Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872-1964, Alexander Meiklejohn was a most unusual man, a dissenter in the mode of Roger Williams! He came to Rhode Island in 1880, when he was eight years old, the youngest son of a Scottish working class family. After a brief stay in Warwick, Alexander moved with his family to Pawtucket where he grew to manhood. He said of himself that he was brought up on the bible and “Bobbie” Burns, with an emphasis on the latter! His formal education came at Brown University where he studied, and later taught philosophy. A loyal alum he came back often to Brown from the various pursuits of his long life. He engaged in two major pursuits: one in education, the other in jurisprudence. In both he received national recognition.
The first major pursuit took place in the first forty years of the last century. During those years he became famous, and infamous, as an educator who urged far reaching reforms in the teaching of the liberal arts. He did this as Dean at Brown, as President at Amherst College, and as the head of an Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin. In each place he was a favorite of his students. No armchair academic, he wanted to change the world and he urged his students to help him do it.
The second major pursuit came in the fifteen years after the end of World War II when he was seventy and eighty years old and in his retirement. His interest in academic freedom led him to an examination of the United States Constitution and its First Amendment provision for freedom of speech. As a result, he developed a unique interpretation of that provision, by holding that it exists, not only because people have an individual right to speak, but also because there is a public need to hear, and deliberate about social and political issues.
This led him to become a leader in the defense of people who gave expression to radical political ideas, such as communism, and to dialoging with constitutional lawyers and Justices of the Supreme Court, particularly Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and Felix Frankfurter. This, despite the fact that he had no formal training in the law! In 1963 Meiklejohn was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by John F. Kennedy, just before both of them died.
It was suggested by some of Meiklejohn’s colleagues that, along with John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., he contributed to the central meaning of freedom of expression! Not bad company for the son of a working man who grew up in Pawtucket.
–Eugene Perry, Ph.D. (Rev.)