Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press. In 1517, 67 years later, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for Church reform on the church door in Wittenberg, in what today is Germany. His 95 Theses began the Protestant Reformation, which led to a series of religious wars that lasted about 131 years and ended with the Peace of Westphalia. The result of that treaty was that Northern Europe would be Protestant and Southern Europe would be Catholic.
The Catholic Church was paternal. Believers didn’t need to read the Bible because the priest told them what they needed to know. This is reflected in the title of “Father” for a priest.
The infallibility of the pope is based on the Petrine Theory. Jesus bequeathed His earthly spiritual authority to His disciple Peter, who is regarded as the first pope. Every pope since then has inherited the spiritual dominion of Christ on earth. To see the pope is the next thing to seeing Jesus; hence, the huge crowds when the pope appears in public.
Martin Luther upended Catholic theology in several ways. In Luther’s Reformation, the Bible became the authority for doctrine instead of the pope. Luther claimed that Christ was the head of the Church and not the pope. In his interpretation, believers became “Brothers” and “Sisters,” and that became the title also for their spiritual leaders.
Since the Bible was the doctrinal authority in Northern Europe, ordinary people needed to be able to read it. That became a powerful motive for literacy among the general population. Gutenberg’s printing press made that possible. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped to create a standard language because, at that time, there were so many dialects that people couldn’t understand other Germans from the next town.
The ability to read scripture made it possible to read other material. Town news could be conveyed by print. That was the birth of newspapers. The reporting by newspapers informed people and influenced how they thought. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776, the printed word had become a significant determiner of public opinion. There were two major types of printed material in the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Historians have described pamphlets as the lifeblood of the Revolution. A famous one was Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” There were hundreds of leaflets locally printed in the colonies. Thomas Jefferson wrote “A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans.” John Adams wrote one titled “Thoughts on Government.” Samuel Adams’s importance as a political agitator was probably as crucial as George Washington’s role as general. Sam Adams’s newspaper articles and pamphlets inspired unrest. He led the “Sons of Liberty,” who were often violent in their attacks on British loyalists.
In Europe, “estates” was used to mean social class. The first estate was the clergy, the second estate was the nobility, and the third estate was the commoners or bourgeoisie. In France, the three estates together were called the Estates General.
French kings avoided calling an Estates General assembly for a very long time. But government finance and taxes became such a problem for Louis XVI that he was forced to call a session of the Estates General. When the Estates General met, the clergy and nobility sat on the right. The third estate, the bourgeoisie, sat on the left. Today, we would say, “The other side of the aisle.” The third estate wanted democratization. The first and second estates, the clergy and nobility, wanted to keep things as they were. The Estates General in France gave us our political terms of “left” and “right” to mean avoiding change vs. wanting change.
The press was so important in its ability to frame political issues that in 1787, Edmund Burke coined the term “Fourth Estate” in a parliamentary debate in the British House of Commons. His terminology found a permanent place in our political vocabulary.
Indeed, every totalitarian government and dictator recognizes the power of a free press, and it’s the first thing they go after when they gain power. The Founders knew this and made free speech and press part of the First Amendment as a safeguard.
History teaches that journalism is as sacred a trust as anyone can imagine. Words have consequences. Public information matters in a democracy. The First Amendment and academic freedom are under attack today. Reactionary forces are banning the teaching of black history in our public schools – even at the college level. Books by respected black authors, even Nobel Prize laureates, are being banned. The issue is not at what age people should be allowed to think – the point for conservatives is that citizens should not be allowed to think independently at any age.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has finally arrived in America. We have Thought Police among governors, legislatures, and school boards who fire school principals and teachers for teaching thought crimes. Books about black history, black-themed novels, and books with gay characters are being removed from libraries. What the Thought Police want are good workers and obedient citizens. The Thought Police want all history to reflect American Exceptionalism and nothing else. Thinking people are a scourge to the establishment, a fearsome thorn.
The First Amendment needs an army of defenders as never before. We have come from Gutenberg and Luther this far in the history of print and the freedom of thought. Let’s not lose it now. The only weapon for keeping the evil of censorship and the Thought Police at bay is our vote on election day.
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- “The Fourth Estate” - February 28, 2023
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