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.
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Liberty's First Crisis
Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech
By Charles Slack
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2015 Charles Slack
All rights reserved.
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.
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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
Selected Bibliography 319