Pondering Truth and Public Opinion in a Representative Republic

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM
Delaware Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Katlyn Carter, University of Michigan
In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s Outlines of an Historical View on the Progress of the Human Mind, John Adams contested the French philosopher’s claim that a free press had the effect of eradicating errors. Adams scoffed that “there has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred year before 1798.” This paper seeks to answer why someone like Adams would have felt this way at the end of the eighteenth century and why he would have considered this an urgent problem. It does so by placing his concerns in the context of contemporary thinking about the truth and how the periodical press either enabled or hindered the formation of public opinion based on it. Furthermore, the paper addresses the perceived stakes of defining truth in a society ruled by a representative government in which public opinion was considered the ultimate arbiter of political legitimacy. When the government was ostensibly bound to the opinion of the people, the questions of what informed that opinion, whether it was correct or not, and how it was communicated were critical.

Historians like Charles Walton and Joanne Freeman have emphasized concerns about honor as crucial to French and American revolutionaries’ worries about the freeing of the press and prominence accorded to public opinion in the new political order. However, in this paper I suggest that in addition to these concerns, there was a deep anxiety about how truth and reason would function in a representative republic where public opinion was theoretically vested with sovereign authority. When periodicals could be printed freely and opinions declared without regulation, how was truth determined? And when the very legitimacy of the government was based on public opinion, what happened if that opinion was not based on truth?

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