Preamble-On with Lord Acton

Authored by Ray Nothstine

“Preamble-On” is a recurring segment of quotes and thoughts from historic and contemporary public figures on federalism, the free society, and American political life.

If the distribution of power among the several parts of the State is the most efficient restraint on monarchy, the distribution of power among several States is the best check on democracy. By multiplying centres of government and discussion it promotes the diffusion of political knowledge and the maintenance of healthy and independent opinion. It is the protectorate of minorities, and the consecration of self-government. But although it must be enumerated among the better achievements of practical genius in antiquity, it arose from necessity, and its properties were imperfectly investigated in theory.

—Lord Acton, “The History of Freedom.”

Context: “The History of Freedom” is a compilation of Lord Acton’s writing on freedom in Christianity and antiquity. He argues here that the federalist system is superior for producing equality amongst the citizenry because tyranny was widely known in antiquity by efforts such as “Sparta exercised over the Messanians, Athens over her Confederates, and Rome over Italy.” Lord Acton continues by noting that this was not the norm however, and that federalist ideals took root out of necessity because citizens met in the public or city square to discuss governing their own communities.

The Pentagon Papers: Turning Points of the War exhibit in the Great Hall of the LBJ Presidential Library. (Public Domain)

In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the public. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

—Hugo Black, New York Times Co. v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court (1971)

Context: New York Times Co. v. United States is more widely known as “The Pentagon Papers” court case. By a 6-3 majority, the high court ruled against the Nixon administration to keep certain “classified” documents sealed, many of which directly indicted President Lyndon B. Johnson’s handling of the controversial conflict. The six justices said the government did not meet the high burden-of-proof to prevent publication of the documents. The justices themselves wrote nine different opinions. Hugo Black’s opinion with the majority is often cited as one of the most robust defenses of a free press.

Authored by:Ray Nothstine


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