License of the Press

Mark Twain
Hartford, Conn. Monday Evening Club
March 31, 1873
(annotated by Paul Schindler)
Based on Full text of "The complete works of Mark Twain [pseud.] Mark Twains Speeches Vol. 24"

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(the press) has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular.

It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.1

I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate.

It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.

There are laws to protect the freedom of the press's speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press. A libel suit simply brings the plaintiff before a vast newspaper court to be tried before the law tries him, and reviled and ridiculed without mercy.

The touchy Charles Reade2 can sue English newspapers and get verdicts; he would soon change his tactics here: the papers (backed by a public well taught by themselves) would soon teach him that it is better to suffer any amount of misrepresentation than go into our courts with a libel suit and make himself the laughing stock of the community.

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.

The difference between the tone and conduct of newspapers to-day and those of thirty or forty years ago is very noteworthy and very sad — I mean the average newspaper (for they had bad ones then, too).

In those days the average newspaper was the champion of right and morals, and it dealt conscientiously in the truth. It is not the case now.

The other day a reputable New York daily had an editorial defending the salary steal and justifying it on the ground that Congressmen were not paid enough — as if that were an all-sufficient excuse for stealing.3 That editorial put the matter in a new and perfectly satisfactory light with many a leather-headed reader, without a doubt.

It has become a sarcastic proverb  that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.

Among us, the newspaper is a tremendous power. It can make or mar any man's reputation. It has perfect freedom to call the best man in the land a fraud and a thief, and he is destroyed beyond help. Whether Mr. Colfax is a liar or not can never be ascertained now — but he will rank as one till the day of his death — for the newspapers have so doomed him.4

Our newspapers — all of them, without exception — glorify the "Black Crook" and make it an opulent success — they could have killed it dead with one broadside of contemptuous silence if they had wanted to.5

Days Doings and Police Gazettes6 flourish in the land unmolested by the law, because the virtuous newspapers long ago nurtured up a public laxity that loves indecency and never cares whether laws are administered or not.

In the newspapers of the West you can use the editorial voice in the editorial columns to defend any wretched and injurious dogma you please by paying a dollar a line for it.

Nearly all newspapers foster Rozensweigs and kindred criminals and send victims to them by opening their columns to their advertisements. You all know that.7

In the Foster murder case the New York papers made a weak pretense of upholding the hands of the Governor and urging the people to sustain him in standing firmly by the law; but they printed a whole page of sickly, maudlin appeals to his clemency as a paid advertisement.8

And I suppose they would have published enough pages of abuse of the Governor to destroy his efficiency as a public official to the end of his term if anybody had come forward and paid them for it — as an advertisement.

The newspaper that obstructs the law on a trivial pretext, for money's sake, is a dangerous enemy to the public weal. That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse.

I am personally acquainted with hundreds of journalists, and the opinion of the majority of them would not be worth tuppence in private, but when they speak in print it is the newspaper that is talking (the pygmy scribe is not visible) and then their utterances shake the community like the thunders of prophecy.

I know from personal experience the proneness of journalists to lie. I once started a peculiar and picturesque fashion of lying myself on the Pacific coast, and it is not dead there to this day.

Whenever I hear of a shower of blood and frogs combined, in California, or a sea serpent found in some desert, there, or a cave frescoed with diamonds and emeralds (always found by an Injun who died before he could finish telling where it was), I say to myself I am the father of this child — I have got to answer for this lie.

And habit is everything — to this day I am liable to lie if I don't watch all the time. The license of the press has scorched every individual of us in our time, I make no doubt.

Poor Stanley was a very god, in England, his praises in every man's mouth. But nobody said anything about his lectures — they were charitably quiet on that head, and were content to praise his higher virtues. But our papers tore the poor creature limb from limb and scattered the fragments from Maine to California — merely because he couldn't lecture well. His prodigious achievement in Africa goes for naught — the man is pulled down and utterly destroyed — but still the persecution follows him as relentlessly from city to city and from village to village as if he had committed some bloody and detestable crime. 9

Bret Harte was suddenly snatched out of obscurity by our papers and throned in the clouds — all the editors in the land stood out in the inclement weather and adored him through their telescopes and swung their hats till they wore them out and then borrowed more; and the first time his family fell sick, and in his trouble and harassment he ground out a rather flat article in place of another heathen Chinee, that hurrahing host said, "Why, this man's a fraud," and then they began to reach up there for him. And they got him, too, and fetched him down, and walked over him, and rolled him in the mud, and tarred and feathered him, and then set him up for a target and have been heaving dirt  at him ever since.10

The result is that the man has had only just nineteen engagements to lecture this year, and the audience have been so scattering, too, that he has never discharged a sentence yet that hit two people at the same time. The man is ruined — never can get up again. And yet he is a person who has great capabilities, and might have accomplished great things for our literature and for himself if he had had a happier chance.

And he made the mistake, too, of doing a pecuniary kindness for a starving beggar of our guild — one of the journalistic shoemaker class — and that beggar made it his business as soon as he got back to San Francisco to publish four columns of exposures of crimes committed by his benefactor, the least of which ought to make any decent man blush. The press that admitted that stuff to its columns had too much license.11

In a town in Michigan I declined to dine with an editor who was drunk, and he said, in his paper, that my lecture was profane, indecent, and calculated to encourage intemperance. And yet that man never heard it. It might have reformed him if he had.12

A Detroit paper once said that I was in the constant habit of beating my wife and that I still kept this recreation up, although I had crippled her for life and she was no longer able to keep out of my way when I came home in my usual frantic frame of mind. Now scarcely the half of that was true. Perhaps I ought to have sued that man for libel — but I knew better.13

All the papers in America — with a few creditable exceptions — would have found out then, to their satisfaction, that I was a wife beater, Si and they would have given it a pretty general airing, too. Why I have published vicious libels upon people myself — and ought to have been hanged before my time for it, too — if I do say it myself, that shouldn't.

