Is Freedom of the Press Radical or Moderate?

Examples from Eighteenth- Century Scandinavia

By Professor John Christian Laursen (University of California, Riverside)

January 7, 2016         Picture: Valentina Calà/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

Scandinavia was responsible for two of the earliest declarations of freedom of the press as government policy. In 1766 a law was passed making partial freedom of the press a matter of constitutional law in Sweden, and in 1770 a royal decree made an almost complete freedom of the press a matter of law in Denmark. There is always a history behind such laws, and part of it can be told in terms of the ideas prevailing at the time. This essay explores the ideas of several of the people who were involved with producing these laws. At issue here is whether they should be considered radical or merely moderate measures. This could make a difference in our evaluation of the role of freedom of the press in history. Does it make a big difference, or is it usually only partial and not particularly revolutionary?

The writings that will be reviewed here are Peter Forsskål’s manuscript and pamphlet on freedom of the press of 1759 (Forsskål 2009), Johann Friedrich Struensee’s writings on freedom of expression in 1763-4, the translation of David Hume’s essay on freedom of the press into Danish in 1771, and the rest of the free-press debate in Copenhagen in the early 1770’s. They throw light on the intellectual context of the two great Scandinavian declarations of freedom of the press.

Jonathan Israel’s recent work has invited us to think that the most important philosophical influence in discussion of issues such as freedom of the press in the eighteenth century was the seventeenth century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (Israel 2006; see also Israel 2001 and Israel 2011). He contrasts the position of Spinoza, described as the origin of the Radical Enlightenment, with that of Scottish philosopher David Hume, who represents only a Moderate Enlightenment. According to Israel:

“The ‘making of modernity’ here means the emergence of an interlocking complex of abstract concepts of which individual liberty, democracy, freedom of expression, comprehensive toleration, equality racial and sexual, freedom of lifestyle together with a wholly secular morality which, it is argued, are predominantly (but not exclusively) derived from the Radical Enlightenment” (Israel 2006, 52).

Israel does not deny that modernity owes something to the Moderate Enlightenment:

“there is undeniably some overlap between the desiderata of the two enlightenments as regards toleration, individual liberty, and liberty of the press” [among other things](Israel 2006, 52).

But if we owe most of our best ideas in ethics and politics to the Radical Enlightenment, as Israel thinks we do, then the overall package of Hume’s ideas is not as close to the best elements of modernity as Spinoza’s.

This means that what is at stake in deciding who was the most important influence in and around the Swedish and Danish declarations of freedom of the press is the proper characterization of those events as products of the Radical or Moderate Enlightenments, and thus of whether they are to be understood as something close to the latest and best in modernity, or merely a step along the way. Israel admits that Hume “vigorously championed toleration and liberty of the press” (Israel 2006, 53). He paraphrases Hume’s essay “Of Liberty of the Press” of 1741 to the effect that:

“the altogether exceptional freedom of the press flourishing in early and mid-eighteenth century England [was] a crucial safeguard of political liberty” and “was not at all to be taken for granted and needed to be vigilantly and staunchly defended” (Israel 2006, 53).

But he argues that:

“Hume devotes his powerful philosophical mind and sophisticated social criticism to essentially conservative political, social, and moral goals” (Israel 2006, 54).

He was a racist and an anti-Semite, a firm anti-democrat, and, “on the whole, more of an opponent than an ally of the Radical Enlightenment” (Israel 2006, 57). So the proper characterization of the context around the Swedish and Danish declarations of freedom of the press as more Spinozistic or more Humean will tell us something important about their meaning.

It has been pointed out that censorship in Sweden did not work particularly well. What have been called “structural glitches” included lack of coordination among censors, lack of competence and preparedness for dealing with subtle theological messages hidden in texts, censors who turned a blind eye on things that they sympathized with, difficult working conditions, and lack of consensus among the censors (Öhrberg 2011, 119-122). This means that there may not have been a lot of pressure to end it: if authors could get around it, it may not have been perceived by everyone as a great problem. Nevertheless, at least one author wrote against it as early as 1759: Peter Forsskål.


