Press Censorship in American History


Press censorship and attacks on newspapers began with the founding of the nation and always involved political ideals or social controversies like abolition of slavery.

Since the founding of the United States, a free press has always been a hallmark of openness and the protection of liberties. Guaranteed by the First Amendment, freedom of the press has ensured that the American people were well informed of the issues. At times, the press exposed gross corruption and government scandal such as the Washington Post’s expose of Watergate.

At other times, government tried to use the free press for its own purposes as when the George W. Bush administration attempted to influence journalistic stories designed to be favorable to executive policies. Yet there have been times in the history of the nation when the free press came under attack as well as government-sponsored censorship.

Federalists and the Quasi-War with France

During the John Adams administration, relations with France deteriorated. France had undergone nearly a decade of internal strife that began with the 1789 French Revolution and ended with the Reign of Terror under Robespierre. Federalists, identifying more with Britain than France, feared that these events might affect the political and social processes in the United States.

Section Two of “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States,” enacted July 14, 1798, made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish…any false, scandalous and malicious writing…against the government.” The Act specifically identified Congress and the President. Consequently, any writings against government policy could be prosecuted as defamation. Thomas Jefferson and his opposition party, the Republicans, decried the act as unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment.

The greater issue at hand was the factionalism former President Washington hard warned about in his Farewell Address. Republicans interpreted the act as an illegal vehicle to muzzle legitimate opposition to the hated policies of the Federalists.

The Literary Debate over Slavery and Abolition

In the years preceding the Civil War, a strong abolitionist movement arose in the north, epitomized by William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s serialized novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abolitionist presses in the North produced newspapers, pamphlets, memoirs, books, and petitions designed to sway public opinion. Although such literature was banned in the South and possession and/or dissemination a major crime, the North was far from welcoming as well.

In actions reminiscent of the Baltimore Riots of 1812 when passions over the coming of war with Britain led to a melee of destruction that focused on printing houses and newspaper presses, abolitionist presses became targets of violence and more than one editor died in the process. In the Congress, a long-standing “gag” order prohibited abolitionist literature from introduction to debate.

Woodrow Wilson and World War One

The Wilson administration took sweeping action to limit the free press in America once war was declared. Congress delegated powers to the administration to regulate the press in order to eliminate criticisms that might imperil the war effort. Ironically, a free press, born out of the nation’s first war for independence, was stifled by the first war that took Americans to Europe with the cry, “Lafayette, we are here!”

Importance of Freedom of the Press

Postmodern Americans still receive their news through newspapers – in many cases venerable publications with a long history of investigative journalism, as well as magazines and journals. Increasingly, however, newspapers are forced to cut-back coverage and even cease publication altogether. The proliferation of the internet is blamed for the demise of the printed page.

Yet it can be argued that the internet has increased public awareness and galvanized citizens into action that were hitherto addicted only to the newspaper sports and comics pages. Internet sites like have raised huge amounts supporting political candidates whose positions their readership favors. The great issues of the 21st century have moved from newspaper front pages to computer monitors. What hasn’t changed is the notion of a free press: contemporary news sources are as vital and compelling as their earlier counterparts.


  1. Joseph E. Gould, Challenge and Change: Guided Readings in American History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1969)
  2. Sedition Act, Avalon Project, Yale University