But I will not continue these remarks. I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse, and will probably damn the Republic yet. There are some excellent virtues in newspapers, some powers that wield vast influences for good; and I could have told all about these things, and glorified them exhaustively — but that would have left you gentlemen nothing to say.

1) The New York Times describes the salary grab in some detail. Briefly, according to Wikipedia: "On March 3, 1873, President Grant signed a law that authorized the President's salary to be increased from $25,000 a year to $50,000 a year and Congressmen's salaries to be increased by $2,500. Representatives also received a retroactive pay bonus for previous two years of service. This was done in secret and attached to a general appropriations bill. Reforming newspapers quickly exposed the law and was repealed on January 1874. Grant missed an opportunity to veto the bill and to make a strong statement for good government"
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2) Charles Reade was a British playwright, who, in spite of having studied law, or perhaps because of it, was involved in many lawsuits.

According to Bookseller: the organ of the book trade, By the Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland, Publishers' Association, March 1, 1873

Reade Versus the Morning Advertiser

Reade won 200 pounds from the Morning Advertiser in a libel suit. In 1872, the paper’s critic, Mr. Lee, wrote that Shilly Shally, a play Reade had based on Anthony Trollope’s Ralph the Heir, was “an indelicate play, or, at all events, a play containing very indelicate passages.” He also called it “thin in story” and “weak.” For good measure, Mr. Lee added that “decent people… have not the moral courage to hiss down the wretched double entendres which disgust them.”
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3) I cannot find this editorial, although one web site had an editorial in favor of the pay raise from a provincial Republican newspaper. Further information on this reference is welcome: email me. (pes- at- sign -schindler -dot -org)
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4) Grant's first-term vice president, Schuyler Colfax apparently lied about his involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. He left politics in disgrace.
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5) According to Wikipedia: "The Black Crook is considered to be the first piece of musical theatre that conforms to the modern notion of a "book musical". The book is by Charles M. Barras (1826-1873), an American playwright. The music is mostly adaptations, but some new songs were composed for the play, notably "March of the Amazons" by Giuseppe Operti, and "You Naughty, Naughty Men", with music by George Bickwell and lyrics by Theodore Kennick. It opened on September 12, 1866. The British production of The Black Crook, opened at the Alhambra Theatre on December 23, 1872."
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6) According to Wikipedia: "The National Police Gazette, commonly referred to as simply the Police Gazette, was an American magazine founded in 1845 by two journalists, Enoch E. Camp, also an attorney, and George Wilkes, a transcontinental railroad booster.[1] The editor and proprietor from 1877 until his death in 1922 was Richard Kyle Fox, an immigrant from Ireland.
Ostensibly devoted to matters of interest to the police, it is a tabloid-like publication, with lurid coverage of murders, Wild West outlaws, and sport. It is well known for its engravings and photographs of scantily clad strippers, burlesque dancers, and prostitutes, often skirting on the edge of what is legally considered obscenity."
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7) There is an 1873 case mentioned in the New York Times involving a Rosensweig, but no Rozensweig. The case does not seem to match Twain's reference. Further information on this reference is welcome: email me. (pes- at- sign -schindler -dot -org)
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8) From the website Executed Today:

"[March 21, 1873] William Foster — who spent two years warding off execution — finally succumbed to New York’s hangman.

Foster’s case was a long-term headline-grabber: he drunkenly accosted a couple of perfect strangers on the Broadway Line (think horses, not trains), then smashed the man of the party, Avery Putnam, with a conductor’s device going by the sinister name of “car-hook”. His case turned, both juridically and in the public eye, on the question of whether Foster had formed an “intent” sufficient to justify a first-degree murder conviction; the killer’s own jury later joined appeals for his reprieve, having felt buffaloed by public opinion in the immediate aftermath of the crime."

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9) Henry Stanley (1841 - 1904)

Excerpted from the BBC website: Henry Morton Stanley was a Welsh-born American journalist and explorer, famous for his search for David Livingstone and his part in the European colonization of Africa. He was born John Rowlands on 28 January 1841 in Denbigh, Wales. In 1867, Stanley became special correspondent for the New York Herald. In [Zanzibar in] November 1871 he found the sick explorer, greeting him with the famous words: 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' Stanley's reports on his expedition made his name. He earned $60,000 for an 1890-91 U.S. lecture tour. There is no record on the Internet of bad reviews of any English lecture tour preceding Twain’s speech. 

Further information on this reference is welcome: email me. (pes- at- sign -schindler -dot -org)

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10) Brett Harte in Google Books
On 15 December 1872 Kendall published an attack on Harte in the San Francisco Chronicle, belittling his talent and accusing him of embezzling funds…

Harte, Bret (1836-1902) (
Bret Harte, the first American writer from the West Coast to gain an international reputation, was instrumental in introducing frontier literature to eastern audiences.
His short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was published in the August 1868 issue [of the Overland Monthly] and brought him immediate national fame.
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11) Further information on this reference is welcome: email me. (pes- at- sign -schindler -dot -org)
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12) Further information on this reference is welcome: email me. (pes- at- sign -schindler -dot -org)
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13) Further information on this reference is welcome: email me. (pes- at- sign -schindler -dot -org)
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