Free Speech Is the Great Bulwark of Liberty

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Free Speech Is the Great Bulwark of Liberty


John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were two British lawyers and journalists. From 1720 to 1723, the London Journal published a series of their letters under the pen name "Cato"—the name of a statesman of ancient Rome. These articles were later published in book form. While Trenchard and Gordon were minor figures in British politics, their influence was considerable in the American colonies as their letters were widely and repeatedly reprinted in colonial publications. A very young Benjamin Franklin published them in 1722 when his brother was imprisoned by the Massachusetts legislature for criticizing the government.

The fifteenth of these letters, titled "Of Freedom of Speech: That the Same Is Inseparable from Publick Liberty," is excerpted here. Trenchard and Gordon argue that freedom of speech is essential for holding government accountable to the people by permitting honest and accurate criticism of those in authority. Citing historical examples from Roman and English history, they conclude that "freedom of speech is the great Bulwark of liberty"—a phrase later found in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was one of the inspirations of the U.S. Bill of Rights.


Cato, "Of Freedom of Speech: That the Same Is Inseparable from Publick Liberty," London Journal, February 4, 1720.

Primary Source Text

Sir, Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech: Which is the Right of every Man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the Right of another, and this is the only Check which it ought to suffer, the only Bounds which it ought to know.

This sacred Privilege is so essential to free Government, that the Security of Property, and the Freedom of Speech, always go together; and in those wretched Countries where a Man cannot call his Tongue his own, he can scarce call any Thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of the Nation, must begin by subduing the Freedom of Speech; a Thing terrible to publick Traytors.

This Secret was so well known to the Court of King Charles I, that his wicked Ministry procured a Proclamation to forbid the People to talk of Parliaments, which those Traytors had laid aside. To assert the undoubted Right of the Subject, and defend his Majesty's Legal Prerogative, was called disaffection, and punished as Sedition. . . .

That Men ought to speak well of their Governors, is true, while their Governors deserve to be well spoken of; but to do publick Mischief, without hearing of it, is only the Prerogative and Felicity of Tyranny: A free People will be shewing that they are so, by their Freedom of Speech.

The Administration of Government is nothing else, but the Attendance of the Trustees of the People upon the Interest and Affairs of the People. And as it is the Part and Business of the People, for whose Sake alone all publick Matters are, or ought to be, transacted, to see whether they be will or ill transacted; so it is the Interest, and ought to be the Ambition, of all honest Magistrates, to have their Deeds openly examined, and publickly scanned: Only the wicked Governors of Men dread what is said of them. . . .

A Symptom of Good Government

Freedom of Speech is ever the Symptom, as well as the Effect, of good Government. In old Rome, all was left to the Judgement and Pleasure of the People; who examined the publick Proceedings with such Discretion, and censured those who administered them with such Equity and Mildness, that in the Space of Three Hundred Years, not Five publick Ministers suffered unjustly. Indeed, whenever the Commons proceeded to Violence, the Great Ones had been the Aggressors.

Guilt only dreads Liberty of Speech, which drags it out of its lurking Holes, and exposes its Deformity and Horror to Day-light. Horatius, Valerius, Cincinnatus, and other virtuous and undesigning Magistrates of the Roman Commonwealth, had nothing to fear from Liberty of Speech. Their virtuous Administration, the more it was examined, the more it brightened and gained by Enquiry. When Valerius, in particular, was accused, upon some slight Grounds, of affecting the Diadem; he, who was the first Minister of Rome, did not accuse the People for examining his Conduct, but approved his Innocence in a Speech to them; he gave such Satisfaction to them, and gained such Popularity to himself, that they gave him a new Name; inde cognomen factum Publicolae est; to denote that he was their Favourite and their Friend. . . .

But Things afterward took another Turn: Rome, with the Loss of its Liberty, lost also the Freedom of its Speech; then Mens Words began to be feared and watched; then first began the poisonous Race of Informers, banished indeed under the righteous Administration of Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Aurelius &c. but encouraged and enriched by the vile Ministry of Sejanus, Tigellinus, Pallas, and Cleander. . . .

The best Princes have ever encouraged and promoted Freedom of Speech; they knew that upright Measures would defend themselves, and that all upright Men would defend them. Tacitus, speaking of the Reigns of some of the Princes above-mention'd, says with Extasy, Rara temporum felicitate, ubi sentire quae velis & quae sentias dicere liceat: A blessed Time, when you might think what you would, and speak what you thought! . . .

A Bulwark of Liberty

Freedom of Speech is the great Bulwark of Liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the Terror of Traytors and Oppressors, and a Barrier against them. It produces excellent Writers, and encourages Men of fine Genius. Tacitus tells us, that the Roman Commonwealth bred great and numerous Authors, who writ with equal Boldness and Elloquence: But when it was enslaved, those great Wits were no more. . . . Tyranny had usurped the Place of Equality, which is the Soul of Liberty, and destroyed publick Courage. The Minds of Men, terrified by unjust Power, degenerated into all the Vileness and Methods of Servitude: Abject Sycophancy and blind Submission grew the only means of Preferment, and indeed of Safety; Men durst not open their Mouths, but to flatter. . . .

All Ministers, therefore, who were Oppressors, or intended to be Oppressors, have been loud in their Complaints against Freedom of Speech, and the Licence of the Press, and always restrained, or endeavoured to restrain, both. In consequence of this, they have brow-beaten Writers, punished them violently, and against Law, and burnt their Works. By all which they shewed how much Truth alarmed them, and how much they were at Enmity with Truth. . . .

Freedom of Speech, therefore, being of such infinite Importance to the Preservation of Liberty, everyone who loves Liberty ought to encourage Freedom of Speech. . . .

God be thanked, we Englishmen have neither lost our Liberties, nor are in Danger of losing them. Let us always cherish this matchless Blessing, almost peculiar to ourselves; that our Posterity may, many Ages hence, ascribe their Freedom to our Zeal. The Defence of Liberty is a noble, a heavenly Office; which can only be performed where Liberty is.

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Free Speech Is the Great Bulwark of Liberty

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