James Madison Papers

James Madison to Nicholas P. Trist, 23 April 1828

Montpellier April 23. 1828.

Dear Sir

I have recd. your favor of the 17th. & thank you for the copy of Mr. Jeffersons letter to Mr. Norvell on the deceptive & licencious character of the press. My answer to the letter of General Lafayette referring to the abuse abroad of that of Mr. Jefferson in decrying the liberty of the press, appealed for an antidote to the known attachment of Mr. J. to a free press, as a necessary guardian of free Government, to which no man could be more devoted than he was.

There is but too much truth in the picture of newspapers, as sketched in the letter to the Philadelphia Printer. But the effect of their falsehoods & slanders, must always be controuled, in a certain degree, by contradictions in rival or hostile papers, where the press is free. The complaint nevertheless applies with much force to the one-sided publications which happen to predominate at particular periods, or under particular circumstances. It is then that the minds best disposed may be filled with the most gross and injurious untruths. Those who see erroneous statements of facts, without ever seeing a contradiction of them, & specious comments, without any exposure of their fallacies, will of course be generally under the delusions, so strongly painted by Mr. Jefferson. It has been said that any Country might be governed at the will of one who had the exclusive privilege of furnishing its popular songs. The result would be far more certain from a monopoly of the politics of the press. Could it be so arranged, that every newspaper, when printed on one side, should be handed over to the press of an adversary, to be printed on the other, thus presenting to every reader both sides of every question, truth would always have a fair chance. But such a remedy is ideal; and if reducible to practice, continual changes in the arrangement would be required, by the successive revolutions in the state of parties, & their effect on the relative opinions & views of the same Editors, revolutions producing, when not duly anticipated & provided for by a candid career, the mortifying incongruities & perplexities, of which so many striking examples are seen. But I am running into observations, as unnecessary on the present occasion, as they would probably be unavailing where most applicable.

I had adverted to the papers subscribed "The Spirit of—87," before my attention was pointed to them. The analytic & demonstrative views taken of the subject are able & instructive. If liable to any criticism it is that they have a superfluity of those meritorious characteristics. With affectionate salutations

James Madison

Should the copy of the letter to Mr. Nowell have left a blank requiring another copy, I will return the one sent

RC (DLC: Nicholas P. Trist Papers); draft (DLC).

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