The First Champion of Free Speech
Exactly 500 years ago, the great Englishman Thomas More made the first known petition for free speech in history.
Most accounts of the history of free speech political doctrines—after a nod to the Magna Carta (which lays some groundwork but does not specifically mention free speech)—begin with poet and scholar John Milton’s famous, Areopagitica: A Speech For The Liberty Of Unlicensed Printing To The Parliament Of England, given in 1644. I will have more to say on that landmark “speech on behalf of free speech” in a later post. Milton was not, however, the first British subject to take a stand in Parliament advocating for free speech. Over one hundred years before Milton, and exactly five hundred years ago, on 18 April 1523, the great English statesman and writer Thomas More petitioned the King on behalf of parliament for the right of free speech.
That year, Thomas More had been chosen as Speaker of the House of Commons of Parliament. More was hesitant to accept the post and asked King Henry VIII to release him from the duty. The king refused this request and More reluctantly accepted the position. However, More then made a written request for free speech in Parliament—the first such petition in history.
This petition begins by recounting the purpose of the House of Commons, “to treat and advise on the common affairs among themselves, as a separate group,” distinct from the landed aristocracy. He praises these members of Parliament, noting that, in accord with the King’s advice, “due diligence has been exercised in sending up to your Highness’s court of Parliament the most discreet persons out of every area who were deemed worthy of this office; hence, there can be no doubt that the assembly is a very substantial one, of very wise and politic persons.” He then explains:
And yet… among so many wise men, not all will be equally wise, and of those who are equally wise, not all will be equally well-spoken. And often it happens that just as a lot of foolishness is uttered with ornate and polished speech, so, too, many coarse and rough-spoken men see deep indeed and give very substantial counsel.
We see here More’s regard for the common man, who may lack the polished rhetoric of an aristocrat in the House of Lords, but who often makes up for in substance what he lacks in rhetorical style. More then explains:
Also, in matters of great importance the mind is often so preoccupied with the subject matter that one thinks more about what to say than about how to say it, for which reason the wisest and best-spoken man in the country may now and then, when his mind is engrossed in the subject matter, say something in such a way that he will later wish he had said it differently, and yet he had no less good will when he spoke it than he has when he would so gladly change it.
This argument is, arguably, even more relevant today in our age of smartphone cameras and rapid-fire social media posts, which can permanently memorialize less-than-perfect word choices or off-the-cuff remarks. Who among us, following a heated debate, would not wish to go back and carefully edit every remark we made? One of the many reasons for free speech is this: we need forgiving latitude to say things imperfectly, to make mistakes in the course of public debates, without fear of retaliation from powerful interests who can pick through and dissect each word with the ease of a football fan playing “Monday morning quarterback”.
More’s petition continues:
And therefore, most gracious Sovereign, considering that in your high court of Parliament nothing is discussed but weighty and important matters concerning your realm and your own royal estate, many of your discreet commoners will be hindered from giving their advice and counsel, to the great hindrance of the common affairs, unless every one of your commoners is utterly discharged of all doubt and fear as to how anything that he happens to say may happen to be taken by your Highness. And although your well known and proven kindness gives every man hope, yet such is the seriousness of the matter, such is the reverent dread that the timorous hearts of your natural-born subjects conceive toward your high Majesty, our most illustrious King and Sovereign, that they cannot be satisfied on this point unless you, in your gracious bounty, remove the misgivings of their timorous minds and animate and encourage and reassure them.
In other words, rights articulated in law are necessary even when the sovereign is a man of good will (and one can be forgiven for thinking that King Henry VIII was not, in the end, a man of goodwill). And finally, More delivers the petition’s punchline:
It may therefore please your most abundant Grace, our most benign and godly King, to give to all your commoners here assembled your most gracious permission and allowance for every man freely, without fear of your dreaded displeasure, to speak his conscience and boldly declare his advice concerning everything that comes up among us. Whatever any man may happen to say, may it please your noble Majesty, in your inestimable goodness, to take it all with no offense, interpreting every man’s words, however badly they may be phrased, to proceed nonetheless from a good zeal toward the profit of your realm and honor of your royal person, the prosperous condition and preservation of which, most excellent Sovereign, is the thing which we all, your most humble and loving subjects, according to that most binding duty of our heartfelt allegiance, most highly desire and pray for. [Cited in William Roper, Life of St Thomas More , pp. 8-9, modernized by Mary Gottschalk.]
Thomas More was a man who practiced what he preached here: in the end he gave his life defending the rights of conscience, of free speech, and the free exercise of religion. He was elevated by Henry VIII to the office of Lord Chancellor of England, the highest political office in the land apart from the King. Thomas and Henry had been friends from their early years, and Thomas was a loyal public servant. But when Henry VIII attempted to force him to sign an oath in which he did not believe, More stood his ground. This refusal to violate his conscience cost him everything: imprisoned in the Tower of London, he was eventually beheaded by orders of the King. More was eventually canonized a Catholic saint (he is patron of lawyers and politicians—yes even politicians have a patron saint!). But he can also be considered a martyr for free speech.
Thomas More’s story is depicted in the brilliant film, A Man for All Seasons, which won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture in 1966. In this clip from the film, More shows that he understands the right of free speech to include the right to maintain silence on a subject if a person so chooses:
To secure the unjust conviction against More—who was a brilliant statesman, consummate lawyer, and man of impeccable character—the court had to bribe a false witness, an ambitious young man named Richard Rich, to perjure himself. This perjury, and More’s exchange with Rich afterwards, is depicted in this scene, which concludes with one of the best lines in all of film:
I can’t resist one more clip — then you have to watch the movie for yourself. Here, More is talking to his son-in-law, William Roper, about the importance of the rule of law—even to the point of “giving the devil the benefit of the law.” Roper, a zealous Protestant, is tempted to bypass the law in order to secure what he considers to be good or noble ends. Keep in mind that while More duly corrects him on this point, we have Roper to thank for writing the first biography of his father-in-law, which preserved for us More’s petition on free speech cited above:
For those interested in the man Jonathan Swift called “the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced,” I recommend the excellent biography by my friend Gerry Wegemer: Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage.