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

Language: English

Pages: 352

ISBN: 0802124720

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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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1798, reprinted in ibid., p. 589. 11 James Madison to Nicholas P. Trist, Dec. 23, 1832, reprinted in ibid., p. 862. 12 Albany (NY) Centinel, Jan. 1, 1799. 13 New York Daily Advertiser, Jan. 7, 1799. 14 Gazette of the United States, reprinted in the Courier of New Hampshire, Concord, Jan. 12, 1799. 15 Porcupine’s Gazette, Sept. 21, 1798, quoted in Stewart, The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period, p. 362. 16 Oracle of Dauphin, Harrisburg, PA, Jan. 2, 1799. 17 Maryland Herald, Jan. 31,

complaining, even though much of the reporting was favorable to their side. For all the caterwauling, between 1797 and 1801 (the years of John Adams’s presidency) Federalists enjoyed an outsized advantage in the press. Of 318 newspapers published during those years in the United States, 171 leaned or were strongly Federalist, compared with 89 that leaned or were strongly Republican, with the rest either professing neutrality or devoting little or no attention to politics. In some states, the

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.16 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

Adams. If the chief law enforcement officer of the land, a man sworn to uphold the Constitution, knowingly allows officials to throw people in jail for criticizing him, does it even matter whether he took an “active role” in the prosecutions? For another politician, signing the Sedition Act might have amounted to a political mistake. Adams’s signature on this legislation rises to the level of tragedy because it represents a stark, personal betrayal of his deepest held beliefs, one of those

Territory. Lyon had once told President Madison that Indians had no more right to claim ownership of American land than did “the Bears and the Wolves”—an irony apparently missed by the man who had been called the wild Lyon of Vermont.19 Yet when he actually met and began working with Cherokees, his mind changed. His biographer writes of Lyon attending a Cherokee dance and being moved by the common bonds between the cultures. He was, appropriately, out in the wild when he died in 1822. Lyon’s

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