Liberty's First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech

Liberty's First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech

by Charles Slack


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Liberty's First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech by Charles Slack

When the United States government passed the Bill of Rights in 1791, its uncompromising protection of speech and of the press were unlike anything the world had ever seen before. But by 1798, the once-dazzling young republic was on the verge of collapse: Partisanship gripped the government, British seizures on the high seas threatened the economy, and war with France looked imminent as its own democratic revolution deteriorated into terror. The First Amendment suddenly no longer seemed as practical. So that July, the Federalists in Congress passed an extreme piece of legislation, which President John Adams signed into law, that made criticism of the government a crime. In Liberty’s First Crisis , Charles Slack tells the story of the 1798 Sedition Act, the crucial moment when high ideals met real-world politics and the country’s future hung in the balance.

From a loudmouth in a bar to a firebrand politician who was reelected from jail to Benjamin Franklin’s own grandson, those victimized by the Sedition Act were as varied as the country’s citizenry. Men and women were harassed and arrested by authorities who believed that speaking out against elected officials was both unpatriotic and dangerous. But Americans refused to let their freedoms be so easily dismissed: They penned editorials, signed petitions, and raised “liberty poles,” while Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drew up the infamous Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, arguing that this time, the Federalist government had gone one step too far.

In engaging, animated prose, Liberty’s First Crisis vividly unfolds these pivotal events in the early life of the republic. Here are Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and a wonderfully rich cast of misfits battling it out for the heart of America—struggling to define the fledgling nation and preserve the freedoms the Founding Fathers had fought so hard to create.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802123428
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/03/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Charles Slack is the critically acclaimed author of three previous nonfiction books, including Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon and Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century. He works for Time Inc. in New York and lives in Connecticut with his wife and their daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Liberty's First Crisis

Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech

By Charles Slack

Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright © 2015 Charles Slack
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8021-9168-7

July 27, 1798

The atmosphere was politically charged as the presidential carriage turned onto lower Broad Street in Newark. Into this scene wandered 46-year-old Luther Baldwin. Already feeling "a little merry” after a morning of drinking, Baldwin and his two drinking companions had little interest in the parade. Baldwin was not an admirer of the president, or of any Federalist, for that matter. What the three men wanted was another drink. Just as they approached John Burnet’s dram shop on Broad Street, the Adams supporters let loose their artillery—filled with harmless wadding but loud enough to let everyone know that the president’s carriage had arrived. Church bells rang and a chorus sang out, "Behold the Chief who now commands!”

An onlooker cracked, "They are firing at his arse.”

Baldwin replied, "I don’t care if they fire through his arse.”

Burnet had stepped outside to see Adams’s carriage and overheard the exchange. Clearly, news of the president’s newly minted Sedition Act had arrived in advance of the president himself. For John Burnet turned to Luther Baldwin and uttered three fateful words:

"That is sedition.”

Excerpted from Liberty's First Crisis by Charles Slack. Copyright © 2015 Charles Slack. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Part I The Road to Sedition 1

Part II The Jaws of Power 107

Part III The Fever Breaks 229

Part IV The Parchment Barrier 253

Sources and Acknowledgments 273

Notes 279

Selected Bibliography 319

Index 325

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