Portrait of John Dickinson, an American politician, who was the author of the Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec. The letter outlined for neighboring Canada the colonists' differences with Britain, hoping to enlist them in their cause. The letter contains some of the most clearest statements about the value put on freedom of the press by these early Americans, and was later quoted in a 1940 Supreme Court decision.
The seeds for the ideas in the Declaration of Independence had been sown in the First Continental Congress. Delegates from all the colonies (except from Georgia) had met in Philadelphia to assert their rights as citizens of England and to deny parliamentary sovereignty over them.
Among colonial grievances was Britain’s recognition of the Roman Catholic religion in neighboring Canada, which the British had acquired from France through victories in the French and Indian War. Despite this concern, the colonists hoped that Canada might join them in resisting what they considered to be British abuses.
In October 1776, the Second Continental Congress accordingly drafted a letter to the citizens of Quebec, explaining their disagreements with Britain and urging the Canadians to join the cause.
In their letter, the colonists focused on the rights of no taxation without representation, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and freedom of the press. The latter remains one of the clearest statements of this principle prior to the First Amendment.
Referring specifically to freedom of the press, delegates observed, “The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”
The document also highlighted the “Liberty of conscience in your religion,” which it described as Godgiven.
In Thornhill v. Alabama (1940), the Supreme Court cited the letter’s reference to freedom of the press when it invalidated the anti-loitering law that Alabama had applied to labor picketers.
John Vile is professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.Send Feedback on this article