On July 4th, Americans celebrate the birth of our nation, officially declared independent on this day in 1776 when the Second Continental Congress ratified the text of the Declaration of Independence, with its famous line, now memorized by schoolchildren across the country, affirming the still-sacred principles of our infant democracy:
The text of the famous document came to be over the course of 17 days under a five-man committee, with revisions contributed by Founding Fathers including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others, as well as by the full Congress.
But the principle drafter was Thomas Jefferson, who went on to become our nation’s first Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President.
Jefferson was a man with a complex legacy whose actions and views are not wholly compatible with today’s social norms or even with his famous phrase that “all men are created equal,” but on one point Jefferson is an example to presidents today.
Jefferson, despite his dislike of its contents, occasionally quite unfavorable to him, was an ardent defender of the freedom of the press, calling for the press to dedicate itself to seeking truth and arguing against restrictions on press freedoms.
Particularly later in his presidency, Jefferson was the subject of intense public criticism as the still-new country continued to struggle with asserting independence. The press, an institution which, then as now, comprised opinion media as well as journalism, played no small part in that criticism.
Jefferson, who proudly claimed to various personal correspondents, “I never in my life had, directly or indirectly, written one sentence for a newspaper,” had in fact been instrumental in the founding of the National Gazette, a partisan, opinion-based publication, and called a free press the “most effectual” avenue to truth.
He called the press a check on government, responsible to the people. Though the First Amendment and its constitutional protection of press freedom would not be enshrined in law until five years later, Jefferson wrote to John Jay in 1786 "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it," suggesting later to another friend that the press is “the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions."
Yet Jefferson privately fumed at what he considered “abandoned licentiousness” among some in the Fourth Estate. He wrote that “the press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood,” but also worried that refusing to sensationalize news would present a business challenge to the “noble institution,” saying “yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers.”
For all its shortcomings, real and perceived, Jefferson refused to restrict the press, saying in his second inaugural address, “since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint.”
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence and birth of our nation.
Throughout his life and his presidency, Jefferson stood up for the institution even when it was critical of his administration. He believed in the people’s right to know and hold their elected officials accountable. He did not attempt to hide from investigation, even when the truth appeared unfavorable to him. He knew that a free and independent press, dedicated to seeking and reporting truth, is no enemy.
Find more of Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on press freedom here and, from all of us at RTDNA, have a safe and happy Independence Day.