La libertad de imprenta en la América española

(ensayo de historia comparada

sobre la opinión pública moderna)*


Gilberto Loaiza Cano[1]

Universidad del Valle - Colombia


Reception: 27/10/2015

Evaluation: 20/01/2016

Approval: 05/04/2016

Research and innovation article




Este ensayo pretende mostrar las diferencias y semejanzas en el proceso de instauración de la libertad de imprenta en varios lugares de la América española. El análisis estará concentrado en los decenios 1810 a 1830, e incluye lo sucedido en Nueva España, Nueva Granada, Río de la Plata y Chile, principalmente.


Palabras clave: Libertad de imprenta, Censura, Opinión pública, Prensa.



Freedom of the Press in Spanish America (an Essay on the Comparative History of Modern Public Opinion)


This essay attempts to demonstrate the differences and similarities in the process of establishing the freedom of the press in various locations in Spanish America. This analysis will concentrate on the decades from 1810 to 1830 and will mainly include the events that occurred in New Spain, New Granada, Río de la Plata and Chile.


Key words: Freedom of the press, censorship, public opinion, the press.



La liberté de presse dans l’Amérique espagnole (essai d’histoire comparée de l’opinion publique moderne)



L’objectif de cet essai est de montrer les différences et les ressemblances dans le processus d’instauration de la liberté de presse dans plusieurs lieux de l’Amérique espagnole. L’analyse portera sur les décennies de 1810 à 1830, et les territoires de la Nouvelle Espagne, la Nouvelle-Grenade, le Río de la Plata et le Chili, principalement.


Mots-clés: Liberté de presse, censure, opinion publique, presse.


1.           Introduction


Various historians agree in considering the final decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the following century as a period in which an early liberalism became mixed with the intellectual and moral principles of the Enlightenment and with the remnants of a society that was still not governed by individualistic values. Said another way, a new judicial order inclined towards extending individual freedoms was in contrast, for some time, to a society that still looked with suspicion at the emergence of a worrying category that began to call itself “public opinion”. That time saw tensions between those who proclaimed and wanted to put into practice the freedom of the press and those that were accustomed to certain restrictions to expression with which the disturbance of “the public peace” was avoided. The appearance of newspapers and even more modest printed material in which individuals expressed their political opinions was an innovation that was difficult to accept for a literate community accustomed to seeing newspapers as instruments for spreading moral and scientifically useful news, curiosities, instructions for urban life, and laws that aimed to contribute to the general happiness. In fact, the first governments preferred to promote official gazettes which guaranteed a necessary and rapid consensus and, at the same time, aimed to restrict and even prohibit the existence of newspapers written by individuals interested in political controversy[2].



 Ultimately, there was a bleak period which was faced by those who began to appeal to the emerging and apparently impartial “court of public opinion,” who preferred to submit to the acceptance or censure of the public instead of continuing to appeal to the traditional approval of the monarchy, and those who continued to believe that the press should promote good customs and obedience to the authorities. To that dilemma, very visible as from 1808, is to be later added, towards 1813, the urgency of guaranteeing unanimity in the fight against an enemy. For this reason, freedom of opinion was in that time a precious legal factor which could be resorted to at the moment of claiming justice and respect for a recently won individual right, and often, was violated by governments that still questioned the anonymous and general authority of the court of public opinion. The confrontation of these two perceptions of the nature the press must have been, of course, the cause of controversy.


In this essay, we will show the transformation process of the sphere of public opinion through the establishment of the freedom of the press; although the process could contain a generic change in the system of communication of individuals and, above all, of deliberation through “public papers”, it is important to highlight the obstacles arising from specific situations of each former Spanish colony. Presenting this landscape of changes in various parts of Spanish America is, of course, an exercise of comparative history in which we will try to reconstruct the conditions of possibility for the discourses that gave support to the transition to a new political system.



2.           Unequal freedom



The announcement of the freedom of the press, given by the courts of Cádiz in the inaugural decree of the 10th November, 1810, had an uneven welcome in Hispanic America; power relations, local interests and the presence or absence of authorities of the declining empire were decisive factors which limited, impeded or made possible the enjoyment of the new freedom. This decree was, in general, the starting point of a new situation, but its real application in each part of America was subject to vagaries that need to be understood and explained.


In New Spain, there were only fragments of the enjoyment of that freedom between 1810 and well into the 1820s. The Spanish officials established in Mexico City impeded any transition to constitutional forms of government and any hint of the application of liberal principles. The decree proclaimed in Cádiz had an ephemeral application by a viceroy who, grudgingly, and after many complaints from Mexican delegates in Spain, acknowledged it. The viceroy Venegas announced it on the 30th September of 1812 and suspended it on the 5th December, after condemning an article published by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi in his nascent Pensador on the 3rd of December. Fernández de Lizardi went to prison and Carlos María Bustamante, who had been the editor and director of the Diario de México, and had just founded Juguetillo, decided to flee Mexico City and join the insurgent army under the leadership of José María Morelos[3]. While the official press based in Mexico City continued subject to the old censorship, something which had not happened in Spain, the insurgent newspapers, despite the technical limitations, put the new freedom into practice and became alternative communication media in the regions of influence of the armies of Hidalgo and Morelos. Even more, the insurgent press gained strength as an alternative medium for the distribution of the emancipation proposals from the moment that the viceroy Venegas, through the decree of the 19th January, 1811, ordered that any document produced by the insurgents be publicly burned. A good testimony of the precarious conditions in which the freedom of the press came into being in New Spain was the newspaper Ilustrador Nacional, the successor to Despertador Americano; its existence was the result of a “press made by our own hands between the agitation and uproar of the war[4]”; its rustic appearance gives away the difficulties in the preparation of each issue. Despite its precarious operation, the newspaper, like others that could exist by the will of the insurgency, was the short-lived but precious space for the freedom to write and publish that existed in New Spain while the political situation was defined in the colony.


The new regulations on the freedom of the press did not come about until the recognition of the independence of New Spain and the coming to power of Agustín de Iturbide; but the regulation sought to subject press opinion to the principles of an empire. Although Iturbide and the Army of the Three Guarantees counted on initial popular enthusiasm and the support of some important intellectual figures, it soon demonstrated that its government was a mixture of a military dictatorship and a constitutional monarchy, which aimed to impose the organizational principles of an empire. The regulation of the freedom of the press of 13th December, 1821 accepted the premise of the abolition of prior censorship and established an institution of press jurors so as to judge the abuses and excesses committed in the press; nevertheless, the regulation began with a barrage of warnings regarding “the fundamental bases of the empire” that could not be transgressed by its publications, writers or printers, at the risk of suffering years in prison. The first article outlined all of this but could not be the object of any attack or questioning through the press. The press, therefore, had to hold to the criteria of unanimity with a recently established government:


Art. 1. They declare for the fundamental bases of the empire. First: the unity of the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion, without tolerance for any other. Second: independence from old Spain, and from any other nations. Third: the close union of all the current citizens of the empire, or perfect equality of rights, pleasures and opinions, now that they have been born in it or on the other side of the oceans. Fourth: the moderated hereditary constitutional monarchy, (…).  Fifth: the representative government. Sixth: the division of the three powers, legislative, executive and judicial in the congresses, boards, personnel, and courts which article 14 of the treaty of Cordova states, and the constitution of the empire will explain this more extensively[5].


