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George Washington’s Ominous Warning About Freedom of Speech

In March of 1783, as the American Revolutionary War dragged on and its outcome remained uncertain, George Washington felt compelled to deliver a speech before senior officers of the army. His goal was to quell a mutiny brewing in the ranks and aimed at ousting Congress. There were rumors they might not follow through on promises made to soldiers for their wartime sacrifices. Washington’s oration that day was effective and so moving that it reportedly brought many servicemen to tears. Had that passionate appeal been rejected, a breakdown in the chain of command would have led to a genuine insurrection and resulted in a British victory. And certainly, our United States would never have come into existence.

An actor portraying George Washington delivers the speech at Newburgh.

Washington keenly sensed the army’s frustration, and though he wouldn’t tolerate treason, he understood that by allowing his soldiers to vent their concerns freely and without fear of reprisal, he would keep the peace. That decisive communication was grounded in his solemn belief in the right to freedom of speech, even under the most difficult circumstances. Standing by that foundational principle and inalienable right at that tenuous moment should serve as an example to all of us today, especially our politicians and unelected bureaucrats. Courage to support our fellow citizens’ freedom of speech is the only thing that can provide light in the darkest times, not the fear that drives too many individuals and organizations to suppress it today.

Like Sheep To The Slaughter

In his now famous Newburgh address, Washington warned his audience that if Americans were ever “precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences… the freedom of speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.” 

A group of young people march in support of free speech.
A group of young people march in support of free speech during the 1960s.

This emphasis on our right to freedom of speech, which the President eloquently spoke of, was enshrined and ratified by the first amendment to the US Constitution in 1791. Naturally, it has become somewhat of a flashpoint in American politics and recent culture wars, inherently sparking precisely the kind of debate it was always intended to protect.

Like all of our founding fathers, Washington understood from his study of history, civics, and human nature, that the airing of grievances, disagreement, and speaking truth to power was a requirement not only for democratic processes but to ensure the stability of a nation. He recognized that prohibiting or stifling speech, especially perspectives those in power might view as unfavorable, would inevitably lead us toward further conflict and disastrous consequences. 

Free Speech In The Modern Age

Today, in the modern age, we routinely grapple with a range of sophisticated freedom of speech issues that have been, at first glance, complicated by the development of technologies from the internet to artificial intelligence. Individuals and organizations throughout the United States and globally struggle to discern truth from falsehood. We are inundated with stories about misinformation, disinformation, hate-speech, fact-checking and fake news. And in many cases, it can be shown that individuals and organizations across the political spectrum have indeed weaponized technology to change narratives and distort reality, both crudely and cleverly, to further their aims of power and wealth. It should be concerning to us all.

Does free speech offend you?

However, while much of our information technology is new and untested, and evil abounds in it, the principles that drove Washington to protect speech of all manner are rooted in values that transcend any innovation or change in circumstances a free people might find themselves facing. It is a right provided to us not by one another, but by our creator. Our problem today is an ancient and almost perennial one. It is a choice between fear and courage and which of those competing motivators we will embrace as a society.

If we cannot recognize the natural propensity of any government to suppress the freedom of speech, especially using today’s powerful technology, we are either willfully naïve or corrupt ourselves. We might want to ask ourselves what George Washington would have done or advised about our current paradigm, where ideas, opinions, and facts about a range of topics from pandemic response to government corruption, once labeled as conspiracy, have ultimately borne out as truths.

Weighing The Danger

Indeed, the absolute freedom of speech, unfettered and unmuzzled, comes with a degree of danger, as arguably do many blessings of our Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, the alternative, in the form of any significant speech restriction, leads every society to a frightening dystopian and grim future. It’s a hellscape in which governments and other power structures, fearing any dissent, instinctively and increasingly turn to propaganda and other radical measures, even brute force, to retain their grip on the narrative in which they see themselves as the sole and rightful author.

But the story of the United States and humanity must not be the work of one person, interest or political party. Moreover, the notion of dissent, whether over a local government policy or contesting the results of an election, no matter how fair it may have been, must remain the right of a free people. It is not only unconstitutional to infringe on this in our now fragile republic, but doing so will produce the same dire consequences suffered by millions at the hands of murderous regimes who have made suppression and elimination of freedom of speech their standard operating procedure. If we lose it in America, it will be lost throughout the world.

At JIA Publishing, we also believe strongly in freedom of speech and so are excited to announce that we’ll be publishing a new book, “Letting Freedom Ring: A History of Free Speech” in Spring of 2024! Stay connected to learn more about this exciting new title. And in the meantime, make sure to check out our bestselling book about technology that touches on some of these issues, Tomorrow’s Jobs Today, and our latest bestseller The Bastard of Beverly Hills, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble!

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