On the Media

(excerpts from letters concerning the newspapers)

 To Francis Hopkinson         Paris, Mar. 13, 1789

My great wish is to go on in a strict but silent performance of my duty; to avoid attracting notice & to keep my name out of newspapers, because I find the pain of a little censure, even when it is unfounded, is more acute than the pleasure of much praise.

To Samuel Smith        Monticello, Aug. 22, 1798

At a very early period of my life, I determined never to put a sentence into any newspaper.  I have religiously adhered to the resolution through my life, and have great reason to be contented with it.  Were I to undertake to answer the calumnies of the newspapers, it would be more than all my own time, & that of 20. aids could effect.  For while I should be answering one, twenty new ones would be invented.  I have thought it better to trust to the justice of my countrymen, that they would judge me by what they see of my conduct on the stage where they have placed me, & what they know of me before the epoch since which a particular party has supposed it might answer some view of theirs to vilify me in the public eye.  Some, I know, will not reflect how apocryphal is the testimony of enemies so palpably betraying the views with which they give it.  But this is an injury to which duty requires every one to submit whom the public think proper to call inn to it's councils.  I thank you, my dear Sir, for the interest you have taken for me on this occasion.  Though I have made up my mind not to suffer calumny to disturb my tranquillity, yet I retain all my sensibilities for the approbation of the good & just.  That is, indeed, the chief consolations for the hatred of so many, who, without the least personal knowledge, & on the sacred evidence of Porcupine & Fenno alone, cover me with their implacable hatred.  The only return I will ever make them, will be to do them all the good I can, in spite of their teeth.

To C. F. de C. Volney         Washington, February 8, 1805

Some one of those holy calumniators has selected from your new work every scrap of a sentence, which, detached from its context, could displease an American reader.  A cento has been made of these, which has run through a particular description of newspapers, and excited a disapprobation even in friendly minds, which nothing but the reading of the book will cure.  But time and truth will at length correct error....

 A word now on our political state.  The two parties which prevailed with so much violence when you were here, are almost wholly melted into one.  At the late Presidential election I have received one hundred and sixty-two votes against fourteen only.  Connecticut is still federal by a small majority; and Delaware on a poise, as she has been since 1775, and will be till Anglomany with her yields to Americanism.  Connecticut will be with us in a short time.  Though the people in mass have joined us, their leaders had committed themselves too far to retract.  Pride keeps them hostile; they brood over their angry passions, and give them vent in the newspapers which they maintain.  They still make as much noise as if they were the whole nation.  Unfortunately, these being the mercantile papers, published chiefly in the sea ports, are the only ones which find their way to Europe, and make very false impressions there.

To Barnabas Bidwell         Washington, July 5, 1806

I recollect nothing new and true, worthy communicating to you.  As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.  Among other things, are those perpetual alarms as to the Indians, for no one ofwhich has there ever been the slightest ground.  They are the suggestions of hostile traders, always wishing to embroil us with the Indians, to perpetuate their own extortionate commerce.

To John Norvell         Washington, June 14, 1807

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, `by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers.  It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood.  Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.  Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.  The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day.  I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.  General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on.  I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.  He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.
         Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this.  Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities.  3d, Possibilities.  4th, Lies.  The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources, as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth.  The 2d would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true.  This, however, should rather contain too little than too much.  The 3d & 4th should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.
         Such an editor too, would have to set his face against the demoralising practice of feeding the public mind habitually on slander, & the depravity of taste which this nauseous aliment induces.  Defamation is becoming a necessary of life; insomuch, that a dish of tea in the morning or evening cannot be digested without this stimulant.  Even those who do not believe these abominations, still read them with complaisance to their auditors, and instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves.  It seems to escape them, that it is not he who prints, but he who pays for printing a slander, who is it's real author.
         These thoughts on the subjects of your letter are hazarded at your request.  Repeated instances of the publication of what has not been intended for the public eye, and the malignity with which political enemies torture every sentence from me into meanings imagined by their own wickedness only, justify my expressing a solicitude, that this hasty communication may in nowise be permitted to find it's way into the public papers.  Not fearing these political bull-dogs, I yet avoid putting myself in the way of being baited by them, and do not wish to volunteer away that portion of tranquillity, which a firm execution of my duties will permit me to enjoy.

To John Adams         Monticello, Jan. 21, 1812

I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.

To Dr. Walter Jones         Monticello, January 2, 1814

I deplore, with you, the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them; and I enclose you a recent sample, the production of a New England judge, as a proof of the abyss of degradation into which we are fallen.  These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste, and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information, and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless, by forfeiting all title to belief. That this has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit, I agree with you;