The freedom of the press sketched a different parabola in the Río de la Plata. The political revolution promoted the decrees of the 20th of April and 26th of October of 1811. The first, the Argentinian historians say, was the verbatim copying of the decree by the courts of Cádiz; the second endorsed the removal of prior censorship[6]. Different from Mexico and New Granada, in the Río de la Plata there was a rapid emergence of newspapers between 1815 and 1819; the collection of facsimiles organized in the Biblioteca de Mayo corroborated that increase and allows us to see the expansion of political journalism in those years[7]. Even with apparently permissive legislation, concentrated on controlling and punishing excesses, the confrontations of political factions drove various writers to suspend their publications, and on various occasions they were forced into exile. The budding state intended, relatively early, to be the main regulator of the rhythm of the printed public opinion, when in 1815, it set a provisional statute in which the creation was announced, under its sponsorship, of two official newspapers with very different functions; one, as a censor, and that is how it was called, of the actions of government officials; and the other as an official gazette in charge of transmitting government actions and thoughts:



VI- “It will be established, a newspaper, in charge of a subject of instruction and talent, payed for by the cabildo, which every week will give the public a sheet or more with the title of Censor. Its main object will be to reflect on all the unjust procedures and operations of public officials and abuses of the country, illustrating to the public their rights and true interests.”


VII- “There will be another newspaper in charge of in the same way, subject to the necessary qualities, payed for by state funds, whose task will be to provide a gazette every week, informing the public about interesting events, and satisfying the censors, discourses and reflections of El Censor[8].”



Concentrated on the discussion regarding the new political order and without apprehensions of the Spanish military re-conquest, the creole leadership could deliberate more broadly through print media. As from the decade beginning in 1810 a Press Freedom Protection Board had operated; the main function of which was to contain the abuses of the freedom of the press. Very early, on the 29th of January, 1812, there was the first appearance before the Board, which corresponded to issue 9 of El Censor, a newspaper directed by Vicente Pazos Silva. The newspaper was acquitted, nevertheless, the government persisted in its attacks on what was at this time the press of the opposition and forced this and other newspapers to close. In contrast to the elites of New Spain, those of the Río de la Plata built up, at the beginning of the 1820s, a better tradition of political discussion through newspapers, with vagaries inherent in an environment of disagreements between factions.



In Chile, the 1812 Constitution of Cádiz was taken on based on this, the government of José Miguel Carrera promoted the provisional constitutional regulation of the 27th October of the same year. However, a restorative pause soon arrived in 1814, when the main printing office, where the Aurora had been printed, fell under Spanish power and gave way to the Gaceta de Gobierno del Rey. The Spanish troops defeated, the printing office was returned to the service of the new republic; in the constitutional attempt of 1818, the freedom to publish ideas through the press was again declared. Later, the constitution of 1822 (article 47), endorsed the proposal of protecting the freedom of the press. A law from the 18th June of 1823 finally touched on a point of conflict that had remained unchanged since the 1813 legislation, that concerning the right or not to question the public conduct of governors and magistrates; it therefore authorized “the criticism of the ministerial and public conduct of magistrates”. Shortly afterwards, the constitution of the 29th December, 1823 placed emphasis on the defense of Catholic dogma. However, the nearly final law was that enacted on the 6th December of 1828, valid in its broad lines until 1925, especially in what referred to the protection of the Catholic church as the official creed of the Chilean state. For  Juan Bautista Alberdi, this law was that which organized in “a more extensive way the constitutional principle of freedom of the press”; but as he also affirmed, the freedom of the press did not settle in Chile during the first half of the 19th century because of one law in particular, but rather because of many laws and thus, it became a matter “inherent to a form of government,” in the way that any alteration to this freedom could be understood as a general disturbance to the country’s system of laws[9].


In New Granada, the provincial constitutionalism of 1810 to 1815 widely adopted the Cadiz legislation regarding the freedom of the press. However, as from 1813, with the declaration of absolute war on the Spanish by Simón Bolivar, there was, so it seems, a transition to a tense situation of surveillance and even the persecution of some publications. It is true, that Bolivar’s proclamation had much less impact in New Granada than it did in Venezuela. Even so, some newspapers, at the beginning of 1814, wrote about an intimidating executive power, between the cities of Tunja and Bogota. Sinforoso Mutis, in his representation that we will quote once again further on, denounced that a proclamation that he had sent to be published was removed from the places of sale and warned of the contrast between the political constitution that guaranteed the freedom to print and the actions of an executive power “to impede that my writing was disseminated among the public[10].”


More clearly, perhaps, in the Gaceta de Caracas on the 28th February, 1814, the secretary of state of the confederate republic of Venezuela informed the editors of the newspaper that they had published “official and private notices that had displeased the liberator”. For this reason, it said soon after, that Bolivar had the intention of suppressing the newspaper and, instead of doing so, resolved that all official documents needed his prior approval; which regarding the procedures of other governments they could not publish reflections “without consulting the Secretary of State beforehand, for the prior approval of the liberator”. Although at the end of the letter it was added that these determinations did not mean to restrict the freedom of the press and that it was “permitted to express [in La Gaceta] the opinions it wanted,” it must be admitted that it aimed to impose strict control over the printed material[11].


 With the panorama better defined, when it seemed that victory was all but sealed over the Spanish armies in South America, the Constitution of Cúcuta, in 1821, legislated in the name of the new and triumphant nation. It could announce and articulate a political stability reflected in a united republic that reunited the old three administrative units during the colony and located the capital in Bogotá. The law of the freedom of the press dates from the 17th of September of 1821 and was published entirely by the Gaceta de Colombia on the 23rd of September. This law alone should not interest us, but rather the set of related laws approved in that same month; legislation that could be taken as a declaration of principles regarding the free circulation of printed ideas in books and newspapers. It is not trivial that this was approved, on the same date, as a law regarding the termination of the Court of the Inquisition in which it was announced the appearance of a “civil authority” empowered to judge over topics related to the “banning of books”. Also, on the 17th September a decree was approved so as to assign an amount of money for the acquisition of a “good printer to serve the Supreme Government of the Nation.” Some days before, on the 13th September, a law was approved regarding the stamp exemption on the mail to newspapers and other press, the intention being to facilitate the circulation of “public papers”, and also it would become evident that there was a close relationship between press circulation and the postage system[12]. A week later another decree appeared that regulated the printing of a new constitution, no printer could take the initiative to print or reprint it, “all the editions that are made will be by the order and account of the Supreme Government of the Nation.” They also added another law, on the 29th of September, which declared the extent of the rights of its importation to various articles, among others. “All the printed books in any language, maps, geographic charts, philosophical instruments and devices, prints, paintings, statues, collections of antiques, busts and medals (…) The printing machines and equipment, printing types and inks[13].” Fostering public instruction and national industry; enlightening the public; making the laws known and fostering respect for the authorities of the new order were some of the motivations for this legislation.


In conclusion, the political condition of each place was decisive; while there was no independence, there was no freedom of the press. While the colonial authorities continued to be dominant, prior censorship was prevalent; this was very evidently the case of the viceroyalty of New Spain. Between the crisis of the monarchy, beginning in 1808, and the return of Fernando VII, in 1814, the Latin American colonies went through very different experiences in the acclimatization to the decree of Cadiz, which was intended to overcome the old subjugation to prior censorship. In Buenos Aires, in Santiago de Chile, in Caracas and in Santafé de Bogotá, newspapers of unequivocal political leanings flourished, focused on examining the unprecedented situation of the empire and on articulating possible forms of political organization for the future. And while in those places the novelty of the freedom of the press was enjoyed, in New Spain, the viceroy continued to be defensive and guaranteed the continuation of prior censorship. In New Spain, it was the insurgents who adopted the practice, and as a challenge to the viceroys, the freedom of opinion and they maintained their own period publications which were, especially in the crisis of 1810 to 1814, the spokespersons for the military campaigns against the Spanish troops.