Forsskål’s “Thoughts”

Peter Forsskål’s “Thoughts on Civil Liberty” was written in 1759 and published in censored form that year. As Thomas Von Vegesack has written, “one of Forsskål’s influences was the Scottish philosopher David Hume, whom he also mentioned in his thesis. Forsskål probably read him in German translation” (Von Vegesack in Forsskål 2009, 25). Hume’s “Of Liberty of the Press” of 1741 was translated into German in 1756 (and into French in 1764). Of course, Forsskål also could have drawn on related ideas in many of Hume’s other writings. Von Vegesack adds that:

“among the things that united Forsskål and Hume was their practical attitude to philosophy. Both expressed disapproval of scholars burying themselves in their theories” (Von Vegesack in Forsskål 2009, 25).

He quotes Hume for criticism of those:

“who never consulted experience in any of their reasoning or who never searched for that experience, where alone it is to be found, in common life and conversation” (Von Vegesack in Forsskål 2009, 25-26).

For Hume, life was not all about reason, as it was for Spinoza. For Hume, most of life was about customs and habits.

To understand Forsskal, let us go back to his philosophy dissertation at the University of Göttingen, “Dubia de principiis philosophiae recentoris”, defended in 1756. Its practical philosophy was heavily influenced by lawyers and philosophers like Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Leibniz, and perhaps especially by Christian Thomasius, Christian Wolff, Frances Hutcheson, and David Hume, all of the latter figures of the Moderate Enlightenment (Dellner 1953, 85ff.). Hume is cited or mentioned in every chapter: on theoretical philosophy (Dellner 1953, 22, 24-35, 34-39, 44-50, 55-60, 64, 69, 75), on practical philosophy (89-90, 98, 100-101), on philosophy of religion (115-116, 216 n. 53), and in a chapter on “Forsskål, Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer” (133-134, 138, 143-145, 154, 157). Most of the comparisons to Kant make the point that Forsskal is a precursor of his philosophy, but the references to Hume are to likely sources in Hume of Forsskal’s ideas. There is no mention of Spinoza, nor of any of the important followers, in Israel’s estimation, such as Diderot, d’Holbach, or La Mettrie.


The 1766 Ordinance

“His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press” was issued in Stockholm in the Council Chamber on December 2, 1766 (“His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance”). It seems to have been the world’s first government-sponsored declaration of freedom of the press. The English and the Dutch, who had enjoyed substantial freedom of the press for some time, never actually declared it as government policy. The English Licensing Act was allowed to lapse in 1696, but nothing with a positive declaration of freedom of the press was issued in its absence. Similarly, Dutch freedom of the press was largely a product of multiple jurisdictions such that something that was banned in one place might be published in another.

The 1766 Ordinance was not a full-fledged declaration of freedom of the press. After introductory remarks about the value of “unrestricted mutual enlightenment” and a declaration that “the previously established office of the Censor shall be entirely abolished” (8), it was asserted that “the authors themselves shall be responsible, together with the printers, for what shall appear in print” (8-9), reminding authors that they could be fined or imprisoned for anything that the authorities found amiss. It was also immediately added that “the importation and sale of harmful books” would be under the supervision of the Chancellery and the respective consistories so that “no banned and corrupting books” would be disseminated (10).

The first section of the ordinance spelled out what this meant with respect to religion:

“No one shall be permitted to write or publish anything that is contrary to the confession of Our true faith and the pure Evangelical doctrine” (10).

The old office of the Censor may have been abolished, but

“all manuscripts that in any way concern doctrine and our fundamental Christian articles of faith shall be inspected by the nearest consistory” (10).

The second section dealt with the “fundamental laws”:

“no one shall venture in any way to assail or question [them] by means of publications or printed material” (10).

The third section dealt with “vituperative or disparaging opinions about Us and Our Royal House”, as well as such remarks against councillors, the estates of the Realm, and insults against officials and citizens (11). Nor would be permitted:

“abusive statements in public writings about crowned heads or their closest blood relatives and contemporary ruling authorities, nor to write or publish in print anything by which a manifest vice is promoted or justified and is thus incompatible with decency” (11).

