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Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech

St. Martin's Press, 2016

When members of the founding generation protested against British authority, debated separation, and then ratified the Constitution, they formed the American political character we know today—raucous, intemperate, and often mean-spirited. Revolutionary Dissent brings alive a world of colorful and stormy protests that included effigies, pamphlets, songs, sermons, cartoons, letters and liberty trees. Solomon explores through a series of chronological narratives how Americans of the Revolutionary period employed robust speech against the British and against each other. Uninhibited dissent provided a distinctly American meaning to the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and press at a time when the legal doctrine inherited from England allowed prosecutions of those who criticized government.

Solomon discovers the wellspring in our revolutionary past for today’s satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, and protests like flag burning and street demonstrations. From the inflammatory engravings of Paul Revere, the political theater of Alexander McDougall, the liberty tree protests of Ebenezer McIntosh and the oratory of Patrick Henry, Solomon shares the stories of the dissenters who created the American idea of the liberty of thought.


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"Solomon's compelling stories of the raucous political speech of the founding generation give us a ringside seat to the protest rallies, provocative cartoons and clever rhetoric that forever embedded freedom of expression in our national character. Revolutionary Dissent is a must-read for all who want to understand the birth of free speech and press in America and how essential it is to continue protecting these freedoms in our democracy."  ––Nadine Stossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor, New York Law School and past president, ACLU

"The right to speak freely, especially about important political matters, and then to voice opinions others vigorously condemn, is essential to any society that prizes democratic values, and it is a right that is always attacked as a destabilizing and counter-productive force. That is as true today, as it was during the 1950s, the 1920s, World War I, the Civil Wr, and John Adams' presidency. It is into this endless struggle over preserving democratic vitality that Stephen D. Solomon submits his stunning, fascinating, and engaging history of how the nation's Founding Generation gave wide berth to the expression of political dissent. It is a remarkable work of scholarship that exudes freshness and is written for a broad audience."  --David Rudenstine, Sheldon H. Solow Professor of Law, Cardozo Law School

"This splendid book contains nine snapshots of courageous Americans combatting prosecution for seditious libel...Solomon's cumulative accounts of freedom-loving Americans could well be used today in interpreting First Amendment cases...engagingly written."  --John P. Kaminski, Director, The Center for the Study of the American Revolution, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Excerpts from Revolutionary Dissent:

The Liberty Tree

Alexander McDougall: Martyr to Free Speech

The Paul Revere You Didn't Know

Madison's Great Defense of Free Speech