What was said until now seems to indicate that although the freedom of the press was written as of 1810, it was not fully enjoyed as of that date in the strictest sense. It was an enunciation made in Cádiz, but unequally applied and then, with difficulty in Hispano-America; while the conditions of political subordination of the old colonies remained, this freedom was only a proclamation, a decree that could not be transformed into concrete American situations. The most notorious case is that of New Spain that had to wait until the 1820s to secure the Cádiz legislation of 1810 and give stability to the institutions charged with guaranteeing the new freedom; even so, the regime of Iturbide and those that followed prepared a terrain of vagaries for the freedom of the press. Río de la Plata offers an almost opposite example because there was a clear and less broken path towards the abolition of prior restraint; among the cases that we will examine is the only one that supported a flourishing of the press in the crisis of 1814 to 1820, when the tentative Spanish re-conquest and the war of liberation consumed the greatest efforts of the local elites, which marked the delay in the systematic use of the press as a permanent means of the publication of ideas.  In the Río de la Plata, in contrast to the other countries we studied, there was an early and controversial use of the press jury, a mechanism of control over the probable abuses of the freedom of the press.


The contrasts within this subject indicate the differences in the expansion of that first liberalism arising from the Cádiz legislation; they also indicate the different gradations of the importance of certain possessions for the Spanish Crown and the different attitudes assumed by the creole elites in the face of the crisis of the monarchy. Some maintained their loyalty more than others; some wanted to turn more rapidly towards attempts at republican organization; some adopted more rapidly than others the freedom to express opinions as an individual freedom that could be reflected on a daily basis in the public discussion regarding the political crossroads and the possibilities of a new order. These contrasts seem to come together in the period of 1810 and 1814 and, so it seems, only until the 1820s can be found vestiges of a certain uniformity in the regulatory adoption of the principles of the freedom of the press, even with a high degree of distrust and fear regarding the new freedom. In general terms, it was necessary to wait until the 1820s for prior restraint and for the adoption of formulas for control based mainly on the existence of press juries, an institution whose most immediate goal was to avoid abuses or excesses in the enjoyment of freedom of the press.




3.          Freedom of the press and political modernity


When the freedom of the press was announced and established, with difficulties, in the legislations of the incipient Hispano-American republics, it had already been a matter of discussion in the legal traditions of some European countries and the United States. The discussions had produced some consensus and also left some ambiguities unresolved. We are not going to measure which legal tradition had greater impact on the Latin-American creole leadership, but neither will we turn the matter into a unilateral examination. We will say instead that the literate politicians of this side of the Atlantic were aware, if in a superficial way, of what in England, France and the United States, mainly, had been said during the 18th century and would continue to be said in the first decades of the 19th century. The absence of the German tradition is apparent and explainable, which is not negligible; but which could be explained by the scarce familiarity of the creole leadership with that language. But it is enough to say that the country that saw the birth of the press apparatus had to have a respectable tradition regarding the meaning of the freedom of the press in those times of political change in the world[14].


Various authors appeared in the evocations of the legislators and writers of American newspapers; a list of recurring names could provide us with an ideological view of the matter. Two sources or traditions fed the discussion that initially covered the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish colonies in the Americas. One originated in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical and legal thinking with John Milton at its head; it used to be remembered that, in 1643, Milton had raised his voice against prior restraint and also, his name was easy to associate with the English political revolution. We do not know if the knowledge of his ideas on the freedom of the press came from the direct reading of his Areopagitica (1664) whose arguments in favor of free expression of thought and of the necessary restrictions of publishing were related with the conduct in respect to the governors of ancient Greece and Rome. Another English author, cited as a reference in the commentaries on the freedom of the press was William Blackstone; his second volume of Commentaries on Laws of England (1753) should be of interest for the detailed inventory which appears in chapter 11, in which he describes the associative and publishing activities that could threaten what he called “peace and good order[15]”.


But there was one common source that was more evident; the Cadiz regulation of 1810 as well as the constitutions elaborated in the American provinces came from the same matrix. Apparently, Spanish liberalism and the creole leadership in America drank from the common source provided by some writings by Jeremías Bentham, transmitted and commented on by José María Blanco White in his newspaper El Español, edited in London. If the Gaceta de Caracas (April of 1811), the Semanario ministerial de Santafe de Bogota (July of 1811) and even La Bagatela, edited by Antonio Nariño (December of 1811) were revised, it would be easy to verify an amplification of some early writings by Bentham on the freedom of the press in moments of discussion and debate in the elaboration of the first political constitutions in Venezuela and New Granada. 


There is a historiography which during several decades has enlightened us on the influence exercised by Bentham on the first generations of republican politicians in Hispano-America. Exchanges of letters and legislations are testament to it; but there are errors and excesses in its evaluation. His early influence, before the 1820s, has not been well considered. We will say that since 1978 the English historiography acknowledges that around 1810 or before there was a relationship between Francisco Miranda and the British legislator, who later became the resident Spanish publicist, then in London, José María Blanco White[16]. But the nuanced examination of this encounter and the supposed influence of Bentham is more recent. It is true, Miranda and Blanco White were the transmission point for some writings by Bentham on the freedom of the press that could serve to support the Spanish liberals and the creole leadership, especially in Venezuela and New Granada, in order to draft the first constitutions. Nevertheless, neither the true anecdote of the early relationship with the English jurist, nor the diffusion of his manuscripts, suffice to give a certain response as to the degree of his influence. Why? One thing was the belief of Bentham regarding the freedom of the press, another was what was needed by the legislators in Hispano-America. Bentham, like other British intellectuals, viewed the successes on the other side of the Atlantic with enormous sympathy; the step towards a regime of individual freedoms seemed to him most auspicious. On the other hand, the ideological moment of the English jurist was very particular; it is said that his friendship with James Mills, around 1809, had strongly influenced his radical philosophical leanings which led him to praise a liberal democracy in which freedom of opinion held a privileged position[17].


An examination, still superficial, of the thesis of Bentham, and that was reflected in the constitutions drafted in Hispano-America between 1810 and 1815, would allow one to think that “the wise Bentham” – as he was now called – was not followed to the letter. In principle, the creole constituents could have shared the premises of “securing the freedom of the press” and “preventing the inconveniences that this freedom could cause[18]; they could also have shared the importance given to the freedom of the press as a means of monitoring the conduct of public officials. But perhaps they did not share the optimism of the English thinker concerning the confidence he could place in the people and in the importance he gave to the number, to the majority, as a basis of the public discussion. The distance between the manuscripts of the English jurist and the worrying reality, should have inclined the legislators towards a freedom conceded with ambiguities and concerns. What is certain is that the articles on the freedom of the press tell of, in their own way, early struggles between political factions, difficulties in reaching political consensus, and the need to consolidate a personal policy devoted to the tasks of representation. The freedom of the press had to be employed so as to “set opinion,” guarantee consensus, achieve some level of unanimity and adhesion around the incipient governments. Also, Bentham’s manuscript says nothing as regards an element of ostensible interest for the Hispano-American politicians, as was the relationship with the Catholic Church. The concern for the respect for catholic dogma was absent from his paper, while for the creole elites and the Spanish liberals, it was of immediate concern. The new states, according to the first political constitutions, must have been confessional states, protectors of one religion in particular.


Beside the work of Bentham, should be placed an English legislative deed from 1792; it deals with the better-known libel law of Fox, where the institution of the jury appears clearly stated, which constitutes a safeguard against likely abuses against peoples’ reputations and against the actions of government officials. This law offered a reassuring trade-off for the governors, given that upon eliminating prior restraint, many feared an outburst of printed opinion[19].


