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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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.
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The greatest enemy of liberty is fear. When people feel comfortable and well protected, they are naturally expansive and tolerant of one another's opinions and rights. When they feel threatened, their tolerance shrinks. By 1798, the euphoria surrounding the American Revolution, the sense of a common purpose and a common enemy, was gone. Everyone agreed that the new nation founded amid high hopes and noble ideas was in danger of collapse. The one thing they could not agree on was who to blame.
The Federalists, who dominated most of New England as well as both houses of Congress, the John Adams presidency, and the Supreme Court, viewed themselves as the protectors of family, faith, education, and country. Though the term "federalism" refers only to the system of shared powers between individual states and a centralized government forged by the Constitution, under the leadership of men such as Alexander Hamilton, principal author of the Federalist Papers, it had come to imply a decisive tipping of the scales in the direction of centralized power. Hamilton and other Federalists believed in a strong national military to protect the fledgling country from foreign invaders, a centralized bank to stabilize and grow the economy, and a government with the muscle to tax and to direct the destiny of the nation. They had little faith in the intelligence or morals of average men. As such, they believed in liberty, yes, but liberty as informed and guided by a natural aristocracy consisting of themselves.
Yet everywhere they turned, they saw their orderly utopia of English-descended freemen under siege, rapidly devolving into something more volatile and chaotic. For this, Federalists blamed an unofficial, disparate but growing collection of citizens referring to themselves as Republicans, or Democrats, or Democratic-Republicans, or Jeffersonian Democrats. In the interest of simplicity, they'll be referred to henceforth as Republicans, but with no inference of a connection or lineage to the modern party of the same name. Indeed, the word "party," now so firmly rooted in our political language that one might assume party structure was written into the Constitution, was an epithet in 1798. Men in power used "party" interchangeably with "faction" and "interest" to designate outliers, troublemakers, and enemies of good government.
In their innocence, the founding generation assumed that a government chosen by the people would represent all the people. Federalists, who had controlled most of the national government from its inception, never considered themselves to be a political party; to oppose the Federalists was to oppose the very idea of America. In his farewell address at the end of his second term in 1796, President George Washington, the great unifier, had warned against "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party," and "the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention."
Yet to those calling themselves Republicans, Federalist efforts to unify the country were beginning to look a lot like what they had just fought a war to overturn. Everything from Washington's fancy carriage to John Adams's thin-skinned reaction to criticism to Alexander Hamilton's emerging master plan for a muscular national bureaucracy had the whiff of privilege and elitism, if not incipient monarchism. Federalists, to Republican minds, were "aristocrats" and "royalists" bent on consolidating power and replicating English class divisions on American soil. Like the Federalists, Republicans believed their American utopia to be under siege, but their greatest fears surrounded the very measures that Federalists saw as the country's salvation. The idea of a powerful national military (a "standing army" in the parlance of the day) raised the fresh specter of British troops forcibly quartered in the homes of colonists. A federal government capable of taxing at will elicited memories of usurious taxes imposed by a distant monarch.
Against this background of internal divisions, Americans were panicked over a possible imminent invasion by a great European power. The trouble was they could not agree on which European power, England or France, would do the invading. Fueled by hatred for the English monarchy, Republicans felt a spiritual connection with the French, who had not only aided the American Revolution but also launched a revolution of their own.
Federalists, for their part, had watched in growing horror as the French Revolution degenerated into a procession of rolling heads and bloodlust. They saw in that revolution a chilling forecast of what the United States could expect from its own population without strong, principled leadership from the elite. Indeed, they saw themselves as the last barrier against Republican-driven chaos. Radicals, revolutionaries, and malcontents from around Europe were streaming onto American soil and stirring things up.
Federalists mistrusted foreigners in general and immigrants in particular, especially of the poor and non-English variety. Alarmed by the numbers of Germans, French, and Irish pouring each year into their cities and towns, Federalist politicians had proposed a ban on anyone born outside the United States holding government office, along with a twenty-dollar naturalization fee for immigrants — no small amount at a time when an American farmhand might get by on six to twelve dollars a month. In July 1797, Congressman Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts sounded the alarm on immigration in what became known as the "Wild Irish" speech, warning that while he had nothing against "honest and industrious" immigrants, the country could not afford to "invite hordes of wild Irishmen": "The mass of vicious and disorganizing characters who could not live peaceably at home, and who, after unfurling the standard of rebellion in their own countries, might come hither to revolutionize ours." Everything that Otis and his fellow Federalists feared, hated, and scorned could be summed up in three words: Congressman Matthew Lyon.
