Let me tell you a secret. Bear with me. President Trump has steadfastly defended the American Pledge of Allegiance, and rightly so. The pledge dates to a teacher, patriot and Civil War veteran, George Thatcher Balch. Updated in 1892, 1942 and 1954 – to include God – the vow is a commitment to America’s flag, liberty and justice.
Take a moment and think on liberty. If the flag is clear, and justice subject to varied definitions, liberty is concrete. Liberty is honored in our First Amendment, Bill of Rights, 1791, guarantee of freedoms we enjoy.
The Second Amendment assures us the right to “keep and bear arms.” The First assures liberties of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Legal tomes have been written on all five, but these freedoms amount to America’s bedrock.
Thomas Jefferson worried greatly about the first three, “free exercise” of faith, free speech (unencumbered by political intimidation), and free press (unimpaired by government overreach).
Jefferson felt strongly about state limits on conscience, or religious convictions, and limits on speech. While not a Baptist, Jefferson wrote persuasively to Baptists that the Bill of Rights would protect them against the imposition of a “state religion” (e.g. Anglicanism)
While soft spoken – not a Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”), George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Monroe, or John Adams – Jefferson was a devotee of free speech. After all, he wrote the Declaration, right?
He differed with Adams, America’s second President, on the sanctity of press. To Jefferson, a free press was everything – without it, government would slide from accountability, lose the trust on which democracy depended.
Jefferson was often harried by the press. In his own time, before, during and after being president, he was considered polarizing. Nevertheless, he declared: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Years on, reflecting on what they had done, Jefferson wrote to his old friend Lafayette, then in France. The year was 1823, and Jefferson opined: “The only security of all is in the free press,” because “the force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.”
Adams – with whom Jefferson regularly quarreled – was no pal of the press. So much did Adams hate “newspapers” that he signed the Sedition Act in 1798, making it illegal to criticize the government. Jefferson let the act lapse in 1880, deeming it a mortal danger to America’s liberty. The act made criticizing a president criminal; Jefferson – then president – would have none of it.
So where are we today? Liberty is as important today as ever – under attack from every direction. Every liberty in the First Amendment is under fire. President Trump is a champion of these liberties. But he has recently stepped in Adam’s direction, away from Jefferson.
The state of America’s irresponsible, often untruthful, and proudly anti-traditional press galls him. While tempers flare – part of the human condition – President Trump has again dubbed the press an enemy. Jefferson might have felt equally galled by Federalist press but would have held fire.
Yes, many in the press either do not know or do not respect American history – but a free press is not the enemy, not antithetical to our values; it is part of what we have fought to preserve. Like many presidents, President Trump has been treated unfairly, the press failing to respect his office and achievements. He has been treated far worse than most and achieved far more.
But pulling back on the throttle is the right thing to do – not the reverse. Like managing ground effect in a tight space, sometimes the way forward is to give not take, let the process guide the outcome, let facts and principles do their magic, rather than forcing what may not otherwise happen. As they say, good things take time.
Specifically, in this case, the President lashed out at a news outlet that is usually “fair and balanced.” He condemned them as “not working for us anymore,” by which he meant not interpreting the world as he sees it, reporting facts he thinks immaterial, and widening the scope of interviews.
Responding, a news anchor recited the network’s obligation is to report truth, not fawn or favor a political figure. The President pressed his case, got a rejoinder, and then complained that the network favored his opponents. Throttling up – particularly against a level-headed outlet – is unproductive.
Here is the truth: Jefferson never had to put up with the 24-hour news cycle, never confronted false allegations intended to unseat him and undermine his presidency, and never faced the kind of press onslaught that this president has faced.
But Jefferson was unparalleled in several ways – he had epic prescience, depth of commitment to the Bill of Rights, and timeless wisdom. He understood principles that protect, preserve, reinforce and sustain liberty. Press freedom is one.
Much of what President Trump has done for liberties cherished by Jefferson, the founder would applaud. Jefferson would be shocked to see attacks on speakers advancing traditional ideas, especially on college campuses. He would be shocked at how little is learned, how much history is forgotten, how much of what he fought for lost. He would be utterly appalled to see those of faith mocked and derided, including by members of the US Congress and federal judges.
But he would ride to the defense of a free press, urging them to be responsible, and urging the president to pull back. Jefferson once urged his anti-press predecessor, John Adams, to give press freedom a chance. Jefferson had no love for lies told, but knew America needed a free press.
Does this mean saying a hostile press is not hostile, an untruthful press is credible, a false narrative somehow true, a belligerent antagonist unbiased, an irresponsible journalist professional, undignified reporter dignified, or false story accurate? No, certainly not.
Jefferson never gave up trying to clarify the truth. But that is the whole point. In a free society, truth has a chance – and facts will out. So long as we believe in the timeless, sacred freedoms lodged in our First and Second Amendments – and insist they be exercised responsibly – we will be free. That is the secret. The secret of liberty is standing by these liberties, even when that is hard.