We will now see the French tradition, which, with some authors, contained some conversations with German philosophy – some quoted Kant or Hegel – or with English legal thought. It is not surprising to say that the names Voltaire, Emmanuel-Joseph Sièyes, Joseph-Pierre Chassin, Benjamin Constant and François Guizot were more or less recurrent. The first was the frontispiece of many reflections on the freedom of expression; but as for Sièyes, what interested him was the elaboration of a system of laws. The report that the abbot Sièyes presented before the National Assembly in 1790 was a sort of premonition of what the new political regimes would begin to devise; for him, the press was nothing more than a device that allowed the enjoyment of this right. Before the proliferation of that device throughout the world and especially where it exalted the principles of liberty and equality, it was necessary to put in place boundaries that limited that freedom, and above all, prevented excesses damaging to the wellbeing of the republican regimes. The works of Constant and Guizot, who had a varied audience among the post-independence Hispano-American elite, without doubt contributed to the reflections on the possibilities of and restrictions on the freedom of the press in the decade of the 1820s. One and the other represented the so-called doctrinaire liberalism that sought to impose the slogans of the autonomy of capacities and to channel institutionally the revolutionary event. Guizo, much more than Constant, helped to conceive of the press not only as a means of political advertising, but also, and above all, as a privileged space to define power[20].  These very likely influences were perhaps not as decisive as other works, which more systemic and to the point, which contributed to setting a body of laws and to forming a legal tradition. We refer to, for example, the systematic Traité des délits et contraventions de la parole, de l´écriture et de la presse, published in Paris between 1837 and 1839 by Joseph- Pierre Chassan, or the same bills that were discussed passionately in France between 1814 and 1817[21].




4.           What the freedom of the press means


Politicians and writers on both sides of the Atlantic had an exalted idea of the freedom of the press; it was an irrefutable fact that corresponded to the establishment of a new political system. The republican forms of government needed to support themselves with the freedom to publicly express opinion through printed media. Besides this, it was also perceived that the world of printed matter was going through an enormous commercial expansion; the printing workshops, the paper factories, the specialized craftsmen in the occupation of printing were multiplying throughout the world and, above all in America, there was an emerging market for books and newspapers. The freedom of the press was a legal event bound to a system of laws and a political fact inherent to the republican system and inherent also to the expansion of the market of opinion. The extent of that expansion could have worried the most entirely free, therefore it became urgent to set some limits.


Here and everywhere they agreed in believing that the core of the freedom of the press lay in the abolition of prior restraint. That said, it is necessary to make a clarification; the newspapers and constitutional texts mostly refer to the freedom of the press as a general freedom concerning the publication of printed matter, mainly books and newspapers. Print was only a medium, the most efficient technology through which individuals could express their thoughts, political opinions and scientific inventions. That is to say, there could have been other media of communication that would not have been detailed in the constitutional formulations. Referring generically to the freedom of the press, we understand that the drafters of the norms were speaking, also generically, of the freedom of opinion, of the expression of that opinion, which could have been accelerated or expanded by a technological element – print – the efficiency of which had only just begun to be perceived in the Hispano-American case. 


The freedom of the press was received as a “basis of civil liberty”, and, especially, as an entry point to political modernity. It was a freedom that spoke of men who could speak publicly without apparent restrictions; although it was a conversation reduced to the confines of literacy, it was ultimately the enjoyment “of the first right that all men have to speak, write and publish their ideas freely through the press”, as said by a Buenos Aires newspaper in 1816[22]. Speaking of a first right seemed to designate the premise of the political discussion that was only just implied as a dispute permanently based in the dissent of opinions. The freedom of the press, thus, heralded a world of many writers, opinions and printers, elements of the new political language, the political language of the republic, of the assembly of free individuals capable of expressing a political opinion. Thirty years later this perception of the freedom of the press had been consolidated; Juan Bautista Alberdi, a lawyer accustomed to representing newspaper directors in processes before the courts, retrospectively conceived of the freedom of the press as the most precious right of the individual, to be able to publish what he wished without the prior intervention of any authority and leave to the judgement of society the examination of the effects of that opinion:


Since the suppression of censorship – said Alberdi in 1846- the secret of the writer is sacred until the moment in which his thought is broadcast by the press, in which case it is the sole responsibility of the jury, for the faults that make him guilty before the eyes of the law (…) The greatest innovation, perhaps the only which the modern revolution of both worlds has brought about in relation to the press, is the suppression of prior restraint[23].


If we accept the thesis of Elías José Palti (2005) in his study of the Mexican case, it is necessary to embrace two conceptual moments as much for the freedom of the press as for public opinion in that place[24]. The moment in which the writing of José Fernández de Lizardi, El Pensador mexicano, stands out can be understood as “transitional”; in tune with this thesis of Palti, we can add that Fernández de Lizardi is a transitional figure in the adoption of the principles of the freedom of the press because, perhaps under pressure from the political circumstances, he preferred to admit that he had spoken as a “good vassal.” In issue 6 of El Pensador mexicano, in 1813, he decided to allude, with a verbatim attachment, to the codes of communication of the old regime:


I, at least, will do as much as is in my power, I will manifest my ideas to the government and to the nation, which is today my homeland; I will insist on advising it on the damage that threatens it so it takes the necessary precautions. This I should do as a good vassal. As written in Law 9, part 2, heading 13, where it reads: all good vassal must think and know about those things that were in favor of the King, to maintain them, and to deviate from those that were harmful, and not to tolerate them, letting the King himself know, so as not be considered a bad man[25].


In 1821, El Pensador mexicano still released postulates in which it recalled the virtues of the forms of communication of the old regime; and like an individual trapped in the transition, mixed the modern innovations in legislation regarding the press with shortcuts of old customs that it shamelessly approved. That happened when they proposed, in the name of the freedom of the press, to establish procedures of secret correspondence: “one of the most sacred objectives to which the freedom of the press should commit itself – it said – is to enlighten the government, making public opinion known to it, suggesting to it the efficient means so as to conserve the good order and happiness of the nation.” In principle, it intended to create a direct link between the society and the government, suggesting a mechanism for the acquisition of direct information of what went on in the society; at the risk of contributing to the betrayal, it proposed to establish “a secret correspondence between the public and the government”. Immediately, its justification has something of an egalitarian pretension, because it tries to give them an expeditious means of communication to people without access to the refined channels of journalistic writing:



But as, although there are many who wish to speak and express their feelings on diverse subjects, not all can do so: because some do not have style, others do not have money, others are afraid of don Antonio, and others lack printers (because the few that exist are usually so busy that they refuse papers, even interesting ones), it follows that a thousand good ideas remain suffocated, the government without a sure rule so as to weigh public opinion, etcetera, etcetera[26].


The corollary of the proposal was the evocation of the supposedly fortunate use of this form of communication in the times of the viceroy-count Revilla Gigedo, between 1789 and 1794, periods of public unrest of the Spanish regime because of the revolutionary events in France[27].


In its vaguaries, El Pensador mexicano greeted the advent of the freedom of the press. It was also in 1821 that it made a vigorous defense of its implications, “because, precisely, it is this which teaches you to be free, and is the only force that sustains and will sustain the civil liberty of the citizen”; but in order to arrive at this affirmation it had maintained on various occasions, since 1812, that it was not in agreement with “the absolute freedom of the press”, but rather with a “restriction to certain limits.” Before confronting the Mexican court for their whims in favor of masonry, Fernández de Lizardi advocated for the conformity to catholic dogma and the compliance of the government; “Discourse is a robe given to man by the liberality of the supreme being, and it would be ungrateful to make of that benefit arms against that same benefactor. It would be equally horrifying if we used that liberty against the same government that grants it to us[28].” Between his tos and fros, this Mexican writer indicated a tendency. He was inclined towards a limited freedom of the press, based on the removal of prior restraint, but in its place, as we will see later, it was made up for, by self-censorship. Even thus, this did not prevent him, on various occasions, from vigorously defending his opinion or protesting for restrictions on the circulation of printed matter in the Mexican capital or pronouncing much more affirmative phrases in favor of the freedom of the press when censorship increased its reach. In one of the fictitious and didactic conversations that is known to be written, El Pensador mexicano, in 1822, the government of Iturbide had declared the set norms for the freedom of the press on the 13 December 1821, it rebelled against a freedom that was more of a dead letter than part of public life:


Don Servilio: This damn freedom has begun to declare itself against the throne, like it has done against the alter (…) This was as if the freedom of the press in Mexico were certain; but the good luck is that it has a thousand obstacles, and at least one of the attorneys will not fail to denounce many papers that do not agree with his ideas.


