Thomas Jefferson On the Nature of News

Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, Letter of June 14, 1807

I thought the above letter had some sections worth sharing, so here goes (words in italics are Jefferson’s):

1. I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which presents in one full & comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded, according to the rights of nature. For want of a single work of that character, I should recommend Locke on Government, Sidney, Priestley’s Essay on the first Principles of Government, Chipman’s Principles of Government, & the Federalist. Adding, perhaps, Beccaria on crimes & punishments, because of the demonstrative manner in which he has treated that branch of the subject. If your views of political inquiry go further, to the subjects of money & commerce, Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the best book to be read…

Nature gives rights, and those rights dictate the principles of a proper government. Fine.

So why is there no comprehensive elementary work on the subject? Is it because the “organization of society into civil government” is a bloody, messy, awful affair where anarchism and despotism threaten the existence of society itself at times (think Cromwell’s England, or France during the Reign of Terror. There is a society, but there isn’t much of a government)?

If the “rights of nature,” of course, were so visible, one wonders why one needs to read 5 or more rather large, complicated books to understand them. Jefferson is fully aware of this irony. His advancing of liberalism through the rhetoric of “Natural Rights” is a response to the attempt to find meaning and justification in History. “History,” Jefferson tells us, “in general, only informs us what bad government is.” He goes on to say implicitly*, in this letter, that Hume (who wrote a history of Britain) falls prey to this pessimism, missing the good principles of British gov’t. The “free principles of the English constitution” are what one wants out of studying history, and therefore one wonders whether it is necessary to study any history at all to apprehend those principles.

2. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle…. Defamation is becoming a necessary of life; insomuch, that a dish of tea in the morning or evening cannot be digested without this stimulant. Even those who do not believe these abominations, still read them with complaisance to their auditors, and instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves.

News and History, of course, are very closely linked. Through “news” myths are made which define history. Although news, because it is concerned with the present, as opposed to history, which is tied to the past, has an added problem. It cannot even reflect specifically on what is bad; all it can do is create and magnify badness. Good news doesn’t sell. Lies and slander do.

Jefferson seems to be saying, on the whole, that some sort of philosophical reflection, a searching for principles and Truth, makes one wise and happy, but an emphasis on man in the past or man’s vileness in the present makes one jaundiced and cruel. The big question is why the mere reporting of events creates such a problem. Why does the want of knowledge of what people have done or what people are doing create wretchedness? Why does the search for a first principle, on the other hand, enlighten and empower?

*One could challenge this reading of the letter by saying that Jefferson appeals to Hume’s twisting of ‘facts’ to make his case against Hume. I have chosen to emphasize Jefferson’s castigating Hume for not respecting the “good principles” of the British gov’t, obviously.


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