There is clearly a great deal of interpretive leeway here for condemning authors and publishers to fines and punishments. The principle of freedom of the press was vindicated, but in practice a wide range of uses of the freedom could be punished.

Later sections of the Ordinance provided detailed provisions for the publishing of all sorts of matters such as the public law of the kingdom, the relations of the kingdom with foreign powers, correspondence and documents of courts and public authorities, and more. This has been called the world’s first Freedom of Information Act (Mustonen 2006). It certainly went beyond what either Spinoza or Hume had said about freedom of the press.

Looking for intellectual sources for the Ordinance, we can start with Anders Chydenius, one of the chief framers. He was a Finnish-Swedish pastor who was elected to the Diet (parliament) as a representative of the clerical estate in 1765. He had written some policy papers in support of liberalization of trade from Finland. He also drafted several policy papers concerning freedom of the press which eventually became the heart of the press ordinance. A sketch of his intellectual sources by Pertti Hyttinen mentions Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Spener, and Wolff, but neither Spinoza nor Hume (Hyttinen 1994). Juha Mustonen mentions Bacon, Locke, Pufendorf, and the baron Du Halde as influences on Chydenius from outside of Sweden, but neither Spinoza nor Hume (Mustonen 2006, 25-27, 36, 39-40).

Nevertheless, some scholars have found a whiff of Hume. Carl Uhr reports that:

“it is certain he never heard of Adam Smith, and what little he knew of Davenant, Locke, Hume, Mun, and Child he obtained mainly from the writings of a somewhat liberal Swedish mercantilist, Baron Nordencrantz, and from Swedish translations of a few of the works of these British writers” (Uhr 1963, 9).

I know of no Swedish translations of Hume in the eighteenth century. Uhr does not mention Spinoza or any Spinozist. But Lars Magnusson reports that Chydenius was influenced by Anders Nordencrantz, who drew his attention to Hume, along with other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Pufendorf, and Montesquieu, but does not mention Spinoza (Magnusson 2003). Henrik Knif’s survey of influences does not mention Spinoza (Knif 2003).

Two factors may provide partial explanations of the absence of mention of Spinoza in the literature on the Swedish declaration of freedom of the press. One is that until Jonathan Israel began promoting the Spinozan connection, many historians of the ideas of the time were not particularly attuned to looking for it. A second one is that writers of the time did not often admit influences from Spinoza because the Dutch philosopher had a bad reputation and admitting influences from Spinoza might have brought an author accusations of atheism and subversion. But the absence of mention of Spinoza also may well mean that he did not have much influence. His books were widely prohibited and hard to obtain, and authors may have found support for ideas such as freedom of the press elsewhere, such as in Hume.


Johann Friedrich Struensee

Our next witness is Johann Friedrich Struensee, chief minister of the Danish King in the early 1770’s and the man behind the Danish declaration of freedom of the press of 1770. This was a more thorough-going freedom of the press than the Swedish version. It was a cabinet order, not a matter of constitutional law passed by the Diet, as in Sweden. It was much shorter. After a first sentence praising the search for truth, it provided that “we have decided to permit in our kingdoms and lands in general an unlimited freedom of the press of such a form, that from now on no one shall be required and obliged to submit books and writings that he wants to bring to the press to the previously required censorship and approval” (Laursen 1998, 168). Not long afterward, Struensee had to add another cabinet order requiring publishers to put their names on their publications in order to hold someone responsible in case of egregious libel or slander.

In the 1760’s Struensee had been a physician practicing in Altona, then part of the Danish king’s territories, which was right next to Hamburg. It is quite likely that he was influenced by Spinozists in this period. Johann Lorenz Schmidt had lived nearby in the previous decades, and translated Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation in 1741 to which he added his own 130-page introduction, largely a defense of freedom of the press (see Laursen 2012, 317ff.). He also translated Spinoza’s Ethics in 1744. Also before Struensee’s time, convinced Spinozists such as Johann Conrad Dippel and Theodor Ludwig Lau spent some time in Hamburg and Altona. And Struensee was a daily dinner companion with Hartog Gerson, son of a clandestine Spinozist, David Gerson, and other Spinozists. So he certainly could have picked up some of his ideas in favor of freedom of the press from Spinoza and various Spinozists.

