Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
Volume 1, Chapter 11, Liberty of the Press in the United States
DIFFICULTY of restraining the liberty of the press–Particular reasons that some nations have for cherishing this liberty–The liberty of the press a necessary consequence of the sovereignty of the people as it * understood in America–Violent language of the periodical press in the United States–The periodical press has some peculiar instincts, proved by the example of the United States–Opinion of the Americans upon the judicial repression of the abuses of the press–Why the press is less powerful in America than in France.
The influence of the liberty of the press does not affect political opinions alone, but extends to all the opinions of men and modifies customs as well as laws. In another part of this work I shall attempt to determine the degree of influence that the liberty of the press has exercised upon civil society in the United States and to point out the direction which it has given to the ideas as well as the tone which it has imparted to the character and the feelings of the Anglo-Americans. At present I propose only to examine the effects produced by the liberty of the press in the political world.
I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures.
If anyone could point out an intermediate and yet a tenable position between the complete independence and the entire servitude of opinion, I should perhaps be inclined to adopt it, but the difficulty is to discover this intermediate position. Intending to correct the licentiousness of the press and to restore the use of orderly language, you first try the offender by a jury; but if the jury acquits him, the opinion which was that of a single individual becomes the opinion of the whole country. Too much and too little has therefore been done; go farther, then. You bring the delinquent before permanent magistrates; but even here the cause must be heard before it can be decided; and the very principles which no book would have ventured to avow are blazoned forth in the pleadings, and what was obscurely hinted at in a single composition is thus repeated in a multitude of other publications. The language is only the expression and, if I may so speak, the body of the thought, but it is not the thought itself. Tribunals may condemn the body, but the sense, the spirit of the work is too subtle for their authority. Too much has still been done to recede, too little to attain your end; you must go still farther. Establish a censorship of the press. But the tongue of the public speaker will still make itself heard, and your purpose is not yet accomplished; you have only increased the mischief. Thought is not, like physical strength, dependent upon the number of its agents; nor can authors be counted like the troops that compose an army. On the contrary, the authority of a principle is often increased by the small number of men by whom it is expressed. The words of one strong-minded man addressed to the passions of a listening assembly have more power than the vociferations of a thousand orators; and if it be allowed to speak freely in any one public place, the consequence is the same as if free speaking was allowed in every village. The liberty of speech must therefore be destroyed as well as the liberty of the press. And now you have succeeded, everybody is reduced to silence. But your object was to repress the abuses of liberty, and you are brought to the feet of a despot. You have been led from the extreme of independence to the extreme of servitude without finding a single tenable position on the way at which you could stop.
There are certain nations which have peculiar reasons for cherishing the liberty of the press, independently of the general motives that I have just pointed out. For in certain countries which profess to be free, every individual agent of the government may violate the laws with impunity, since the constitution does not give to those who are injured a right of complaint before the courts of justice. In this case the liberty of the press is not merely one of the guarantees, but it is the only guarantee of their liberty and security that the citizens possess. If the rulers of these nations proposed to abolish the independence of the press, the whole people might answer: Give us the right of prosecuting your offenses before the ordinary tribunals, and perhaps we may then waive our right of appeal to the tribunal of public opinion.
In countries where the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people ostensibly prevails, the censorship of the press is not only dangerous, but absurd. When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries and to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn. The sovereignty of the people and the liberty of the press may therefore be regarded as correlative, just as the censorship of the press and universal suffrage are two things which are irreconcilably opposed and which cannot long be retained among the institutions of the same people. Not a single individual of the millions who inhabit the United States has as yet dared to propose any restrictions on the liberty of the press. The first newspaper over which I cast my eyes, upon my arrival in America, contained the following article:
In all this affair, the language of Jackson [the President] has been that of a heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority. Ambition is his crime, and it will be his punishment, too: intrigue is his native element, and intrigue will confound his tricks, and deprive him of his power. He governs by means of corruption, and his immoral practices will redound to his shame and confusion. His conduct in the political arena has been that of a shameless and lawless gamester. He succeeded at the time; but the hour of retribution approaches, and he will be obliged to disgorge his winnings, to throw aside his false dice, and to end his days in some retirement, where he may curse his madness at his leisure; for repentance is a virtue with which his heart is likely to remain forever unacquainted. (Vincenne’s Gazette.)
Many persons in France think that the violence of the press originates in the instability of the social state, in our political passions and the general feeling of uneasiness that consequently prevails; and it is therefore supposed that as soon as society has resumed a certain degree of composure, the press will abandon its present vehemence. For my own part, I would willingly attribute to these causes the extraordinary ascendancy which the press has acquired over the nation; but I do not think that they exercise much influence on its language. The periodical press appears to me to have passions and instincts of its own, independent of the circumstances in which it is placed; and the present condition of America corroborates this opinion.
