Posted by: Democratic Thinker | July 30, 2011

Bryant: Freedom to Speak

American Debate

 
 
Following the Cincinnnati Abolition Riots in 1836, William Cullen Bryant writes an editorial defending the right of all citizens to express concerns without obstruction by those of opposing views.


… if they cannot put down the abolitionist press by fair means, they will do it by foul; if they cannot silence it by remonstrance, they will silence it by violence; if they cannot persuade it to desist, they will stir up mobs against it, inflame them to madness, and turn their brutal rage against the dwellings, the property, the persons, the lives of the wretched abolitionists and their families.

NEW YORK EVENING POST.

Monday, AUGUST 8, 1836.

—————

Abolition Riots.

 

A MEETING of the people of Cincinnati have proclaimed the right of silencing the expression of unpopular opinions by violence. We refer our readers to the proceedings of an anti-abolition meeting lately held in that city. They will be found in another part of this paper.

The Cincinnati meeting, in the concluding resolution offered by Wilson N. Brown and adopted with the rest, declare in so many words that, if they cannot put down the abolitionist press by fair means, they will do it by foul; if they cannot silence it by remonstrance, they will silence it by violence; if they cannot persuade it to desist, they will stir up mobs against it, inflame them to madness, and turn their brutal rage against the dwellings, the property, the persons, the lives of the wretched abolitionists and their families. In announcing that they will put them down by force all this is included. Fire, robbery, and bloodshed are the common excesses of an enraged mob. There is no extreme of cruelty and destruction to which, in the drunkenness and delirium of its fury, it may not proceed. The commotions of the elements can as easily be appeased by appeals to the quality of mercy as these commotions of the human mind; the whirlwind and the lightning might as well be expected to pause and turn aside to spare the helpless and innocent as an infuriated multitude.

If the abolitionists must be put down, and if the community are of that opinion, there is no necessity of violence to effect the object. The community have the power in their own hands; the majority may make a law declaring the discussion of slavery in a certain manner to be a crime, and imposing penalties. The law may then be put in force against the offenders, and their mouths may be gagged in due form and with all the solemnities of justice.

What is the reason this is not done? The answer is ready. The community are for leaving the liberty of the press untrammeled; there is not a committee that can be raised in any of the State legislatures north of the Potomac who will report in favor of imposing penalties on those who declaim against slavery; there is not a legislature who would sanction such a report; and there is not a single free State the people of which would sustain a legislature in so doing. These are facts, and the advocates of mob-law know them to be so.

Who are the men that issue this invitation to silence the press by violence? Who but an insolent, brawling minority, a few noisy fanatics, who claim that their own opinions shall be the measure of freedom for the rest of the community, and who undertake to overawe a vast, pacific majority by threats of wanton outrage and plunder? These men are for erecting an oligarchy of their own and riding rough-shod over the people and the people’s rights. They claim a right to repeal the laws established by the majority in favor of the freedom of the press. They make new laws of their own, to which they require that the rest of the community shall submit, and, in case of a refusal, they threaten to execute them by the ministry of a mob. There is no tyranny or oppression exercised in any part of the world more absolute or more frightful than that which they would establish. So far as we are concerned, we are determined that this despotism shall neither be submitted to nor encouraged. In whatever form it makes its appearance, we shall raise our voice against it. We are resolved that the subject of slavery shall be as it ever has been—as free a subject of discussion and argument and declamation as the difference between whiggism and democracy, or the difference between the Armenians and the Calvinists. If the press chooses to be silent on the subject, it shall be the silence of perfect free-will, and not the silence of fear. We hold that this combination of the few to govern the many by the terror of illegal violence is as wicked and indefensible as a conspiracy to rob on the highway. We hold it to be the duty of good citizens to protest against it whenever and wherever it shows itself, and to resist it, if necessary, to the death.

—William Cullen Bryant.


 

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