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IPFS News Link • Political Theory

The 'Press' Is a Machine

•, By Tim Hartnett

A pre-woke corps of news writers were out to get Thomas Jefferson in print while still alive and kicking. When he died July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, media scuttlebutt included a theory the demise was timed with an intentional laudanum overdose. Federalist broadsheets were loaded with snide, spurious cracks about the first president of the 19th century. They explain why he said: "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers."

Once quietly entombed a few years the mud barrage stopped flying. Generations preceding ours were inclined to sanctify words of the man. The back-biting, spite-filled rage of political rhetoric during the Adams-Jefferson era faded from popular memory. John Adams was so fed up with the Anti-Federalist press he tried to outlaw it with the Sedition Act. His primary target was Benjamin Franklin Bache, publisher of the American Aurora and Ben Franklin's favorite grandson. Bache succumbed to yellow fever before trial.

Adams successor was no keener on opposition ink but stuck to free speech guns. The sedition act was quickly repealed after the 1801 inauguration. Jefferson found the power to dummy up enemies worse than any calumny they spread. It may be his greatest historic legacy.

A guy who claimed, "I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it," was also known for, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Political animals have never been known to take it better than they dish it out. Jefferson, whatever his sins, is still worth heeding.

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