To which the other character responded:


Don Liberato: That is another thing that has me desperate, when I reflect that we have freedom of the press with two attorneys and sixty jurors that can fall upon the poor writer, for the paper that he wrote with such innocent intentions, so it discourages me and I exclaim with you: cursed be the freedom of the press[29]!

With a phrase from Tácito, José María Luis Mora had greeted a new stage of public life; “Extraordinarily happy period in which it is licit to think in any way one likes and to speak one’s mind[30].” But it was in 1831 when the Mexican politician gave a more pointed version of the legal conception that prevailed among the Hispano-American elites; the freedom of the press was the end of prior restraint and, instead, it was controlled in its eventual excesses. Between public opinion and freedom of the press there should exists a coherence, so as to not say harmony. While public opinion was fatally diverse and its proliferation could put the political order at risk, the freedom of the press arose as a regulatory element that avoided the multiplication of opinions harmful to the stability of the system. The risks of sedition or subversion or conspiracy could at least be detected with the daily supervision of printed matter; the official carrying out of this surveillance, according to the political writer, formed part of the freedom of the press as a regulatory device for the circulation of opinions: 


Q- What is the freedom of the press?


A-The right to express your own ideas to the public through the press without the need for approval nor prior restraint, although with the obligation to respond to the public authority for the abuse your exercise could cause.


Q- Is the freedom of the press the same as or different from that of thought?


A-      It is the same freedom of thought based on the principle of eternal justice, to know: that the actions of understanding as necessities for its essence and considered in the metaphysical order are not susceptible to morality, they cannot be counted as crimes or offences, and it is of justice that they are free in the political order (…)


Q- Then the freedom of the press is not a means of fomenting sedition and it has not caused that many times?


A- No, on the contrary, when men are allowed to complain about what they really or supposedly suffer, usually, they are content with that; also, if the authorities prevent them, then they are irritated that that they cannot be censored in a way that necessarily puts a stop to them because they take out to the square their mistakes or mischiefs, and in this case is  when they engineer conspiracies and they design to seriously tear it down: thus it is clear that it is not the exercising of the freedom of the press, but rather the abuse of authority that provokes sedition. Also with the freedom of the press the government not only has an infallible means of enlightening the public that can never be ignored nor followed from a distance, but also a secure means to know what is being engineered against the public order in times of unrest, since very rarely is something not visible through the public roles; and a government that suspects the existence or the beginning of a conspiracy is way ahead so as to stop it or to suffocate it[31].


Writers from Chile, Argentina, New Granada and Mexico joined in the enthusiasm for the attainment of an individual freedom that allowed an escape from prior restraint; and all adopted that freedom together with the necessary censorship after the fact. The regulation of this liberty was a necessary precaution so as to avoid an outburst of opinions that could have ended by destroying the bases of legitimacy of the new political order; the stability of that new order had to come from the regulation of opinion. The freedom of the press was the realization of a liberal principle, but kept to the margins by a wary political elite. But to the degree that the new freedom was adopted, the most conspicuous obstacles arose; on one side, the possible excesses of the writers, and, on the other, the possible arbitrariness of the jealous authorities in “the protection” or supervision of the freedom of the press. Personal opinions scattered in the public space needed state regulation through rules, courts and boards of the freedom of the press. In the Río de la Plata, where any excess of opinion remained subject to exemplary convictions – exile in Patagonia was one of the preferred punishments for licentious writers- the risk of tyrannical censorship remained in evidence. This risk was mainly run by those who preferred to take on their own editorial ventures, far from the official opinion maintained by the editors of ministerial gazettes. When Bernardo de Monteagudo, who had been the editor of the Gaceta de Buenos Ayres, decided to establish his own newspaper, he knew that he was leaving a safe situation and began to assume the risks of any individual that wanted to maintain their own opinion through an incipient freedom of the press:



Persuaded of these maxims, I believe in the obligation of supporting a new newspaper, which serves as a sanctuary for FREEDOM, continuing in it the subjects I followed in the Gazeta: in this way, he who wishes to publish his sentiments will have a way in which to do so, and I will be always alert so as to support or to challenge the ministerial opinions, although the burden of the condemnation of tyrants and the scandal of the slaves will rest on me[32].


The new freedom had an ostensible limitation; prior restraint remained concerning religious topics. The Catholic Church kept the authority to examine all that which might threaten its dogma. The old Spanish colonies in America proclaimed, in their first tentative constitutions, their adherence to the catholic religion that found expression in the regulation of the freedom of the press.  The provincial constitutions of the Primera república, in New Granada, mixed the deliberative possibilities of the new freedom with the warnings regarding respect for catholic dogma. In the constitution of the province of Mariquita, for example, it aimed to confer the capacity for intervention to the freedom of opinion, of examination and supervision over political representation and government officials, something that had been the subject of discussion in France in the years immediately before the revolution, and on the side added respect for catholic dogma:


The freedom of the press is essentially necessary in order to maintain the freedom of the state. Through it all citizens can examine the procedures of the government in any branch, the conduct of the public officials as such, and speak, write and reprint what they wish, excepting obscene writings and those that offend dogma, being responsible for the abuse made of that freedom in the cases set by law[33].



The constitution of the state of Antioquia of 1812 is most generous in contradictions and allows us to suspect a political environment full of tensions. It is that which best summarizes the concerns of the literate-political personnel of the period. Like others, it began by announcing that the freedom of the press “is the firmest support of a wise and liberal government”; apparently, the most immediate desire of the provisional governments of that time was to find in printed matter a medium for communicating the activity of the new governments, and so, a rapid and efficient resource of legitimization.    Following, there is an article, like in nearly all the legislations of the period, devoted to warning that “writings that are directly against dogma and good customs are not permitted”. The defense of catholic dogma, it is understood, was always consistent with declaring that religion as the official state religion. However, what interests us most here and now is another article that follows which says: “Nor will it be permitted any text or public discourse that is aimed at disturbing public order and peace, or in which the bases of government adopted by the province are attacked, which are the sovereignty of the people, the right they have and have had to give themselves the constitution that suits them”. Printing and putting into circulation writings that could question the bases of a government, it’s legitimacy, all that which does not contribute to the urgency for a consensus could be considered to be “a crime against the homeland[34].





The catholic religious aspect was a disturbing element for the freedom of the press and contributed to its perception as an incomplete achievement; the right to hold an opinion on any topic, including, for some, in reference without restriction to the religious. Around 1816, in Buenos Aires, La Crónica argentina estimated that a semi-official newspaper, El Censor, was dedicated to organizing the persecution against all those that said something against the Catholic Church[35]. In Mexico, meanwhile, Fernández de Lizardi had various confrontations with members of the clergy who accused him of agitating on topics that were exclusive to the guardians of that creed[36]. That was, perhaps, the most restrictive and prolonged aspect of public life in the Hispano-American countries. The freedom of the press lived off impulses and was subjected to periods of arbitrariness and strict restrictions. In general, after the almost pioneering regulations of the 1820s, strict state controls arrived, adding to the subjugation of ecclesiastic supervision. Except for what happened in New Granada, with the advent of the liberal reforms at the middle of the century, the other countries studied here endured restrictions and controls over the freedom of the press. New Granada had, from 1851 to 1887 an absolute freedom of the press, without the system of jurors and without ecclesiastic prior censorship. Chile, Argentina and Mexico established strict and even arbitrary state controls and gave ground to the Catholic Church in the supervision of press opinion[37].