A native of Ireland, Lyon had schemed and brawled his way from indentured servitude to the upper layers of business and politics in his adopted country. Everything about his life was outsized: his ambition, his intelligence, his enemies, and his flaws. He never let an insult pass without returning it twofold. Put simply, Matthew Lyon couldn't keep his mouth shut. It was this quality above all others that resulted in his greatest, albeit unintentional, contribution to the American experiment. His belligerence in the face of Federalist power would help push the United States into a constitutional crisis, forcing a generation that had soured from idealism to bitterness to confront a few epic questions. Would they live up to the words they themselves had forged, upholding freedom of expression as the highest form of liberty? Did they truly mean what they had said, that Congress shall make no law abridging free speech, or freedom of the press?
Records of his early life in Ireland are murky, so it's impossible to say for sure what prompted Lyon to leave his native country at age fifteen, alone and indentured. His descendants in America claimed that Lyon fled after English authorities hanged his father for agitating for the rights of farmers. If true, that experience would help explain Lyon's hatred for England, as well as his visceral contempt for anyone in his adopted country whom he believed to be putting on aristocratic airs.
Lyon landed in Connecticut in 1764. His indenture seems to have changed hands several times. He ultimately arrived in Litchfield County, in northwestern Connecticut, where a farmer purchased him for a pair of bulls. While such transactions were fairly common in colonial times, the particulars of this trade would serve as a source of pride and pain for the rest of Lyon's life. He often boasted of "the Bulls that redeemed me" as evidence of just how far he had risen. Yet he was quick to attack anyone who used the tale to mock him, whether Litchfield County boys when he was still in his teens, or, much later, his Federalist enemies who claimed he was untamed, uncouth, and unfit for office; indeed, that this "wild Lyon," having once been traded for livestock, was more animal than human.
For a young man of sharp ambitions and no social standing, Connecticut in the early 1770s already felt too confining. So in 1774, the twenty-five-year-old Lyon, freed from his indenture and with a young wife and a little savings to his name, headed north to a territory bounded by New Hampshire on the east and Lake Champlain on the west. If visitors today think of Vermont as a land of soft green fields and gently eccentric politics, the pre-statehood territory more closely resembled a Wild West frontier. The colonial governments of New Hampshire and New York simultaneously laid claim to the territory. They sold grants to prospective settlers, often to the same or overlapping properties — with predictable results. Settlers having staked their life savings to a plot of land would travel for weeks or months over crude or nonexistent roads, prepared to carve a new life out of the forest, only to find someone bearing a title from a different colonial authority already building a homestead. With little recourse to law enforcement or courts, the settlers relied on frontier justice to settle such disputes. Ethan Allen and Seth Warner today are best remembered as heroes of the Revolutionary War. But the Green Mountain Boys they commanded fought their first bloody battles not against the English but against bands of "Yorkers."
Geography added its own imperative in the form of the Green Mountains, which cleaved the Vermont territory into two starkly different worlds. To the east, residents were more like their cousins from Massachusetts or Connecticut: staid, conservative, with a steadfast belief in law and order as exemplified by English common law. West of the mountains, closer to the New York boundary, were a more varied lot of individualists. The west was an amalgam of immigrants from other colonies and from overseas, more likely to judge a man by his skill with a plow and a musket than by his family name or church affiliation. Settlers living under the daily threat of skirmishes with Yorkers regarded the Green Mountain Boys as heroes and protectors. Over to the east, residents took a dimmer view of such men; removed by a mountainous barrier from the turmoil, they saw the Green Mountain Boys as lawless, uncivilized thugs.
The western side of the mountains practically called out Lyon's name. He paid the New Hampshire colonial government twenty pounds for ninety acres near the hamlet of Wallingford, just a few miles from the New York line. There, he fell in with the Green Mountain Boys. Within a few years the militia's mission shifted to the more momentous fight for independence from England. Rising in the ranks during the Revolutionary War, Lyon led a company of the Green Mountain Boys in battle against the British at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point.
Lyon's Revolutionary War service was marred by an incident in 1776, when men under the command of Lyon and other officers, hearing reports of an imminent attack by hundreds of Indians on their position near Lake Champlain, mutinied and fled. Lyon was among several officers arrested, tried, and cashiered for cowardice. Lyon vigorously fought the charges, insisting he had done everything in his power to stop the revolt. Though the incident would come back to haunt his political career years later, Lyon was reinstated within a matter of months and served out the remainder of the war. In 1777, he took part in the Continental Army's decisive Battles of Saratoga, resulting in the surrender of British general John Burgoyne and more than five thousand British troops and a huge cache of arms and equipment — a major turning point in the war. Lyon took special joy in being one of those responsible for relieving the surrendered British troops of their weapons.
