Congressional Testimony of Fred Friendly

Testimony of Professor Fred Friendly

Former President of CBS News and Professor of Journalism at

Columbia University Graduate School

Before the National Capital Memorial Commission

April 12, 1994

I am a journalist and have been one for about as long as I can remember. I have received a number of awards throughout my career, but I must say that few have pleased me as much or have meant as much to me as the Award I received on January 31, 1991 from The Thomas Paine National Historical Association. After a lifetime of work in my profession, there is no one I feel a greater kinship with than Thomas Paine.

I am told that the issue before you today is whether or not Thomas Paine was a preeminent American and thus deserving of being memorialized in the Area One section of this city.

Thomas Paine was not just one of many important contributors to the success of the American Revolution. Rather, it is m opinion, that he stands as one of the pillars, along with men like Washington and Jefferson, of the extraordinary edifice which was built over 200 years ago. Take away any one of those pillars, and this country as we know it today would have been different, and I think not nearly so great.

Let me spend just a moment supporting my view of Paine’s importance, particularly to the First Amendment.

When I was honored by the Thomas Paine Association, I received a medal and I understand that Mr. Cooper has brought one of them to show you today. On that medal are the words written by Thomas Paine “When opinions are free, truth will prevail”. That is almost the invention of the First Amendment. And that remark was echoed by a Supreme Court Justice whom I admire, Lewis Powell. Justice Powell in the famous Gertz case (Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 337, 339-340 (1974)) said “However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend on its correction . . . on the competition of other ideas.” Isn’t that amazing. The content of the Supreme Court of the United States and Tom Paine are in all substantive respects identical. Justice Powell also stated that, “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea.” If that is true, and I believe it is, then Tom Paine was in many ways the first American. Our Constitution comes right out of his ribs.

The First Amendment, which I carry in my pocket, has its very origins with Tom Paine, who was more worried about government than he was about our enemy, the British. He believed that first we had to protect the Country, then we had to protect the people from the Country. That is what our Bill of Rights was and is all about. In Common Sense Tom Paine wrote: “Now, [1776], is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak. The wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.” On that imprint on the liberty tree are Tom Paine’s initials. And as our tree of liberty grew from a little sapling to the great mighty oak it is today, it grew with the impression that Tom Paine had sketched on it there when the Country was being born.

When our Constitution was written, James Madison sent a copy of it to Thomas Jefferson who was then in France as our Ambassador. Jefferson sent it back with almost a rejection note to Madison. In essence, he said, “It is all right as far as it goes. What I do not like in your Constitution is the omission of a Bill of Rights, which is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and that which no just government should refuse.” That is what Tom Paine had been saying for 15 years. Madison wrote back to Jefferson and he said, essentially, “My dear Thomas, if we tried to put the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, we would never get it ratified. There would be too many states that would vote against it.” Alexander Hamilton was very much against it. John Adams was against it. But, he continued, “I make you a promise. At the First Congress which will meet in one year, we will come back and we will have a Bill of Rights and we will get it ratified.” They did come back and the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. In ways the Bill of Rights has more of the sinew of what our country is and has become, than the rest of the Constitution. In ways it is the legacy of Tom Paine.

If ever an individual deserved a place of prominence as a preeminent American it is Thomas Paine. If we had to point to one person who invented the language of the Revolution, it was Thomas Paine. If we had to point to one person who convinced the people that they should declare independence, it was Thomas Paine. If there was one person who provided the intellectual compass by which a new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could steer confidently into the future, bristling with the arms that the First Amendment provided, it was Thomas Paine.

If he should not be honored, it is hard to imagine who ever should be. If he is not a preeminent American, it is impossible to imagine who is.