By Professor Stephen D. Solomon

The most-visited page on First Amendment Watch during 2018 was not one of the many conflicts over freedom of speech and press that we covered during the year. It was Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, delivered by our third President on March 4, 1801. Jefferson articulated a message that resonates in our own time of great partisan divisions. He became President just as the odious Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 expired. Under the Sedition Act, enacted into law while the Federalist party controlled Congress and the White House, more than a dozen journalists and Democratic-Republican opponents of the Adams Administration had been jailed for merely voicing dissent against its policies. Jefferson argued that a difference of opinion “is not a difference of principle.” All the people of America regardless of political persuasion, he said, should be united in a common purpose of democracy. “We are all republicans: we are all federalists,” he said. Freedom of expression protected all Americans, even those who questioned core beliefs. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form,” he said, “let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.” Jefferson’s message is worth remembering as a new year of partisan divisions unfolds.