But there were other intellectual currents militating in favor of freedom of the press in Struensee’s mental toolkit. One was cynicism. While in Altona Struensee collaborated on three short-lived periodicals that were shut down by censors. This alone might be expected to make him want to abolish censorship. And in those journals, he published two articles that drew heavily on the cynical tradition. One was entitled “In Praise of Dogs and of Greek White Powder”, and it made fun of the quack medicine of a rival physician. The other was entitled “Reports on Diogenes”, and it praised Diogenes for his fearless speech and compared dogs (for whom the cynics were named) favorably to most people. So ancient cynic parrhasia, or freedom of speech, was one of the influences on Struensee that supported his declaration of freedom of the press in 1760.

There is no particular reason to think that Struensee was especially influenced by Hume. So when he declared the more thorough freedom of the press in 1770, we may attribute it to a combination of factors including cynic parrhasia, his own personal experiences, and the Spinozistic tradition (not necessarily in this order). His case may be the best corroboration of Jonathan Israel’s case for Spinozism in the press debates in the north.

Jonathan Israel also reported that in this period Otto Thott, member of the Privy Council and thus one of the highest officials in Denmark, had “one of the most extensive collections of forbidden philosophical books and manuscripts to be found anywhere in eighteenth-century Europe” (Israel 2001, 133; see also 686). But it turns out that Thott had the largest collection of forbidden philosophical books, including Spinozana, because he had the largest collection of everything in the north: a library of 130,000 books and 10,000 incunabula. There is no evidence that he read Spinoza, and no evidence that he ever tried to circulate Spinoza’s ideas.

In 1771 Hume’s “Of Liberty of the Press” was translated into Danish, probably from the German translation (Laursen 1998). This was part of a much larger avalanche of pamphlets discussing issues from freedom of the press to economic policy to military and church reforms to women’s participation in political life that came out after Struensee declared freedom of the press in 1770 (Laursen 2002).

Hume came to Denmark in the company of Voltaire. This is important because Jonathan Israel also declares that Voltaire is a representative of the Moderate Enlightenment, like Hume, and not of the Radical Enlightenment, like Spinoza. The translation of Hume’s essay was the last supplementary essay in a 31-page pamphlet entitled Mr. F. A. de Voltaire’s Letter to His Majesty the King of Denmark concerning freedom of the press in his states, together with some essays of relevant content (1771). Voltaire’s letter was a panegyric of the king for granting freedom of the press, praising him for “granting man his rights” and “permitting him to think” (Laursen 2002b). It was followed in this pamphlet by two more short pieces by Voltaire, and then the Hume translation.

Wide reading in the political pamphlets of the early 1770’s has not come across any references to the Danish translation of Hume’s essay, so it cannot be said that it had any direct influence. There were many Danish contributions to the debate from several different angles, so maybe they did not need the thinking of this Scottish philosopher. But that does not mean his ideas did not percolate under the surface, both in some of those writings and in later ones. And since Danish was easily accessible to Swedish readers, the pamphlet may have circulated in Sweden, too, in the decades after 1770.

Spinoza was also present in the political pamphlets, but mostly with no particular reference to freedom of the press. Rather, he was mostly the subject of opprobrium. Thus, one pamphlet lumped him together with Tindall, Collins, and Bolingbroke as those:

“who have taught [religion] again to use its divine strength, and the greater its enemies and the more dangerous their weapons, the greater, the more decisive its victory” (cited in Laursen 2000, 196).

Another wrote of:

“a Dutch Jew, Spinoza by name, who in a thick, tedious book in metaphysical Latin has attempted to prove that all of nature is only one substance and that all parts of nature are only as many modifications of it. According to his opinion, it is the same whether one is a maggot, rabbit, or hero” (Laursen 2000, 197).

