To commemorate America’s 227th “Constitution Day,” Professor of Government Robert Martin gave a talk on Sept. 17 titled “Alexander Hamilton’s Constitutional Order” in KJ’s Red Pit. “I come to history with a purpose,” he announced upon his introduction, immediately engaging his audience. The lecture focused on the hostile relationship between government and the press at a time when both were newly formed entities.

Martin explained the contrastive views between notable 18th century Federalists John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who believed in the movement toward popular elections and showing respect toward elected officials, to more traditional thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who thought citizens and the press should be “vigilant” in their criticisms, in order to keep government in line.

Leaders like Hamilton believed “one ought to question publications,” for the slanderous criticisms they published were dangerous, not only to the President and Congress, but indeed to the voters who empowered them. They were, in a sense, undermining or “diverting” the people’s decisions and confidence in government.

Hamilton in particular, Martin explained, was an advocate for stricter limits on the libelous press, arguing that “preserving reputations of officers of government is essential” in allowing them to do their job. This was especially important in the 1790s because, unlike today, government had to rely on the people much more seriously. At that time, people would show their “non-support” in quite powerful ways: not paying their taxes or not showing up to their military service, to name a few.

Martin cited two specific cases in which government took action in the wake of the press’s seditious libel. One involved Alexander Hamilton, who believed that “using truth wantonly is not a justification.” Martin told the story of Hamilton’s reading a news report claiming his plans to buy up a Republican newspaper—a complete lie, made more absurd by the fact that Hamilton could not even afford to do such a thing.

Rather than taking the more gentlemanly approach of ignoring the offense as something beneath him, Hamilton vexedly wrote his local attorney general, who arranged a trial, resulting in the journalist’s months-long imprisonment and large fine. (Hamilton even showed up himself, and was sworn in as a witness) After this case, Hamilton demanded not just evidence from reporters, but good motives and “justifiable ends” as well. Many states picked up this moral standard against libel for the majority of the 19th century. 

Describing the Constitution as “a window into how we suspect a government to work,” Martin gave an informative lecture. Toward the end of his talk, he emphasized the importance of being “careful and aware of how we use our power of speech,” as relevant in today’s society as in that of our revered namesake.

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