By Benjamin Franklin


An Account of the Supremest Court of Judicature in

       Pennsylvania, viz.  The Court of the Press


                        POWER OF THIS COURT

        It may receive and promulgate accusations of all kinds against

all persons and characters among the citizens of the state, and even

against all inferior courts, and may judge, sentence and condemn to

infamy, not only private individuals, but public bodies, &c. with or

without enquiry or hearing, at the court's discretion.

                   THIS COURT IS ESTABLISHED

        In favor of about one citizen in 500, who by education, or

practice in scribbling, has acquired a tolerable stile as to grammar

and construction so as to bear printing; or who is possessed of a

press and a few types.  This 500th part of the citizens have the

privilege of accusing and abusing the other 499 parts, at their

pleasure; or they may hire out their pens and press to others for

that purpose.


        It is not governed by any of the rules of common courts of law.

The accused is allowed no grand jury to judge of the truth of the

accusation before it is publicly made; nor is the name of the accuser

made known to him; nor has he an opportunity of confronting the

witnesses against him; for they are kept in the dark, as in the

Spanish Court of Inquisition. -- Nor is there any petty jury of his

peers sworn to try the truth of the charges.  The proceedings are

also sometimes so rapid, that an honest good citizen may find himself

suddenly and unexpectedly accused, and in the same morning judged and

condemned, and sentence pronounced against him, That he is a rogue

and a villain. Yet if an officer of this court receives the

slightest check for misconduct in this his office, he claims

immediately the rights of a free citizen by the constitution, and

demands to know his accuser, to confront the witnesses, and to have a

fair trial by a jury of his peers.


        It is said to be founded on an article in the

state-constitution, which establishes the liberty of the press. A

liberty which every Pennsylvanian would fight and die for: Though few

of us, I believe, have distinct ideas of its nature and extent.  It

seems indeed somewhat like the liberty of the press that felons

have by the common law of England before conviction, that is, to be

either pressed to death or hanged.  If by the liberty of the

press were understood merely the liberty of discussing the propriety

of public measures and political opinions, let us have as much of it

as you please: But if it means the liberty of affronting,

calumniating and defaming one another, I, for my part, own myself

willing to part with my share of it, whenever our legislators shall

please so to alter the law and shall chearfully consent to exchange

my  liberty of abusing others for the privilege of not being

abused myself.


        It is not by any commission from the Supreme Executive Council,

who might previously judge of the abilities, integrity, knowledge,

&c. of the persons to be appointed to this great trust, of deciding

upon the characters and good fame of the citizens; for this court is

above that council, and may accuse, judge, and condemn it, at

pleasure.  Nor is it hereditary, as is the court of dernier [last] resort

in the peerage of England.  But any man who can procure pen, ink, and

paper, with a press, a few types, and a huge pair of BLACKING balls,

may commissionate himself: And his court is immediately established

in the plenary possession and exercise of its rights.  For if you

make the least complaint of the judge's conduct, he daubs his

blacking balls in your face wherever he meets you; and besides

tearing your private character to slitters, marks you out for the

odium of the public, as an enemy to the liberty of the press.


        Their support is founded in the depravity of such minds as have

not been mended by religion, nor improved by good education;

                 "There is a lust in man no charm can tame,

                 Of loudly publishing his neighbour's shame."


                 "On eagle's wings immortal scandals fly,

                 While virtuous actions are but born and die."


        Whoever feels pain in hearing a good character of his

neighbour, will feel a pleasure in the reverse.  And of those, who,

despairing to rise into distinction by their virtues, and are happy

if others can be depressed on a level with themselves, there are a

number sufficient in every great town to maintain one of these courts

by their subscriptions. -- A shrewd observer once said that in

walking the streets in a slippery morning, one might see where the

good natured people lived by the ashes thrown on the ice before their

doors: probably he would have formed a different conjecture of the

temper of those whom he might find engaged in such subscriptions.


        Hitherto there are none.  But since so much has been written

and published on the federal constitution, and the necessity of

checks in all other parts of good government has been so clearly and

learnedly explained, I find myself so far enlightened as to suspect

some check may be proper in this part also; but I have been at a loss

to imagine any that may not be construed an infringement of the

sacred liberty of the Press. At length however I think I have found

one, that instead of diminishing general liberty, shall augment it;

which is, by restoring to the people a species of liberty of which

they have been deprived by our laws, I mean the liberty of the

Cudgel. -- In the rude state of society, prior to the existence of

laws, if one man gave another ill language, the affronted person

might return it by a box on the ear; and if repeated, by a good

drubbing; and this without offending against any law; but now the

right of making such returns is denied, and they are punished as

breaches of the peace; while the right of abusing seems to remain in

full force: the laws made against it being rendered ineffectual by

the liberty of the Press.

        My proposal then is, to leave the liberty of the Press

untouched, to be exercised in its full extent, force and vigour, but

to permit the liberty of the Cudgel to go with it pari passu [on equal terms].

Thus my fellow-citizens, if an impudent writer attacks your

reputation, dearer to you perhaps than your life, and puts his name

to the charge, you may go to him as openly and break his head.  If he

conceals himself behind the printer, and you can nevertheless

discover who he is, you may in a like manner way-lay him in the

night, attack him behind, and give him a good drubbing.  If your

adversary hire better writers than himself to abuse you the more

effectually, you may hire brawny porters, stronger than yourself, to

assist you in giving him a more effectual drubbing. -- Thus far goes

my project, as to private resentment and retribution.  But if the

public should ever happen to be affronted, as it ought to be with

the conduct of such writers, I would not advise proceeding

immediately to these extremities; but that we should in moderation

content ourselves with tarring and feathering, and tossing them in a


        If, however, it should be thought that this proposal of mine

may disturb the public peace, I would then humbly recommend to our

legislators to take up the consideration of both liberties, that of

the Press, and that of the Cudgel, and by an explicit law mark their

extent and limits; and at the same time that they secure the person

of a citizen from assaults, they would likewise provide for the

security of his reputation.

        The Federal Gazette, September 12, 1789