The freedom of the press ended up being a universe of opinion limited by restrictions that molded the public sphere. There was a certain sophistication in the world of censorship that provided shaky ground for the production and circulation of printed matter. We will look at some cases of censorship and of limitations on freedom of opinion that help to understand how worrying the production and circulation of ideas through “public papers” was for the elites of the early republican decades.




5.           Censorship and restrictions in the new order

There were various obstructions to the freedom of the press. We will mention and deal with the most evident ones and the best documented; the threats of the return of prior censorship, apart from the almost unshakeable ecclesiastic prior censorship; the barriers to the circulation of printed matter, often covered by legal paraphernalia; the restrictions coming from the press judges.


The Constitution of Cádiz of 1812 affirmatively spelled out the abolition of prior censorship and, in principle, that was a great innovation and the essence of the new freedom; writers in Hispano-America, could from then on write and publish without the need of a “superior license.” Traditionally, between writing and publishing, was situated the authority of the king, which permitted or not the passing from one point to the next. Now they could write, publish and afterwards, if necessary, respond before the authorities for any excess in the enjoyment of the freedom. But the abolition of prior restraint did not arrive so easily to the American colonies; there was resistance, simulations, fear and even threats of the application of prior restraint, if so by the marginal initiative of some private individuals. An example stands out reading the Buenos Aires newspaper El Censor, in 1812, when literate Americans were familiar with the inaugural Cadiz decree of 1810. There was no Spanish king and it was the delegated authorities in America who could exercise prior censorship in texts; the new literate associations, born from the expansion of the world of opinion, received the censorship faculty. In the mentioned newspaper, the Patriotic-Literary Society announced that the discourses and memories of the members of that association that were given to the press, should be subject to prior censorship and carry a “note of approval from the censors”; if not, they could not present themselves as members of the Society[38]. The measure did not last long, it is true; a few months later another announcement appeared from the same association which said:


(The Patriotic-Literary Society) continues its sessions in the announced form, and all citizens who wish to contribute with their knowledge may do so, in the knowledge that the prior censorship that was demanded before publishing memoirs, has been rescinded in favor of the freedom that the law concedes to all who do not abuse it[39].


That brief censorship exercise, and self-censorship, was not extended to all writers, only those registered with that association. The way that it was dealt with as something fragmented; nevertheless, it indicated the presence of a fearful spirit regarding the amplitude that the new freedom could take. That prior censorship exercise – which perhaps was not more than tentative – was confined to a group of literate individuals united in an association that was compatible with the functioning, in Buenos Aires, of the Board of the Protection of the Freedom of the Press.


Around 1814, in New Granada and Venezuela, prior censorship was to be officially imposed on the armies of Bolivar, when there had already been enough confrontations between royalists and patriots, between federalists and centralists. Between January and August of 1812, the State of Cundinamarca, on orders from Antonio Nariño, declared war on the United Provinces; meanwhile, in Venezuela, on the 4th of April, 1812, extraordinary powers were granted to the Executive. On the 15th June, 1813, Simón Bolívar declared war to the death against the Spanish. In a decisive moment of political and military boundary formation, of the concentration of power in the hands of one individual – as the Liberator was then also a dictator who united the capacities of the three powers – the freedom of the press enshrined in the first constitutions remained subject to the discretion of a rigid executive power, concentrated on the direction of the war[40]. As we have said on the previous page, Simón Bolívar had the intention of closing down the Gaceta de Caracas in February of 1814, and finally opted to exercise prior censorship.


At the beginning of 1814, when the King Fernando VII had already returned to the Spanish throne, there was a series of reactionary threats. The Argos de la Nueva Granada contains testimonies of debates around new legislation which would contribute to the return of the Inquisition, or at least, to times of ecclesiastic prior censorship over any printed material; also, the repression of the authorities that ordered the confiscation of some printed matter put in circulation were denounced. The denouncements and arguments disseminated in the newspaper on the 24th February, 1814, not only spoke of legislation that aimed to once again impose the language of anathemas against supposed heretics, but also limited the successes recently acquired by the liberal spirit of the time; it was also denounced that elections were not regularly held. For this reason, one of the complaints presented by one who presented himself as a subscriber to the newspaper, said the following:


For Christ’s sake, do not come here until the constitution is reestablished; until law reigns and not the capricious will of men: until there is freedom of the press, until man’s rights are respected; until there are uninterrupted regular elections, until citizens can speak and write freely, and until finally there are no masters nor crusaders but rather citizens equal in all respects before the law[41].


The denouncement evoked that towards the end of 1813 they were approved by the congress of the State of Cundinamarca, some laws that would reestablish the authority of the Catholic Church around the denouncement, persecution and condemnation of those individuals who, with their opinions, attempted against the preeminence of catholic dogma; also, the Executive Power had been willing to suspend the meeting of the Electoral College[42]. In the end, the danger of the government transforming from “popular representation” to “monarchy or oligarchy” – as the anonymous subscriber said – which had been a probable return or triumph of the supporters of a regency and was consolidated in a defined party in favor of a patriotic cause, all of this made inexorable the plea for what he called the “Court of public opinion”. This “Court of public opinion” was the ultimate and supreme recourse for achieving the triumph of reason, because of its “incorruptible and impartial” nature.


José María Luis Mora, in the first pages of El Observador de la República mexicana of 1827, welcomed the freedom of the press and wished that all printed material were “free of all censorship that precedes or follows its publication[43].” Both things had been obtained very relatively up to that moment; aware of the journalistic experience of his country, Mora referred, undoubtedly, to the methods to avoid the circulation of printed materials. The documentation of those first republican decades speaks of limited freedoms, it is true, but they also reveal an intense public sphere in which many agents intervened which allowed the day to day contact of literate culture with the diverse universe of oral traditions. The heralds of the press in the streets fostered this dialogue; only shouting out the news, of a headline or even the mention of a new newspaper provoked curiosity on the street, preparing the crowd, reading aloud, gossiping, and including the more or less profuse sale of some printed material. El Pensador Mexicano and other publications of those first decades of the 19th century were familiar with sabotage, both authorized and underhanded, of the publications that circulated through the streets in the hands of heralds or posted in the doors of bookshops. On various occasions, Mexican governments banned the crying of the heralds, especially in Mexico City, the measure that sought, apparently, to avoid a racket in the streets and worse, the incitement of mutinies or conspiracies. Facing these prohibitions, Fernández de Lizardi chose to speak thus, in 1821, while he was in jail, regarding the necessary publicity for his printed material:


As this superior government has banned that printed material be sold to resellers, because they make the public uncomfortable with their cries, it is necessary to advise that this paper and any other that emerges will be found in el Portal, in all the public posts, thus because I wish them to sell, as because the law allows me to publish my political ideas (Constitution, article 371), and for the case, so much it matters to me that the boys cry, so as the public knows where my leaflets are dispensed[44].


The same writer knew of the possible effects of the confiscation of some text already posted in the places of distribution in the street and maintained that the procedure was inefficient for preventing the circulation of censored material. The most likely is that it would cause the opposite:

Despite the fact that the method of collecting a paper is very good, it will never satisfy the desire of the law, which is to impede its circulation. The reason is clear. One thousand copies are printed and ten are collected. What is the point? Ask yourself how many copies were printed of Las verdades amargan, of las Zorras and others that were collected; and then compare their numbers with the numbers of the others, and you will see a disproportion, perhaps one percent[45].


