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Talking Treason: Eighteenth-Century Literature and the Origins of the First Amendment

ENGL 241.402


The idea that citizens should have a right to free speech was widely contested, often violently, in Britain and America—not only in courts and legislature, but also in the world of culture: in novels, pamphlets, plays, and bold poetic experiments.  This class explores a selection of classic literary texts from the long eighteenth century (roughly 1660-1800) as a way of asking where the First Amendment came from.  Reading rebels and jokesters alongside advocates of restraint, we will ask how British and North American writers gradually subverted the longstanding assumption that the ideal citizen was “obedient” in favor of the paradoxical idea that a system of government that permitted free speech was safer and more secure than a government that did not.  We will examine not only revolutionary articulations of the benefits of a free press—John Milton’s Areopagitica, for instance—but also fiction and poetry from the period that tested the limits of law and good taste.  How did authors such as Alexander Pope exploit loopholes in libel law to ridicule their contemporaries mercilessly in published verse?  What should we make of the raciness of Eliza Haywood’s amatory fiction?  To what extent did the authors of the Bill of Rights intend to protect the right to disseminate sexy and obscene materials?  Authors examined in the course include Locke, Defoe, Swift, Pope, Montesquieu, Haywood, Richardson, Wilkes, Barbauld, Paine, Jefferson, Wollstonecraft, De Sade.  Requirements include weekly responses, a midterm paper, and a final (research) paper.




fulfills requirements
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major