Title: “A Government Without Newspapers, or Newspapers Without Government:” Jefferson’s Ambivalent Attitude Towards the Press
Descriptive Subtitle: With more and more discussion lately about “fake news” and the protections of the press guaranteed under the First Amendment, explore how Thomas Jefferson might approach the media today. Through exposure to his letters regarding his changing views of the media (from member of the Continental Congress to his time as President) students will be able to compare statements of Jefferson regarding the press and make connections to our government’s varying views on the media.
Grade Level: upper middle (7-8), high school (9-12)
Name: Michele Gabrielson
School: Wellesley Middle School
Duration: 2-3 (45 minute) classes
In his 1787 letter to Edward Carrington, Jefferson writes, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” While Jefferson champions the freedom of the press time and time again during the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary years, as he serves out his time as President his protective attitude towards the press changes drastically.
Ideally this lesson would be taught in conjunction with a unit on Civics and Bill of Rights. It may also be used as a mini lesson when teaching about current events – specifically the current attitudes towards the media from our government.
Students should have an in-depth understanding of the history of Jefferson’s time as a member of the Continental Congress through his Presidency. Due to the examination of primary sources and the need for context, students should already have learned of the causes of the Revolution, with the differences of the Federalist and Democratic-Republicans party beliefs, the Election of 1800, and Jefferson’s time as President.
Students will have read the piece provided by the Bill of Rights Institute titled “Background Essay: Why Does a Free Press Matter?” for homework.
Students should also be comfortable with determining bias and supporting opinions with text-based documentation.
For educators, the book American Aurora : a Democratic-Republican Returns : the Suppressed History of Our Nation’s Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It written by Richard Rosenfeld is a helpful resource.
USI.22: Summarize the major policies and developments that took place during the presidencies of George Washington (1789-1797), John Adams (1797-1801), and Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).
USG5.3: Describe how citizens can monitor and influence local, state, and national government as individuals and members of interest groups.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.
(5 minutes) Warm Up/ Bell Ringer
Based on our reading from last night, answer the following question, “What is the importance of the first amendment in regard to freedom of the press?” Students may either free-write, draw a picture or do a wordsplash. Discuss student answers to begin class.
(10 minutes) “Why Does a Free Press Matter?” debrief
Students will have read the piece provided by the Bill of Rights Institute titled “Background Essay: Why Does a Free Press Matter?” for homework. As a class, we will debrief the questions answered for homework using a turn and talk strategy. Students will turn to their partner and discuss the questions together.
(30 minutes) Jefferson’s Views on the Press: Determining Bias
Teacher will redirect students’ attention using the segue that even today, debates are held regarding the value of the First Amendment: Freedom of the Press. Share out some of the following quotes. Which ones strike you? Why?
Some individuals, like Thomas Jefferson, changed his opinion on the press throughout his life.
Using the “Jefferson’s Views of the Press” resource packet, read through the primary source quotes written by Thomas Jefferson regarding his attitudes towards the media.
In partners or small groups (no larger than 3), determine the bias of the quote. Is Jefferson championing the freedom of the press, or is he criticizing the press? Students may sort the quotes in to piles.
As a class, discuss the bias using context clues from the sources:
(45 minutes) Jefferson’s Views on the Press: Determining Context
In partners or small groups (no larger than 3) students will be assigned one of the primary sources in the resource packet to examine more closely. Students will place their quote in historic context using the following resources:
Jefferson timeline on Monticello’s website https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/timeline-jeffersons-life
and the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Papers Timeline:
Students should use the following as focus questions:
(30 minutes) Creating a class timeline of Jefferson’s Attitudes Towards the Press
Partners/groups will share out their findings and place their quote in historic context. As a class, students will create a physical class timeline about Jefferson’s major life experiences and what might cause him to shift his attitudes over the years. Suggestions might be using an online template for a timeline, poster project or index cards on a bulletin board.
(5 minutes) Ticket to Leave- Exit Ticket
Based on what we’ve gained from the wide variety of primary sources placed in context, tweet as Jefferson and summarize his views on freedom of the press. Remember to stay within the 140-character limit and don’t forget a hashtag or two!
Materials: List the links to primary sources, images, etc. attach any handouts or presentations, and list any technology needed for the lesson.
Struggling Readers/ ELL Students
High-Level Readers/ Upper grades