The Origins of a Free Press in Pre-Revolutionary Virginia. Creating a Culture of Political Dissent

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This interdisciplinary study examines the origins of the freedom of the press in Colonial Virginia tracing the development of print culture. It demonstrates how changes in the dominant medium of communication were an important enabler of the cultural development that allowed for the growth of political dissent. Virginia’s traditional culture of deference was gradually replaced by a “culture of dissidence” and from that emerged the first constitutional right for press freedom in the Virginia Declaration of Rights.


“[This] book addresses an enduring paradox of our past. How did the gentry-dominated society of the largest colony become the seed ground not only for political leadership but also of a lively political culture characterized not by consensus, as some historians emphasized, but by publicly expressed dissent?
Mellen finds the answer in a livelier and more important set of newspapers that gave Virginians of various classes, and some women, a venue for their not always polite opinions. He enables us to understand how a slave society could come to embrace press freedom, setting the stage for Virginians’ important efforts to make freedom of the press a national policy during the early republic.” – Prof. David Waldstreicher, Temple University

Table of Contents

Foreword by David Waldstreicher
1. Prologue: Culture of Deference
2. Print Culture in the Early Chesapeake Region
A Limited Print Culture
Print Culture Broadens
3. Chesapeake Newspapers and Expanding Civic Discourse, 1728-1764
Early Newspaper Form
Changes: Discourse Increases and Broadens
4. The Colonial Chesapeake Almanac: Revolutionary “Agent of Change”
The “Almanacks”
5. Women, Print, and Discourse
Women and Literacy
Ephemeral Press
Women and the Civic Public
6. The Stamp Act
Parliament’s Act
Reactions in the Chesapeake Prints
Changing Virginia Press & Discourse
Print and Related Cultural Shifts
7. Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of Newspaper Competition
A Government Press
Print Competition Comes to Virginia
Effects of Competition
8. Liberty of the Press
Early Limits to Press Liberty
Expanding Press Freedom
George Mason and Rights Declared
Revolution and Press Freedom
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights
9. Epilogue
Virginia Printers’ Timeline

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