Constitution Day lecture traces abolitionists’ battle for free speech

Written by
Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies
Oct. 5, 2020

On September 15, 2020, Keith E. Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, delivered Princeton University’s 2020 Constitution Day lecture, titled “Freedom of Thought and the Struggle to End Slavery.”

“It’s been a long battle over the scope of constitutional protections of freedom of speech in order to bring us to where we are today,” Whittington said, “with a quite robust set of [...] legal protections for the scope of free speech.”

Whittington focused on the decades preceding the Civil War, tracing how abolitionists’ difficulties in getting their message to the public “made them increasingly self-conscious about the importance of defending free speech and the need to advance it as part and parcel of their effort at social reform more generally.”

Free speech, Whittington said, “would have been a background assumption” for the abolitionists, “and something that could be taken for granted, if not for the fact that free speech was repeatedly under pressure.”

“No new First Amendment jurisprudence emerged from the battle between the slaveholders and the abolitionists,” Whittington said. “What did emerge was a new appreciation for the freedom of thought and the various ways in which it could be suppressed even beyond the use of the criminal law to punish those who engaged into disfavored speech.“

Whittington noted that the abolitionists “celebrated the ultimate abolition of slavery as a victory for freedom of thought.“

The lecture was held via Zoom at 4:30 p.m., presented by the Program in American Studies with support from the Office of the Provost. The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Program in Law and Public Affairs cosponsored. Program in American Studies Director Aisha Beliso-De Jesús introduced and moderated questions and answers.