I enjoyed reading your yearly supplement on Constitution Day including this year. The insert is obviously written for grade school students but I wanted to add some information showing the history of the struggle for the right to a free press goes back almost 500 years. An ancestor of mine was in the thick of the fight.
William Brewster of the Mayflower and the First Amendment are tied together in history. William Brewster was born in 1567 in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England. He was the son of William and Mary Brewster, attended Cambridge University and later became an assistant secretary of state to Holland for Queen Elizabeth I. He returned to England and took over for his father as postmaster and bailiff in Scrooby.
By the time Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1559 printing had become important as documents were reaching the common people and ideas were expanding. There was a great struggle between Protestants and Catholics with persecution against both sides as one monarch favored one religion and the next another. Stopping publications representing the views of opposing groups was common practice of the current monarch.
In the 1550s a printing monopoly was given to the Stationers' Company. Authorized printing presses were allowed only in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and universities. The Oxford University Press still exists today. In 1559 the queen or Star Chamber or university chancellors licensed all publications. The Stationers' Company evolved over time into the governmental agency charged with controlling printing in England. On the surface it was a London based guild of approximately 97 printers, bookbinders and booksellers. But the participants worked with the approval of the crown and its charter gave it a monopoly over what was published in England.
One of the obligations of the Stationers' Company was to control the publication and distribution of "blasphemous" materials in England. This meant, of course, any publication that the crown disapproved of. Also, the Stationers' Company in effect owned the printing. As a practical matter, the printers approved each other's projects and the ownership of those projects came under the umbrella organization, the Company of Stationers. In this form the Stationers' Company lasted for 150 years. It came to an end in 1694 when Parliament allowed the last of the licensing acts to expire.
In 1576 the Stationers' Company started conducting weekly searches for unlicensed books. Severe penalties were imposed for violations. Admonition was backed up by example, and the severity with which offenders were occasionally treated served as a reminder of the risk involved in meddling with such matters. William Carter, a printer who had been imprisoned on several occasions for printing "naughtye papysticall books," found that these were no empty threats. On January 10, 1584, he was condemned for high treason as having printed a seditious book entitled, A treatise of schisme, and, "on the morrow, he was drawn from Newgate to Tyburn and there hanged, bowelled and quartered."
Various religious groups grew in England during this same time. The Puritans hoped to "purify" the Church of England. Separatists groups, mostly from northern counties like Lincoln, York and Nottingham, wanted to separate from the church. A group who eventually evolved into the Mayflower pilgrims tried to leave once but were blocked and sent back amidst mocking and harassment. One of their complaints was that they could not defend their positions without printed documents. They did successfully leave for Holland in 1609.
The only printing restrictions in Holland concerned private character and public morals. Many religious groups had presses there especially in Leyden where the separatists settled. Three main people led the pilgrim group. John Robinson was the minister. Thomas Brewer was a rich landowner from Kent who financed much of the printing. William Brewster was the printer. They studied many printed documents and decided to establish Pilgrim Press in Brewster's home. Pilgrim Press produced about twenty titles with many copies of each.
Back in England printing restrictions were causing much persecution and redress in the courts. In 1614 King James I dissolved Parliament and it did not return for seven years.
In 1618 there was a big uproar over a document known as Perth Assembly. King James called church leaders together and thrust ceremonies into church services. Five of the ceremonies were very distasteful to Presbyterians in Scotland. David Calderwood, minister in Crailing, wrote his own version of Perth Assembly and got it to Brewster, Brewer and Robinson. They printed it and returned it to Scotland in wine vats and it was widely distributed. This enraged King James. He described Calderwood as "a very knave." Calderwood was hunted from house to house and town to town. He managed to escape to Holland and did not return until after King James died in 1625.
Thomas Brewer was brought back to England with the understanding he would be questioned, confess and be released. This was arranged by Cambridge University. He was questioned by King James for two months and released. After the death of pilgrim minister John Robinson in 1629 Brewer returned to England, where he was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He lived for six months after his release.
William Brewster was the most wanted of the group. The English search for him went beyond its jurisdiction to include his own house in Holland. He escaped and no one knew where he hid until the Mayflower voyage. He was aware of the fate of another Scottish minister, Alexander Leighton, in 1619. Leighton had published a book found to be libelous against the Church of England. He was fined 100,000 pounds, (approximately $5,000,000 today) whipped, pilloried, and had one ear cut off. Branded "SS" (stirrer of sedition) on his forehead, he was put in prison "until a convenient time." Whipped and pilloried again, his other ear was cut off, and he was imprisoned for life in Fleet prison.
At the same time the separatist pilgrim church was not happy with life in Holland. Their children were leaving the church for the more liberal society there. They made arrangements with English businessmen for two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to take them to Virginia in the New World. Minister John Robinson was not allowed to get a passport by order of King James.
It is believed that English authorities were hoping to capture William Brewster in Plymouth, England before the ships left if he dared try to escape with the group. Brewster was a learned man greatly admired by the Pilgrims. The list of Mayflower passengers includes the alias, Master Williamson. This is thought to be William Brewster the son of William. Mourt's Relation, a journal of pilgrim history, refers to Captain Standish and Master Williamson. William Mullins will, dictated just before he died the first winter in February 1621, named Governor Carver and a Master Williamson. Brewster remained the church elder of the Plymouth church until a minister arrived in 1629. He died in Plymouth in 1644.
Before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth they realized they were physically outside the geographical area controlled by England since they arrived at Cape Cod and not Virginia. Cherishing freedom but realizing they needed some form of government, they composed and signed the Mayflower Compact, calling themselves "loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James." They hoped for basic freedoms in the New World.
It is not by mistake or coincidence that the First Amendment bundled freedom of speech, religion, the press, assembly, and petition of grievances. The Bill of Rights protects US citizens from its own government. The framers, some of whom were from Massachusetts, knew of past abuses based on religious beliefs, speech, assembly, printing and seeking relief from government wrongs. They went on with amendments about firearms, search and seizure, trials, arrests, legal representation, confessions, bail, punishment, and property rights. People like William Brewster, John Robinson, Thomas Brewer, David Calderwood, William Carter and Alexander Leighton were willing to sacrifice to establish the principles that we take for granted.
Wayne Dyer is a 38-year resident of Groton and a retired Vermont state police detective. Some of his duties included teaching laws of arrest as well as search and seizure and due process. He is a self-taught student of the law. He enjoys his current job as a bailiff at the Grafton County Courthouse in North Haverhill, N.H.