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Founding Fathers on Fake News


Robert Martin
Robert Martin

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

So began an essay by Professor of Government Robert W.T. Martin titled “What Did the Founding Fathers Think of Fake News?” published by the History News Network on Feb. 15.

Martin quoted numerous Founding Fathers in his opinion piece emphasizing the imperative that we “defend and support the political press as a fourth branch and fight against repetitive falsity, lest we lose sight of the truth.”

Martin wrote that “Jefferson worried then, in public and private, about ‘false opinions in league with false facts’ and their threat to popular government.” Alexander Hamilton wrote that, “The most zealous reverers of the people’s rights, have, when placed on the highest seat of power, become their most deadly oppressors.”

Another Founding Father, James Madison, wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or, perhaps both. … And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Martin concluded his essay with this call to action, “To save our experiment [in democracy] we need to take the role of the press and the demands of citizenship more seriously. And soon.”

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