One pamphlet made the connection to freedom of the press, but it was not in a positive sense: among the fruits of freedom of the press were:

“controversial writings, project writings, heretical writings, financial writings, Machiavellian and Spinozistic writings, of which there were a great number” (Laursen 2000, 197-8).

No one seems to have cited Spinoza in support of freedom of the press.


Back to Sweden

Forsskal was not the only one in Sweden to take an interest in Hume. In 1770 Anders Nordencrantz argued that the study of history was necessary to prevent the effects of ignorance and prejudice from influencing public opinion and was thus “indispensable to rational public debate” (Hallberg 2003, 96). He drew on Hume to admit that perfect knowledge of history as a basis for contemporary politics would never exist, but that “a less demanding” standard for history could provide important tools for political criticism (Hallberg 2003, 177). Like Hume, who worried about the effects of unrestrained public opinion in the matter of the Wilkes riots in London in 1768, Nordenkrantz could also see the dangers of freedom of the press.

In the same year, Anders Schönberg also criticized the way in which the commoner party had distorted history during the period of Strife of the Estates. He drew on Montesquieu and Hume to argue “history proved that even if complete equality was possible, it was undesirable. The reason was simple: equality was the surest and indeed fastest- way to tyranny” (Hallberg 2003, 218). Hume provided him with an authority for the ongoing value of distinctions of rank. One of the things that a nobility could do was counterbalance the power of the king and of the people in healthy ways. Hume’s critique of Cromwell was also of use: an ideology of radical egalitarianism could easily lead to authoritarianism (Hallberg 2003, 219). Nordencrantz and Schönberg stand for the proposition that one can favor freedom of the press without denying its dangers and excesses, and thus supporting various checks and balances on it. This version of Swedish freedom of the press is not the unlimited freedom of the press that Israel attributes to Spinoza, but rather a measured and limited freedom of the press, like Hume’s.

Hume was also influential in Swedish political and philosophical circles of this period on other issues. Françoise Marguerite Janiçon’s Tankar I anledning af Sista Öfwerflods-Forordiiningen Och Dess wärkstallighet of 1766 was an intervention in the debate over luxury and an ordinance against it which referred to his History of Great Britain (Öhrberg 2003, 198-99). Hume was associated with other historians Jonathan Israel has labeled as Moderate Enlighteners such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Giannone, Roberton, and Gibbon. So to the extent that his reputation was drawn on by the backers of the Swedish and Danish declarations, it was most likely as an element of the Moderate Enlightenment.

In 1774, the Swedish publisher Carl Christoffer Gjörwell wrote to a friend that the:

“success of a historian like Charles Rollin and a philosopher-historian like David Hume were closely related to their publishers’ realization that only a small format [such as octavo] could increase the number of sales and hence increase the author’s influence” (Hallberg 2003, 96).

The very point that Hume’s writings were widely available in several languages and that Spinoza’s had been prohibited and were harder to find had to make some difference in the relative influence of their ideas in the overall context of the Swedish and Danish declarations of freedom of the press.

Gjörwell made another point in his “publisher’s preface” to Sven Lagerbring’s Sammandrang af swea-rikes historia [Summary of the history of the Kingdom of Sweden] of 1778-79.

“Recognizing David Hume’s dictum that all governments are founded ‘on opinion only’ and echoing Schönberg’s notion of a ‘superstructure’, Gjörwell maintained that history could become instrumental to change the hearts of a young generation that ‘had imbibed Party venom with their very breath’”

as Peter Hallberg puts it (Hallberg 2003, 261). The Age of Liberty, with its excessive violence, “served as a reminder of a dark age to be avoided” (Hallberg 2003, 261).

Lagerbring himself asserted that:

“ever since the passing of the 1766 Ordinance for the Liberty of Printing the reading public had almost been drowned in a flood of pamphlets and journals, the vast majority of which were submitted by prejudiced writers” (Hallberg 2003, 263).

As we know, the ordinance had been nullified by the constitutional changes of 1772, but this author thought that was a good thing. His own publishing of a better history was part of a necessary corrective to the excesses of an uncontrolled free press.



