Censorship During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The First Amendment prohibited abridgment of freedom of the press because the Framers of the Bill of Rights wanted to guarantee rights enjoyed in Great Britain. When James Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution attacking the infamous Sedition Act of 1798, he wrote that attempts to curb speech could not be subjected to prior censorship and prosecution for seditious libel was inconsistent with American democracy. Therefore, it would have been intellectually and politically inconsistent for Madison, as president, to curb an active free press in the years preceding and during the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 divided the United States into pro-French and pro-British factions, each with its own press attacking the actions of the other side.

The First Amendment prohibited abridgment of freedom of the press because the Framers of the Bill of Rights wanted to guarantee rights enjoyed in Great Britain. When James Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution attacking the infamous Sedition Act of 1798, he wrote that attempts to curb speech could not be subjected to prior censorship and prosecution for seditious libel was inconsistent with American democracy. Therefore, it would have been intellectually and politically inconsistent for Madison, as president, to curb an active free press in the years preceding and during the War of 1812.

The American press of Madison’s era published highly charged political commentary in newspapers, printed inflammatory political pamphlets, and, in a few instances, wrote political graffiti on town walls and offered bribes to British and U.S. political figures. In the years leading up to 1812 U.S. newspapers were divided into pro-Federalist and pro-Democratic-Republican camps. Washington, D.C.’s National Intelligencer, regarded as Madison’s political mouthpiece, frequently contained articles written by Madison himself, or members of his staff, explaining their governmental views on issues affecting the nation. The Georgetown Federal Republican was run by Madison’s archfoe, Alexander C. Hanson, who put aside his political rivalry with Madison long enough during the War of 1812 to warn the president about a plot to kill him.

President James Madison. (Library of Congress)

President Madison made no formal effort, and did not encourage congressional action, to squelch press attacks on him during his presidency and the War of 1812. However, partisan politics exercised a form of press censorship when Madison supporters broke into opposition newspapers and destroyed their property. A particularly serious incident that occurred on July 27, 1812, was known as the “Baltimore Massacre.” Former Virginia governor and Federalist Henry Lee was in Baltimore visiting William Hanson. Hanson, the editor of the Federal Republican, was a hard-core opponent of the war whose press regularly denounced the Madison administration. Hanson’s printing office came under attack by an unruly mob who destroyed his press. Hanson replaced the press and continued his criticisms. Lee was joined by additional Federalist Revolutionary War officers who came to defend Hanson. The new office was attacked and in the resulting melée, Lee was taken for dead and left on the street. Found unconscious, he was carried to the security of a jail, but, that, too, was attacked leaving Lee severely wounded. His health never fully recovered from these events and caused him to be disqualified from military service in the War of 1812. Such partisan violence and the inability of Federalist New England freely to trade with Great Britain only emboldened the minority Federalist Party and press to exercise their First Amendment rights in an active press war against the war, Madison, and the Democratic-Republican Party.

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