By Gregory Sanford
In a dangerous world the president and his party, which controlled both houses of Congress, feared that an influx of immigrants posed a threat to the country. As one member of Congress warned, “The times are full of danger and it would be the height of madness not to take every precaution.” Consequently Congress enacted a law empowering the president to seize, detain or deport any non-citizen he deemed dangerous to the country. Some immigrants fled the United States to avoid persecution.
The president, castigated by the news media, warned that the press went to “all lengths of profligacy, falsehood and malignity in defaming [his] government.” Again his allies in Congress acted, establishing penalties of six months to five years and fines of up to $5,000 for any person who “shall write, print, utter, or publish … writings against the government of the United States, or either house of Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States. …”
Thus in 1798 a bundle of legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts passed into law. President John Adams and the Federalists felt threatened by revolutionary France, the growing number of immigrants from France, Ireland and Germany, and by a Jeffersonian Republican party that vocally opposed their policies.
The Aliens Friends Act (friends in the sense we were not at war with the immigrants’ native country) led immigrants to leave the country, including those who had fled France fearing death under the revolutionaries’ “enemy of the people” legislation (passed in 1789). Other immigrants decided to keep a low profile and avoid the attention of the authorities. These Federalist acts did not settle well with the Democratic Republicans (Jeffersonians) of Vermont.
One of the nation’s best known Democratic Republicans was U.S. Rep. Matthew Lyon, known to Federalists as “Mad Matt the Democrat” or simply as “the Beast of Vermont.” For those of you unfamiliar with Rep. Lyon, he might be best envisioned as Bernie Sanders, but with an attitude.
Even before the passage of the Sedition Act, Lyon had published his disbelief in “Presidential infallibility.” He then established a new publication modestly entitled, “The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truths.” The goal of the publication was to “oppose truth to falsehood.” He called the Federalist action “injurious and ruinous to liberty” and on Oct. 5, 1798, he was indicted under the Sedition Act by a grand jury convened in Rutland.
Lyon argued that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional and, besides, his statements were true. He was convicted and fined $1,000 plus $60.96 in court costs. He was also ordered jailed for four months — but would not be released even then if he had not paid his fine. Lyon was then marched off to jail in Vergennes and lodged in an unheated cell with a “necessary” that Lyon claimed emitted “a stench about equal to the Philadelphia docks in the month of August.”
Federalists around the country celebrated Lyon’s incarceration until the 1798 congressional elections were held. Vermonters re-elected the imprisoned Lyon to Congress with 51 percent of the vote in a three-way runoff election. Republicans rallied to raise money to pay Lyon’s fine so he could be released from jail. Among those making contributions were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
After four months Lyon was freed from jail and Vermonters led him on a procession of celebration from Vergennes to Middlebury. When Lyon made it back to Congress, the Federalists tried to have him expelled, but he retained his seat since the 49 to 45 party line vote failed to reach the two-thirds threshold required for expulsion.
Meanwhile, back in Vermont, Anthony Haswell was in trouble. Publisher of the Vermont Gazette and a staunch Republican, Haswell had launched a lottery to help pay Lyon’s fine. In doing so he re-published some remarks that were deemed a violation of the Sedition Act. On May 5, 1800, Haswell was convicted of sedition, sentenced to two months in jail and fined $200. When Haswell was released from jail on July 7, over 2,000 Vermonters gathered to celebrate. Indeed, Vermonters postponed their Fourth of July celebration so they could simultaneously celebrate national independence and Haswell’s release.
Twenty-four citizens were arrested under the Sedition Act. Ten cases went to trial, all resulting in conviction including Lyon and Haswell. The cases under the Sedition Act helped shape our understanding of the freedom of the press and of expression. The cases were cited in 1964 by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan. In its decision in favor of the Times (over reporting on the civil rights movement) the court noted that debate on public issues should be “uninhibited, robust, and wide open.” It continued, ‘this is the lesson to be drawn from the great controversy of the Sedition Act of 1798, which first crystallized a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment.”
History clings to us in the guise of context. That context should help guide our current robust public dialogues on the fate of “friendly aliens,” “Presidential infallibility,” and the central meaning of the First Amendment.
Gregory Sanford is a former Vermont state archivist and the 2011 recipient of the Vermont Press Association’s Matthew Lyon Award. This blog post was also published at VTDigger.com.
Above photo from public domain depicts Rep. Lyon during a brawl on the U.S. Congress floor.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.