As the long war wound to a close and other veterans dreamed of returning to the peaceful rhythms of life on their farms, Lyon was already plotting to grab a share of the victors' spoils. He parlayed his military prominence into a position as clerk for the Court of Confiscation, part of the provisional Vermont government (formal statehood would not come until 1791). As the draconian name implies, the Court of Confiscation's task was to seize and sell property held by loyalist landowners. An order signed by Thomas Chittenden as president and Matthew Lyon as clerk shows the court seizing estates from fifteen Tories on a single day in April 1778.14 Lyon and other court administrators were not shy about purchasing Tory property that they had taken part in confiscating.
As evidence of Lyon's growing influence in the area, in 1782 the Vermont General Assembly named him one of seventy-six founding proprietors of a new town, Fair Haven, to be forged out of the wilderness along the New York border at the extreme southern tip of Lake Champlain. With a personal share totaling more than four hundred acres, Lyon built a homestead on the north bank of the Poultney River, sold off small portions of his land to newcomers, and then set his attentions on manufacturing goods to sell to the swelling population.
He built a dam and an ironworks and forge, where he produced axes, hoes, and other tools. He also built a slitting mill capable of turning slender rods of iron into finished nails — a rare commodity that traditionally had to be imported from England. To shore up his competitive position, Lyon petitioned the Vermont Assembly to impose a duty of two pence per pound on imported nails (the petition was denied). Lyon added a sawmill and a tavern, as well as a paper mill, helping to pioneer the use of wood pulp instead of linen or rags to make paper. Taken together, his budding empire came to be known as "Lyon's Works."
In the mid-1780s, following the death of his first wife, Mary, Lyon married Chittenden's daughter, Beulah. By this time Thomas Chittenden was the first governor of pre-statehood Vermont. Chittenden, like Lyon, was a man of low birth and little formal schooling. He had left Connecticut as a young man and made his fortune through land speculation in western Vermont. Under Chittenden's tutelage, Lyon paired financial successes with growing political ambitions. He served as head of the Fair Haven board of selectmen, as an assistant county judge, and as a representative in the Vermont legislature.
Lyon's ambitious, competitive nature meant that he always made enemies as well as friends. For years, he feuded with a Fair Haven Federalist named Joel Hamilton, who accused Lyon of fixing local elections by importing instant "residents" from just over the state line in New York to vote for him. Through protracted lawsuits Lyon charged Hamilton with damaging his reputation, while Hamilton charged Lyon's supporters with stealing into his orchard and damaging his fruit trees. In addition to these local spats, Lyon was making enemies among powerful Federalist Vermonters who viewed the likes of Thomas Chittenden and Matthew Lyon as bumptious peasants who had gotten above their place.
Lyon's greatest enemy was Nathaniel Chipman. Like Lyon, Chipman had arrived in the Vermont territory from Connecticut as a young man full of ambition. The similarities ended there. Unlike the self-taught Lyon, Chipman arrived in the wilderness armed with a degree from Yale and a tacit belief not just in the opportunities his education represented, but in the noblesse oblige it implied. Whereas Lyon had come to western Vermont to escape conservative Connecticut and the limitations of his humble background, Chipman had come to make it more like home, to convert a rugged backwater into the next bastion of New England morals and virtue. As he wrote to a friend, "think what a figure I shall make, when I become the oracle of law to the state of Vermont."
Given their ambition and conflicting goals, Lyon and Chipman were destined to clash. In 1780, just a year after arriving in the territory, a twenty-eight-year-old Chipman issued a report to the provisional Vermont legislature favoring a return of confiscated land to its loyalist owners without consideration to the settlers who in many cases had been working the land for years. From the Federalist perspective, these settlers were little more than trespassers. Encountering Chipman in a law office in Westminster, Lyon announced that "no man who had a spark of honesty" could have presented such a report. Chipman responded that he had no intention of listening to the complaints of "an ignorant Irish puppy." Lyon leaped from his chair and grabbed Chipman's hair, snapping the comb holding it in place. Chipman, who had been mending a pen with a whittling knife, waved the knife at Lyon. Stephen Bradley, the owner of the law office, grabbed Lyon and pulled him away. With Bradley holding his shoulders, Lyon kicked at Chipman, who grabbed his legs. Together, Chipman and Bradley dumped Lyon in a corner.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Liberty's First Crisis"
Copyright © 2015 Charles Slack.
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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