December 19, 2016
“To the preservation of that species of government, to liberty and to property”
by Peter Clark
“This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.”
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
When John Stuart Mill published On Liberty in 1859, he was observing unprecedented political and economic changes in the UK. Modern communication was spreading quickly; photography was burgeoning, global trade was more efficient with ever-impressive steam engines, railways criss-crossed the English countryside and beyond. It was a time of peace in Britain, and one in which slaves were freed, voting rights spreading, and Royal authority waning in light of democratic and utilitarian principles. It was a time of great prosperity. And the British population expanded their role in government and society.
Without further explication, this all seems positive. And to the modern mind, liberty and citizen participation in government are so fundamental to us as to warrant our disdain for any purported system that impinges—even when beneficially—on our notion of freedom.
So why, then, did Mill write his seminal work? Why, in an age such profound improvements to liberty, did Mill need to assert so definitively the boundaries and requirements for it?
The answer is perhaps best summarized by one of his predecessors, Alexis de Toqueville, writing on the “tyranny of the majority” in the United States:
“In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.”
—Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America
A similar sentiment was shared by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. It’s quoted even more frequently now under another term.
The power of a majority over others.
For the UK, they have Mill’s On Liberty as a powerful model to defend the philosophy of freedom. For the US, we have, principally, the First Amendment to the Constitution. In only forty-five words, it summarizes the most basic rules of our lives. Yet, it is without question that those principles are under continual assault, especially for publishers. Local governments and schools ban books. Authors are sued. Children are told what they can and can’t read, what they can and can’t think.
This month, Judith Platt, the Association of American Publishers’ director of free expression advocacy, delivered this moving speech at the 2016 Young to Publishing conference as a history lesson and warning for what’s to come. She reminded her young publishing audience that so many of the books we now cherish, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, were born into controversy and required ardent defenders.
Book publishing has always played an important role in ensuring the free flow of ideas. Without fearless, activist publishers, we’d lose an important voice of dissent in a time that pressures people to assimilate more than ever.
I look forward to being part of the publishing community for the next four years and engaging readers with a plurality of opinions, and I’ll continue to stand with Judith Platt and others at the AAP for defending our right to publish important writing.
Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.