Holly Brewer is the Burke Professor of American History and an associate professor at the University of Maryland. She works on debates about justice in early America and the British Empire through the revolutionary period and into the nineteenth century. She is the author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005), which won three national prizes in legal history, as well as of the prizewinning "Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia" (The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2 April 1997). She is currently finishing a book on the ideological origins of slavery in early America and the British Empire for which she received a Guggenheim fellowship. She is a keen supporter of K–12 history education and has provided content lectures on the prerevolutionary period for AP U.S. history teachers.
In this lecture I argue that America has a much longer & deeper tradition of censorship than we usually acknowledge, and that it has shaped how we tell our history. Most American colonies had no printing press until the 1720s, and even then publications were heavily censored via the common law of seditious libel, which allowed people to be punished for simply criticizing those in power, regardless of whether what they said was true. Despite the rejection of these principles, on some level, after the expiration of the alien and sedition acts in the early 1800s, censorship of anti-slavery literature, for example, was normal in the antebellum south. Sedition continues to be a crime for those in the U.S. military, even today. This lecture ends by reflecting on how the censorship of what we read influences how we see the world--as modern voters--and as historians.