Returning to New Granada, Sinforoso Mutis – the nephew of the director of the Botanical Expedition, the colleague of Antonio Nariño in the military campaign of 1812 – in the representation that he sent to the senate on the 16th February, 1814, warned about the dark moment for the freedom of the press; he used a passage to give a lesson, he quoted a phrase surely coming from the manuscripts of Bentham, published in one of the first issues of El Español: “The freedom of the press does not depend on prior or posterior censorship, but on the free circulation of texts” 46. The epigraph announced the nature of the claim put forward by Mutis; by order of the Executive Power, a bailiff collected 131 copies of a print of his authorship that were for sale in a store. It is interesting to see how the author of the representation and of the printed material resorted to the political constitution so as to demonstrate that various rights had been violated and that there had been a gulf between the rights enshrined by this and the actions of the Executive Power. With the confiscation of the leaflet already on sale, Mutis thought that various connected rights were being violated; that of printing, that of the circulation of printed material, that of making use of his goods and services, that of enjoying and making use of the fruit of his genius; to summarize, a scope of freedoms that circulated from the dissemination of the rights of men and citizens and that were also proclaimed in almost all the constitutions of the interregnum of 1811 – 1815.







There may be more examples, but these are enough to get an idea of an environment that was often hostile for an individual freedom that was more often enunciated than applied. In these first decades of republican ambiguities, there was a history full of advances and setbacks as regards the circulation of printed material that needs to be documented. Until now, we could speak of an indecisive moment, in which there was a struggle between those who supported the establishment of liberal principles and some governments that feared, with or without basis, an outburst of individual liberties. The institution of the press jury caused frequent discussions on the reaches and limits of the freedom of the press and, at the same time, molded the nature of public opinion. Some saw it as a guarantee of the safeguarding of the honor and dignity being abused by any public paper; others found it to be fatal for the evolution of the freedom of thought.


The relation between new legislation on the freedom of the press and the operational conditions of a political regime was immediate and helps to understand the differences in its application in the American subcontinent. Those places where Spanish domination and a hierarchical structure prevailed continued to exist in the early decades of the 19th century, made the expansion of space for public opinion very difficult. Anyway, in general terms, the new freedom was welcomed and at the same time feared. Its application was mediated by legislation that aimed to avoid abuses. For this reason, it was useful to interpretive and legislative models provided by countries that accumulated greater experience by putting that freedom into practice. Without doubt, the appeal to a court or jury was the main innovation in a regime of the freedom of the press without prior restraint and its application must have been another stimulus to daily discussion. That issue, the institution of the press jury warrants separate treatment.





Documental sources

Artículo extractado de los manuscritos ingleses de Bentham y publicado por el señor Blanco en su Español”, La Bagatela, Santafé de Bogotá, 1° diciembre, 1811.

“Noticias del interior”, Argos de la Nueva Granada, Tunja-Bogotá, febrero 24, 1814.

Correo Americano del Sur, marzo 25, 1813.


Constitución del Estado de Antioquia, 1812.

Constitución de Mariquita, 1815.


El Censor, Buenos Aires, agosto 15, 1815.

El Censor, Buenos Aires, enero 28, 1812.


El Observador de la República mexicana, México, junio 13, 1827.

Gaceta de Caracas, febrero 28, 1814.


Gaceta ministerial, 1813.


La Crónica argentina, Buenos Aires, septiembre 28, 1816.


Mártir o Libre, Buenos Aires, abril 20, 1812.


Mártir o Libre, Buenos Aires, marzo 29, 1812.

Prospecto del Ilustrador Nacional, Real de Sultepec, abril 11, 1812.





Alberdi, Juan Bautista.  Legislación de prensa en Chile o sea manual del escritor, del impresor y del jurado. Valparaíso: Imprenta del Mercurio, 1846.


Chassin, Joseph-Pierre. Traité des délits et contraventions de la parole, de l´écriture et de la presse. Paris-Colmar: Videcoq-Reiffinger, 1837-1839.

Congreso de Cúcuta de 1821. Constitución y leyes. Bogotá: Banco Popular, 1971. 

Dinwiddy, J.R. “Bentham's Transition to Political Radicalism, 1809-10”. Journal of the History of Ideas 36, núm. 4 (Oct. - Dec. 1975): 683-700.

Dublán, Manuel y Lozano, José María. Legislación mexicana o colección completa de las disposiciones legislativas expedidas desde la Independencia de la república. México: Imprenta del Comercio a cargo de Dublán y Lozano, 1876.

Fernández de Lizardi, José Joaquín. “Correspondencia secreta que a todos van en gallo”, en: Obras, XI-Folletos (1821-1822) (UNAM, 1991), 351-354.


Fernández de Lizardi, José Joaquín.  “Maldita sea la libertad de imprenta. Diálogo entre don Liberato y don Servilio”. En: Obras, XI-Folletos (1821-1822). UNAM, 1991.

Fernández de Lizardi, José Joaquín.  “Pensamiento I- Sobre la libertad de imprenta”. En: Obras III-Periódicos. UNAM, 1968.


Fernández de Lizardi, José Joaquín.  “Pensamiento II- Sobre la exaltación de la nación española y abatimiento del antiguo despotismo”. En: Obras III-Periódicos. UNAM, 1968.

Fernández de Lizardi, José Joaquín.  Obras (1821-1822). UNAM, 1991.

Goldman, Noemí y Pasino, Alejandra. “Opinión pública” (Capítulo 7). En Lenguaje y revolución. Conceptos políticos clave en el Río de la Plata, 1780-1850. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2008.

Lemperière, Annick. “República y publicidad a finales del Antiguo Régimen (Nueva España)” (capítulo 1). En Los espacios públicos en Iberoamérica. Ambigüedades y problemas. Siglos XVIII-XIX. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998.

Lipstein, Kurt. “Bentham: Foreign Law and Foreign Lawyers” (capítulo 4). En Jeremy Bentham and the Law. London, 1948.

Mora, José María Luis. “Discurso sobre la libertad de pensar, hablar y escribir”, El Observador de la República mexicana, junio 13, 1827.


Mora, José María Luis.  Catecismo político de la federación mexicana. México: Imprenta de Galván, 1831.

McKennan, Theodora. “Jeremy Bentham and the Colombian Liberators”. The Americas 34, núm. 4 (1978): 460-475.

Observaciones político-legales que en abono de sus impresos hace el Pensador Mexicano. México: Imprenta de Mariano Ontiveros, 1821.

Rosanvallon, Pierre. La démocratie inachevée. Paris: Gallimard, 2000.


Sanford, Bruce. Libel and Privacy. Pharos Books, 1991.

Thibaud, Clément. Repúblicas en armas. Bogotá: Planeta, 2003.

Torres Puga, Gabriel. Opinión pública y censura en Nueva España. Indicios de un silencio imposible, 1767-1794, El Colegio de México, 2010.

Wilke, Jurgen. Censorship and Freedom of the Press”. In: European History Online (EGO). Mainz: published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), 2013-05-08. 


Cite this article:

Loaiza Cano, Gilberto. «Freedom of the Press in Spanish America (an Essay on the Comparative History of Modern Public Opinion)». Historia Y MEMORIA, n° 13 (2016): 47- 83. DOI:

* This article is part of the sabbatical year research of the author, titled “El lenguaje político de la república” (2014)

[1] Professor of the History Department, Universidad del Valle. Doctor of sociology of the Universidad Paris III-Iheal; author of two biographical studies: Luis Tejada y la lucha por una nueva cultura (1995), Manuel Ancízar y su época (2004), Sociabilidad, religión y política en la definición de la nación (2011), Poder letrado (2014).  A member of the Nation-Culture-Memory research group, leader of the intellectual history line of Colombia, 19th and 20th centuries, currently he is head of the History department. Email address: 


[2] One characterization of that transition period is Annick Lemperières “(República y publicidad a finales del Antiguo Régimen (Nueva España)” in Los espacios públicos en Iberoamérica. Ambigüedades y problemas. Siglos XVIII-XIX, editors. François-Xavier Guerra and Annick Lemperière (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998), 54-79. More recently, for the case of New Spain, Gabriel Torres Puga, Opinión pública y censura en Nueva España. Indicios de un silencio imposible, 1767-1794, (Mexico: El Colegio de México, 2010).


