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Return to the American Enlightenment

By Clay Jenkinson

The chaos of the last few years about “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and the press as “enemies of the people” has rattled America’s understanding of the search for truth, the reporting of facts and incidents, the role of the media in a free society, and the idea of “objectivity” in a post-literate, post-modern era.

Although newspapers have served as the principal medium of news gathering and dissemination for almost four hundred years, they are an endangered species in the first decades of the twenty-first century. Since 2004, 1,800 newspapers have been discontinued in the United States, one in five, and the hollowing out continues at the rate of more than 100 per year. Many of the newspapers that survive are hanging on by a thread with diminished and often demoralized staffs.

All that is ominous in a free society that depends on the work of the fourth estate to keep citizens adequately informed so they can make responsible choices and to keep government, at all levels, including local, honest. But the “unkindest cut of all” is not in staff size, but in the assault on the very idea of finding and telling the truth in a way that is affordable and accessible to the American public. The political right’s unrelenting attack on any news that does not “fit” its idea of America is both depressing and extremely dangerous. Among other things, it has contributed to the vicious partisanship of our times, including, it seems, the thuggish attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, as Congress attempted to certify the electoral college vote from the November 2020 election.

It may or may not be comforting to note that this was not the first turbulent election cycle in American history. The 1860 election led to the secession of eleven southern states and the union was only knitted back together after the deaths of more than 700,000 Americans. Even then, after all that “American carnage,” the problems of slavery and race were not resolved in America. The Black Lives Matter movement that was touched off by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, reminded us all about how much is left to be done if we wish to be a nation where a person’s pursuit of happiness (or even physical survival) depends not on the color of his or her skin but the content of their character.

As a Thomas Jefferson scholar, I have had plenty of time over the last few years to reflect on the turbulent election of 1800, which has some eerie parallels to the 2020 election. John Adams refused to remain in the national capital to see his old friend, not rival, Jefferson inaugurated in his place. The losers of the election, the Federalists, refused to concede. In fact, they attempted to overturn the will of the people by installing Aaron Burr in the presidency rather than their enemy Jefferson, whom they regarded as an atheist, a Frenchified radical, and a demagogue. It took 36 ballots in the U.S. House of Representatives before the Federalists finally gave up and let Jefferson be installed as the Third President. There was serious talk of civil war.

Sound familiar?

Like all presidents, Jefferson came to distrust the media. After suffering from what he regarded as hostile coverage (he was touchy and thin-skinned, as most are), Jefferson said, perhaps facetiously, that every newspaper should be divided into four sections: Truth, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Bald Lies. The first section, he said, would appear from time to time. And he wrote, “Advertisements contain the only truth to be relied on in a newspaper.”

After he left office on March 4, 1801, Jefferson canceled his subscriptions to such newspapers as existed in the United States in his time, and turned his genius to Greek and Latin classics, including Thucydides, Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, and above all, Horace, his source for the view that America would be happiest as an agrarian republic of exceedingly limited government devolving on what he once called “the republic of the farm.”

Still, it is worth remembering that for all of his grumbling, Jefferson was one of the world’s foremost champions of a free press. In 1787 he famously wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Allowing for some characteristic Jefferson exaggeration, the Sage of Monticello was saying that we cannot be free (or make responsible political choices) if we are not well informed. Where newspapers are gagged or censored, despotism inevitably prevails. But Jefferson also believed that the citizens themselves have an important responsibility to seek out the truth, to read newspapers, to make sure they are adequately informed, so that they can maintain self-government. In the same letter, he wrote, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

We need now more than ever to remember the great code of the Enlightenment, best articulated in John Milton’s “Areopagitica,” but also in Jefferson’s magnificent Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty (1786): “that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

Noble, profound, stirring words from America’s greatest exemplar of the Enlightenment (and yet was a slaveowner). The era that gave us the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence believed in a “free marketplace of ideas,” where truth would prevail over fiction (or alternative facts!), science over superstition, good sense over nonsense, evidence over hunches and gut feelings.

Though that great Enlightenment concept feels a bit threadbare at the moment, tottering on uncertain legs, it is essential that we recommit ourselves to the search for a verifiable truth, to a common acceptance of fundamental facts, to a belief, as Jefferson put it in his First Inaugural Address, “that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” and to the idea that a free press—sometimes annoying, increasingly costly—is all that stands between us and tyranny or national collapse.

Long live Colorado Central Magazine!

Clay Jenkinson is the creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, the author of fourteen books, including his forthcoming study of North Dakota and the challenges of rural America, “The Language of Cottonwoods,” a frequent “talking head” in Ken Burns’ documentary films, and a friend, a very serious friend, to Salida, Colorado.