russell of the Massachusetts Centinel established such a policy and urged other printers in Boston to do the same. Russell’s policy predictably created a controversy in Massachusetts and would cause concern elsewhere as well. On 22 October 1787 in the Boston American Herald “John De Witt” observed that in leaving their names with the publisher, the publisher would then reveal their identity “to the publick, and then by the publick he is to be led to execution.” This policy was seen as a form of prior restraint and a part of a Federalist conspiracy to quash criticism of the Constitution, which in turn went to the heart of what the freedom of the press meant in America. Russell modified his approach somewhat but, whenever the Centinel published an Antifederalist item, it was followed with a series of Federalist rebuttals.

Russell’s editorial policy generated a fierce debate in Philadelphia as printers faced similar criticisms among their readers. An item in the Philadelphia Freeman’s Journal, 24 October 1787 alleged that requiring critics of the Constitution to register their names was an insult to the public, claiming that it prevented “that freedom of enquiry which truth and honor never dreads, but which tyrants and tyranny could never endure.”

A similar debate occurred in Georgia where “A Farmer” suggested that printers “keep a register or list of all your literary correspondents containing their real, not their assumed names, and make their acquiescence in this measure a condition of publishing their performances.” This register, “written in a legible hand,” should be “posted on a board and hung up in your office.” Others, however, suggested that this was unnecessary. “For if the objections are good, it matters not a straw who or what the author is, whether a king or a cobbler.”

Early in 1788, Antifederalists in Albany, New York expressed dismay about not having a printer to disseminate their views. Federalists printed all three Albany newspapers. This concern set in motion a concerted effort to establish “an impartial paper” in the city. The need for an Antifederalist printer was somewhat abated when Charles Webster, the printer of the Albany Gazette, agreed to print Antifederalist broadsides. Later in 1788, the Albany Antifederalists established a newspaper to their liking.

Elsewhere, Antifederalist printers felt even more direct financial intimidation. Federalists threatened to cancel their subscriptions and their ads if printers persisted in publishing Antifederalist material. The Pennsylvania Herald was actually forced out of business because of its financial losses. The Boston American Herald relocated to a more tolerant environment in Worcester.

For a full discussion of this issue see The Press and the Constitution (pdf). As you can see from our selections below, printer bias, ad hominem attacks, and the freedom of the press came to the forefront in this controversy during the ratification debates. We have arranged them by state.

Massachusetts

New York

Pennsylvania

Georgia