[3] This event is evoked by Bustamente in a letter to his superior José María Morelos, where he also puts himself under the orders of the commander of the armies of the south, in Correo Americano del Sur, Oaxaca, 25 March, 1813, 38.

[4] Extracted from the Ilustrador Nacional, Real de Sultepec, 11 April 1812,1.

[5] The decree of 13th December of 1821 – Regulation of the freedom of the press. Manuel Dublán and José María Lozano, Legislación mexicana o colección completa de las disposiciones legislativas expedidas desde la Independencia de la república, (Mexico: Imprenta del Comercio in the charge of Dublán and Lozano, 1876). 564-567.

[6] Noemí Goldman y Alejandra Pasino, “Opinión pública”, in: Noemí Goldman (ed.), Lenguaje y revolución. Conceptos políticos clave en el Río de la Plata, 1780-1850 (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2008), 99-113.

[7] We allowed ourselves to make the conjecture; in that period, there could have been a greater display of political press in the Rio de la Plata, without the obstacles and deprivations that existed in New Granada in the midst of the phase of Spanish military re-conquest. Such conjecture does not intend to suggest that in the times of the first republic there was little production and circulation of printed material in New Spain and New Granada. But we insist, a readable and accessible set of period publications, between 1815 and 1819, comes from the legacy of the Rio de la Plata.

[8] El Censor, Buenos Aires, August 15, 1815, 3-4. In: Biblioteca de Mayo, tomo VIII (Buenos Aires, 1960).

[9] Juan Bautista Alberdi, Legislación de prensa en Chile o sea manual del escritor, del impresor y del jurado (Valparaíso: Imprenta del Mercurio, 1846), 22.

[10] “Representación que ha dirigido el ciudadano Sinforoso Mutis al Exmo. Senado”, Argos de la Nueva Granada, Tunja-Bogotá, February 24, 63. 

[11] “Oficio del Secretario de Estado a la redacción de la Gaceta”, Gaceta de Caracas, February 28, 1814, 2.

[12] To read the compendium of these and other laws that emerged from the 1821 Congress Cf. Congreso de Cúcuta de 1821. Constitución y leyes (Bogotá: Banco Popular, 1971).

[13] Congreso de Cúcuta de 1821. Constitución y leyes…, 161

[14] For a generic view on the German case see: Jurgen Wilke, «Censorship and Freedom of the Press», in European History Online (EGO), (Mainz: published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), 2013-05-08).

[15] W. Blackstone, Commentaries on Laws of England, 1753, 469-478.

[16] Theodora McKennan, “Jeremy Bentham and the Colombian Liberators”, The Americas 34: No. 4 (1978):  460-475. The author bases herself on an obscure article of comparative law, written in 1948 by Kurt Lipstein, «Bentham: Foreign Law and Foreign Lawyers», in Jeremy Bentham and the Law, directors, George W. Keeton and G. Schwarzenberger, (London: Greenwood, 1948), 202-221. 

[17] An interesting article on the ideological evolution of Bentham: J.R. Dinwiddy, «Bentham’s Transition to Political Radicalism, 1809-10», Journal of the History of Ideas 36, n° 4 (1975): 683-700.

[18] «Article taken from the English manuscripts of Bentham and published by Mr. Blanco in Spanish», La Bagatela, Santafé de Bogotá, 1° December 1811, 86.


[19] A panoramic view of the Anglo-Saxon legislative tradition in relation to defamation and libel in the press, in Bruce W. Sanford, Libel and Privacy, especially in the second chapter, (New York: Law and Business, 2004) The original edition of this book dates from 1991.

[20] Pierre Rosanvallon, Democracy, Past and Future, (United States of America: Columbia University Press, 2006), 93-106

[21] Joseph-Pierre Chassin. Traité des délits et contraventions de la parole, de l´écriture et de la presse (Paris-Colmar: Videcoq-Reiffinger, 1837-1839).

[22] La Crónica argentina, Buenos Aires, September 28, 1816, 67.

[23] Juan Bautista Alberdi, Legislación de la prensa en Chile, 22-23.

[24] We would like to make a differentiation between one and the other; taking the freedom of the press as the political-legal premise that made the process of the formation of public opinion possible in the republican political system.

[25] José Fernández de Lizardi, “Pensamiento II- Sobre la exaltación de la nación española y abatimiento del antiguo despotismo”, in: Obras III-Periódicos (UNAM, 1968), 66.

[26] Fernández de Lizardi, “Pensamiento II,” 66.

[27] José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, “Correspondencia secreta que a todos van en gallo”, in: Obras, XI-Folletos (1821-1822) (UNAM, 1991), 351-354.

[28] Fernández de Lizardi, «Pensamiento I- Sobre la libertad de imprenta», in: Obras, III Periódicos 1821-1822). (Mexico, UNAM, 1968), 35-45.

[29] Fernández de Lizardi, «Maldita sea la libertad de imprenta. Diálogo entre don Liberato y don Servilio”. En: Obras, XI-Folletos (1821-1822). UNAM, 1991», 501-512.

[30] José María Luis Mora, “Discurso sobre la libertad de pensar, hablar y escribir”, El Observador de la República mexicana, June 13, 1827, 24.

[31] José María Luis Mora, Catecismo político de la federación mexicana (México: Imprenta de Galván, 1831), 554.

[32] Mártir o Libre, Buenos Aires, March 29, 1812, 1-2.

[33] Constitution of   Mariquita, 21 June 1815, Title I, article 9, p. 647. On the similarity with the freedom of opinion as an exercise of the power of supervision or of ratification of legislative acts, Pierre Rosanvallon, La démocratie inachevée (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), 44-46. 

[34] Constitution of the State of Antioquia, 21 March 1812, Section II, art. 3º, p. 466. There are no ostensible changes in the constitution of 10 July 1815, also from the State of Antioquia.


[35] Crónica argentina, Buenos Aires, September 30, 1816, 71-77.

[36] José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, “Papeles contra sermones”, in: Obras, XI-Folletos (1821-1822), (UNAM, 1991), 61-75.

[37] Without forgetting that the Cadiz Decree of 1810 inaugurated this legislation in favor of ecclesiastic prior censorship and admitted the presence of the clergy in the censorship boards; a terrible legacy of this first and timid liberalism.


[38] El Censor, Buenos Aires, January 28, 1812, 16.

[39] Mártir o Libre, Buenos Aires, April 20, 1812, 32.

[40] Regarding this political moment in New Granada, as well as in Venezuela, Cf. Clément Thibaud, Repúblicas en armas (Bogotá: Planeta, 2003), 140-148.


[41] “Noticias del interior”, Argos de la Nueva Granada, Tunja-Bogotá, February 24, 1814, 63.

[42] The denouncer cites, for example, regarding opinions on the catholic religion, the agreement of the 30 October 1813, published in Gaceta ministerial of the 11 November; and the decree on the 7 December of that same year, published in Gaceta ministerial on the 16 December, on the suspension of the convening of the Electoral College.

[43] El Observador de la República mexicana, Mexico,June 13, 1827, 24.

[44] Observaciones político-legales que en abono de sus impresos hace el Pensador Mexicano (México: Imprenta de Mariano Ontiveros, 1821), 159-173.

[45] José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, Obras (1821-1822), (UNAM, 1991). “Quien mal pleito tiene, a voces lo mete” (México: Oficina de J.M. Benavente, 1821), 39.