The Swedish and Danish materials that we have reviewed above demonstrate several points about freedom of the press. One is that it was not a matter of a clean and simple ideology calling for one thing and assignable to one place on a spectrum of political positions. Rather, people who have been described as “radical” and “moderate” have endorsed various degrees of it. Spinoza had a place in influencing people to favor it, although in the Swedish case it appears that Hume had more influence. Almost no one was in favor of completely unlimited freedom of the press, and even Struensee, who declared unlimited freedom of the press, quickly had to add some limits. So freedom of the press can be found in various modalities and with various arguments in support of it, all of which are quite dependent upon local political, economic, religious, and philosophical contexts, subject to change as these factors change.

Footnotes & References

Dellner, Johan, Forsskåls filosofi (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1953).

Forsskål, Peter, Thoughts on Civil Liberty, eds. David Goldberg, Gunilla Jonsson, and Thomas Von Vegesack (Stockholm: Atlantis, 2009).

Hallberg, Peter, Ages of Liberty: Social Upheaval, History Writing, and the New Public Sphere in Sweden, 1740-1792 (Stockholm: Stockholm Studies in Politics, 2003).

“His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press” in Mustonen 2006, 8-17.

Hyttinen, Pertti, Anders Chydenius: Defender of Freedom and Democracy (Kokkola: Chydenius Institute, 1994).

Israel, Jonathan, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Israel, Jonathan, Radical Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Israel Jonathan, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Knif, Henrik, “Den farliga staden: Anders Chydenius och Stockholm” in Riksdag, kafeehus och predikstol: frihettidens politiska kultur 1766-1772, eds. Marie-Christine Skuncke and Henrika Tandfelt (Stockholm: Atlantis, 2003).

Laursen, J. C., “David Hume and the Danish Debate about Freedom of the Press in the 1770s”, The Journal of the History of Ideas 59, 1998, 167-174.

Laursen, J. C., “Luxdorph’s Press Freedom Writings: Before the Fall of Struensee in Early 1770’s Denmark-Norway”, The European Legacy 7, 2002, 61-78.

Laursen, J. C., “Spinoza in Denmark and the Fall of Struensee”, The Journal of the History of Ideas, 61, 2000, 189-202.

Laursen, J. C., “Voltaire, Christian VII of Denmark, and Freedom of the Press”, SVEC [formerly Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century], 2002b, 331-348.

Laursen, J. C., “Hamburg/Altona as a Fertile Ground for Theories About Freedom of the Press in the Mid-Eighteenth Century” in A. Steiger and S. Richter, eds., Hamburg: Eine Metropolregion zwischen Früher Neuzeit und Aufklärung (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2012), 315-327.

Magnusson, Lars, “Den ekonomiska diskussionen under frihetstiden – ett framlängesperspektiven” in Riksdag, kafeehus och predikstol: frihettidens politiska kultur 1766-1772, eds. Marie-Christine Skuncke and Henrika Tandfelt (Stockholm: Atlantis, 2003).

Mustonen, Juha, The World’s First Freedom of Information Act (Kokkola: Anders Chydenius Foundation, 2006).

Öhrberg, Ann, “Françoise Marguerite Janiçon: en kvinnlig aktör pa frihedstidens politiska arena” in Riksdag, kafeehus och predikstol: frihettidens politiska kultur 1766-1772, eds. Marie-Christine Skuncke and Henrika Tandfelt (Stockholm: Atlantis, 2003).

Öhrberg, Ann, “’A Threat to Civic Existence’: Forbidden Religious Literature and Censorship in Eighteenth-Century Sweden” in Religious Reading in the Lutheran North, eds. Charlotte Appel and Morten Fink-Jensen (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011), 119-122.

Uhr, Carl, Anders Chydenius 1729-1803: A Finnish Predecessor to Adam Smith (Abo: National ekonomiska institutionem, 1963).

John Laursen
John Laursen
John Christian Laursen is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. He has published widely on the history of ideas about freedom of the press in Europe.
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