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Indispensable Liberty

Indispensable Liberty

The Fight for Free Speech in Nineteenth-Century America

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Edited by Mary M. Cronin


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
22 illustrations


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About the Book

Most Americans today view freedom of speech as a bedrock of all other liberties, a defining feature of American citizenship. During the nineteenth century, the popular concept of American freedom of speech was still being formed. In An Indispensable Liberty: The Fight for Free Speech in Nineteenth-Century America, contributors examine attempts to restrict freedom of speech and the press during and after the Civil War.
The eleven essays that make up this collection show how, despite judicial, political, and public proclamations of support for freedom of expression, factors like tradition, gender stereotypes, religion, and fear of social unrest often led to narrow judicial and political protection for freedom of expression by people whose views upset the status quo. These views, expressed by abolitionists, suffragists, and labor leaders, challenged rigid cultural mores of the day, and many political and cultural leaders feared that extending freedom of expression to agitators would undermine society. The Civil War intensified questions about the duties and privileges of citizenship. After the war, key conflicts over freedom of expression were triggered by Reconstruction, suffrage, the Comstock Act, and questions about libel.
The volume’s contributors blend social, cultural, and intellectual history to untangle the complicated strands of nineteenth-century legal thought. By chronicling the development of modern-day notions of free speech, this timely collection offers both a valuable exploration of the First Amendment in nineteenth-century America and a useful perspective on the challenges we face today.


Mary M. Cronin is an associate professor in the department of Journalism and Mass Communications at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. She is the co-author of The Mass Media: Invention, Development, Application, and Impact and has published numerous essays and articles.

Contributors include Jon Bekken, David W. Bulla, Sandra Davidson, Nancy McKenzie Dupont, Joseph Hayden, Lee Jolliffe, Paulette D. Kilmer, Erika J. Pribanic-Smith, Debra Reddin van Tuyll, and Janice R. Wood.


“As An Indispensable Liberty so clearly demonstrates, freedom of speech is one of the signal pillars of a healthy democracy. And yet, though this freedom is proclaimed by the First Amendment, many judicial, political, and sociocultural issues had to be addressed in the nineteenth century before it could be reified as legal right. In sum, this worthy volume’s underlying narrative is the ongoing challenges to the voices of a nation yearning to be truly free.”— David Abrahamson, Northwestern University
An Indispensable Liberty’s strong contribution to our knowledge of the fight for freedom of expression in the nineteenth century and the quality of its scholarship will be welcomed by a number of audiences.”— David B. Sachsman, director of the Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression and holder of the West Chair of Excellence in Communication and Public Affairs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

" An Indispensable Liberty relates valuable stories of how individual journalists coped with all manner of official and public hostility to their dedicated pursuit of free expression."—Civil War Book Review