Tennesseans talk a lot about the right to freedom of expression, and they should. But it is interesting to note that free Tennessians have not always had the right to freedom of expression, at least not on all subjects.
A few years ago, I researched and wrote a book on slavery called Runaways, Coffles and Fancy Girls. Some of what I discovered took me by surprise.
Prior to about 1835, it was perfectly legal to broadcast an opinion against slavery in Tennessee. In 1820, the Washington County seat of Jonesborough even had a newspaper devoted entirely to the anti-slavery cause called The Emancipator. Elihu Embree published it, and according to its letterhead, its purpose was to “advocate the abolition of slavery.”
However, a few points should be made about this unusual footnote in Tennessee history. First of all, The Emancipator had a very short lifespan. His publication ceased after just seven issues and did not continue after Embree’s death in December 1820, leading to the conclusion that he suffered from a lack of subscribers and advertisers.
It should also be noted that every other newspaper published in the pre-war Tennessee – from the Knoxville Gazette of the 1790s to the Nashville Whig of the 1830s to the Memphis Daily Eagle of the 1850s – regularly ran advertisements related to slaves, runaway slaves announcements to upcoming slave auction announcements. They also had pro-slavery views that would shock people today. “It is as pointless as it is perilous to falsify the relationship between master and slave”, stated an issue of the Republican Banner of 1854.
After Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Virginia, Tennessee clamped down on the expression of abolitionist views. In March 1836, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the following statute (Article VII, Section 2682 of the Tennessee Code):
“No person shall in that State write, print, paint, draw, engrave or assist or encourage to write, print, paint, draw or engrave on paper, parchment, canvas, metal or other substance for the purpose of its circulation. , any paper, essay, verse, pamphlet, book, painting, drawing or engraving calculated to arouse discontent, insurrection or rebellion among slaves or free people of color.
The punishment for breaking this law was between 5 and 10 years of forced labor.
This law meant that it was legal for a Tennessian to write anti-slavery opinions in a personal journal. But the minute someone posted them on a wall, they were breaking the law.
The law meant that newspapers were not free to publish opinions that advocated the elimination of slavery.
The law also meant that it was (technically, at least) illegal to distribute a copy of Uncle Tom’s box, which was considered an insurrectionary document in Tennessee. In fact, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel first came out, several northern newspapers published sample chapters of it. I did not find any such extract published in Tennessee – only harsh reviews of the book containing words such as “false”, “vulgar” and “disgusting”.
It is impossible to know how many times people were accused of breaking Tennessee’s “incitement” law between 1836 and the Civil War, when the issue of slavery was settled. But I do know that in 1846 a Maury County man named Alexander Billings was tried, but not convicted, for circulating a painting purported to incite slaves to rebellion.
I mention all this because today, it is assumed that the American Constitution has always guaranteed free Tennesseans the right to freedom of expression. Suffice it to say that the right to freedom of expression has evolved.
Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers cover social studies. He is also the author of several history books and a former Capitol Hill reporter.