America is perhaps, at this moment, the country of the whole world that contains the fewest germs of revolution; but the press is not less destructive in its principles there than in France, and it displays the same violence without the same reasons for indignation. In America as in France it constitutes a singular power, so strangely composed of mingled good and evil that liberty could not live without it, and public order can hardly be maintained against it. Its power is certainly much greater in France than in the United States, though nothing is more rare in the latter country than to hear of a prosecution being instituted against it. The reason for this is perfectly simple: the Americans, having once admitted the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, apply it with perfect sincerity. It was never their intention out of elements which are changing every day to create institutions that should last forever; and there is consequently nothing criminal in an attack upon the existing laws, provided a violent infraction of them is not intended. They are also of the opinion that court,, of justice are powerless to check the abuses of the press, and that, as the subtlety of human language perpetually eludes judicial analysis, offenses of this nature somehow escape the hand which attempts to seize them. They hold that to act with efficacy upon the press it would be necessary to find a tribunal not only devoted to the existing order of things, but capable of surmounting the influence of public opinion; a tribunal which should conduct its proceedings without publicity, which should pronounce its decrees without assigning its motives, and punish the intentions even more than the language of a writer. Whoever should be able to create and maintain a tribunal of this kind would waste his time in pros- ecuting the liberty of the press; for he would be the absolute master of the whole community and would be as free to rid himself of the authors as of their writings. In this question, therefore, there is no medium between servitude and license; in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates. To expect to acquire the former and to escape the latter is to cherish one of . those illusions which commonly mislead nations in their times of sickness when, tired with faction and exhausted by effort, they attempt to make hostile opinions and contrary principles coexist upon the same soil.
The small influence of the American journals is attributable to several reasons, among which are the following:
The liberty of writing, like all other liberty, is most formidable when it is a novelty, for a people who have never been accustomed to hear state affairs discussed before them place implicit confidence in the first tribune who presents himself. The Anglo-Americans have enjoyed this liberty ever since the foundation of the colonies; moreover, the press cannot create human passions, however skillfully it may kindle them where they exist. In America political life is active, varied, even agitated, but is rarely affected by those deep passions which are excited only when material interests are impaired; and in the United States these interests are prosperous. A glance at a French and an American newspaper is sufficient to show the difference that exists in this respect between the two nations. In France the space allotted to commercial advertisements is very limited, and the news intelligence is not considerable, but the essential part of the journal is the discussion of the politics of the day. In America three quarters of the enormous sheet are filled with advertisements, and the remainder is frequently occupied by political intelligence or trivial anecdotes; it is only from time to time that one finds a corner devoted to passionate discussions like those which the journalists of France every day give to their readers.
It has been demonstrated by observation, and discovered by the sure instinct even of the pettiest despots, that the influence of a power is increased in proportion as its direction is centralized. In France the press combines a twofold centralization; almost all its power is centered in the same spot and, so to speak, in the same hands, for its organs are far from numerous. The influence upon a skeptical nation of a public press thus constituted must be almost unbounded. It is an enemy with whom a government may sign an occasional truce, but which it is difficult to resist for any length of time.
Neither of these kinds of centralization exists in America. The United States has no metropolis; the intelligence and the power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country, and instead of radiating from a common point they cross each other in every direction; the Americans have nowhere established any central direction of opinion, any more than of the conduct of affairs. This difference arises from local circumstances and not from human power; but it is owing to the laws of the Union that there are no licenses to be granted to printers, no securities demanded from editors, as in France, and no stamp duty, as in France and England. The consequence is that nothing is easier than to set up a newspaper, as a small number of subscribers suffices to defray the expenses.
Hence the number of periodical and semi-periodical publications in the United States is almost incredibly large. The most enlightened Americans attribute the little influence of the press to this excessive dissemination of its power; and it is an axiom of political science in that country that the only way to neutralize the effect of the public journals is to multiply their number. I cannot see how a truth which is so self-evident should not already have been more generally admitted in Europe. I can see why the persons who hope to bring about revolutions by means of the press should be desirous of confining it to a few powerful organs, but it is inconceivable that the official partisans of the existing state of things and the natural supporters of the laws should attempt to diminish the influence of the press by concentrating its power. The governments of Europe seem to treat the press with the courtesy which the knights of old showed to their opponents; having found from their own experience that centralization is a powerful weapon, they have furnished their enemies with it in order doubtless to have more glory for overcoming them.
In America there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper. It may readily be imagined that neither discipline nor unity of action can be established among so many combatants, and each one consequently fights under his own standard. All the political journals of the United States are, indeed, arrayed on the side of the administration or against it; but they attack and defend it in a thousand different ways. They cannot form those great currents of opinion which sweep away the strongest dikes. This division of the influence of the press produces other consequences scarcely less remarkable. The facility with which newspapers can be established produces a multitude of them; but as the competition prevents any considerable profit, persons of much capacity are rarely led to engage in these undertakings. Such is the number of the public prints that even if they were a source of wealth, writers of ability could not be found to direct them all. The journalists of the United States are generally in a very humble position, with a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind. The will of the majority is the most general of laws, and it establishes certain habits to which everyone must then conform; the aggregate of these common habits is what is called the class spirit (esprit de corps) of each profession; thus there is the class spirit of the bar, of the court, etc. The class spirit of the French journalists consists in a violent but frequently an eloquent and lofty manner of discussing the great interests of the state, and the exceptions to this mode of writing are only occasional. The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers; he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.
Nothing can be more deplorable than this abuse of the powers of thought. I shall have occasion to point out hereafter the influence of the newspapers upon the taste and the morality of the American people, but my present subject exclusively concerns the political world. It cannot be denied that the political effects of this extreme license of the press tend indirectly to the maintenance of public order. Individuals who already stand high in the esteem of their fellow citizens are afraid to write in the newspapers, and they are thus deprived of the most powerful instrument that they can use to excite the passions of the multitude to their own advantage.1
The personal opinions of the editors have no weight in the eyes of the public. What they seek in a newspaper is a knowledge of facts, and it is only by altering or distorting those facts that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views.
But although the press is limited to these resources, its influence in America is immense. It causes political life to circulate through all the parts of that vast territory. Its eye is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political designs and to summon the leaders of all parties in turn to the bar of public opinion.
It rallies the interests of the community round certain principles and draws up the creed of every party; for it affords a means of intercourse between those who hear and address each other without ever coming into immediate contact. When many organs of the press adopt the same line of conduct, their influence in the long run becomes irresistible, and public opinion, perpetually assailed from the same side, eventually yields to the attack. In the United States each separate journal exercises but little authority; but the power of the periodical press is second only to that of the people.2 THE OPINIONS established in the United States under the influence of the liberty of the press are frequently more firmly rooted than those which are formed elsewhere under the sanction of a censor.
IN the United States democracy perpetually brings new men to the conduct of public affairs, and the administration consequently seldom preserves consistency or order in its measures. But the general principles of the government are more stable and the chief opinions which regulate society are more durable there than in many other countries. When once the Americans have taken up an idea, whether it be well or ill founded, nothing is more difficult than to eradicate it from their minds. The same tenacity of opinion has been observed in England, where for the last century greater freedom of thought and more invincible prejudices have existed than in any other country of Europe. I attribute this to a cause that may at first sight appear to have an opposite tendency: namely, to the liberty of the press. The nations among whom this liberty exists cling to their opinions as much from pride as from conviction. They cherish them because they hold them to be just and because they chose them of their own free will; and they adhere to them, not only because they are true, but because they are their own. Several other reasons conduce to the same end.
It was remarked by a man of genius that “ignorance lies at the two ends of knowledge.” Perhaps it would have been more correct to say that strong convictions are found only at the two ends, and that doubt lies in the middle. The human intellect, in truth, may be considered in three distinct states, which frequently succeed one another.
A man believes firmly because he adopts a proposition without inquiry. He doubts as soon as objections present themselves. But he frequently succeeds in satisfying these doubts, and then he begins again to believe. This time he has not a dim and casual glimpse of the truth, but sees it clearly before him and advances by the light it gives.3
When the liberty of the press acts upon men who are in the first of these three states, it does not immediately disturb their habit of believing implicitly without investigation, but it changes every day the objects of their unreflecting convictions. The human mind continues to discern but one point at a time upon the whole intellectual horizon, and that point is constantly changing. This is the period of sudden revolutions. Woe to the generations which first abruptly adopt the freedom of the press.
The circle of novel ideas, however, is soon traveled over. Experience comes to undeceive men and plunges them into doubt and general mistrust. We may rest assured that the majority or mankind will always remain in one of these two states, will either believe they know not wherefore, or will not know what to believe. Few are those who can ever attain to that other state of rational and independent conviction which true knowledge can produce out of the midst of doubt.
It has been remarked that in times of great religious fervor men sometimes change their religious opinions; whereas in times of general skepticism everyone clings to his old persuasion. The same thing takes place in politics under the liberty of the press. In countries where all the theories of social science have been contested in their turn, men who have adopted one of them stick to it, not so much because they are sure of its truth as because they are not sure that there is any better to be had. In the present age men are not very ready to die for their opinions, but they are rarely inclined to change them; there are few martyrs as well as few apostates.
Another still more valid reason may be adduced: when no opinions are looked upon as certain, men cling to the mere instincts and material interests of their position, which are naturally more tangible, definite, and permanent than any opinions in the world.
It is a very difficult question to decide whether an aristocracy or a democracy governs the best. But it is certain that democracy annoys one part of the community and that aristocracy oppresses another. It is a truth which is self-established, and one which it is needless to discuss, that “you are rich and I am poor.”
1 They write in the papers only when they choose to address the people in their own name; as, for instance, when they are called upon to repel calumnious imputations or to correct a misstatement of facts.
2 See Appendix P.
3 It may be doubted, however, whether this rational and self-guiding conviction arouses as much fervor or enthusiastic devotion in men as does their first dogmatical belief.