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Martyr For A Free Press
Matthew Lyon did not like John Adams, and insisted on his right to say so. He spent months in jail but he could not be silenced.
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
There have been two downright attempts by government to curb freedom of the press in America since Plymouth Rock. The first took place when John Peter Zenger, a New York publisher, was jailed in 1735 for criticizing the British colonial governor, but through a brilliant defense by Andrew Hamilton, a salty old Philadelphia lawyer, was acquitted. In the second instance, 63 years later under our own young Constitution, the accused was less fortunate.
This latter case was an outcome of the first, last and only effort of the United States government to curb freedom of expression by statute; namely, the Sedition Law of 1798. This law was enacted when we were, as a government, young, amateurish and excitable; when, of our two parties, the Republican-Democrats suspected Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists of plotting a return to monarchy, while the Federalists regarded Jefferson, the Democratic leader and a frank admirer of the wild and bloody French Revolution, as a dangerous Communist. The victim in this case was an ebullient, red-headed Irishman named Matthew Lyon, who, as one might have known, would get into trouble of this sort sooner or later.
Among the many bizarre and colorful figures in American history, none has been more distinctive than this indomitable son of Erin. Born in Wicklow in 1750, Matthew Lyon was not yet thirteen and had been in school two years in Dublin when his father was executed for plotting against the British Crown. For two years more the boy worked in a printer’s shop in Dublin. Then at fifteen—here the versions differ—either he was inveigled into coming to America on a ship whose captain trickily sold him in New York for the remainder of his minority as an indentured servant, or he made the arrangement himself to get passage across the ocean. Anyhow, when the captain put the sturdy, broad-shouldered lad on the block in New York, he represented him as aged eighteen, thereby shortening his possible servitude from six years to three. A Connecticut Yankee with the flavorous name of Jabez Bacon bought him for twelve pounds.
Mr. Bacon, a prosperous merchant of Litchfield County, liked to trade in cattle, and Matt, looking around for a way out of his thraldom, found a couple of likely-looking bulls which could be bought for something like $40 in later American money. Their owner, one Hannah, agreed to let him have them and work out their purchase price after he had obtained his freedom. Mr. Bacon agreed to accept the animals in payment for Matt’s remaining time, so the youth was free after only one year.
For two years thereafter he was in Hannah’s store, working out his debt. Meanwhile, he was attracted to Ethan Allen—one of the few loud, flamboyant fellows who are also doers—who was mining coal nearby and had established a furnace and ironworks. Under him, young Lyon learned smelting and ironworking, and (a fast worker, Matt) at 21 he had acquired a small piece of property and married a young widow of one of Allen’s nephews.
In 1769, the Allen tribe—Ethan, his brother Ira, and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts—moved en masse to the new wild country later known as Vermont, over whose possession New Hampshire and New York were squabbling. Connecticut’s Litchfield County supplied it with such eminent founders as the Allens, Seth Warner, Matthew Lyon, and Thomas Chittenden, its first governor. In fact, Litchfield gave the young state four governors, three United States senators, seven congressmen and other honorables.
Lyon, like the other settlers, obtained his land title from New Hampshire, though New York was denying the legality of such grants and trying to invalidate them. In fact, Ethan Allen organized his Green Mountain Boys to protect their patents against attempts of New York and its claimants to oust them, and there were some rough doings in the course of the bickering. Lyon hadn’t more than gotten a toe hold in the Vermont foothills—and joined the “Boys,” of course—when the long-simmering Revolution boiled over, and Great Britain became the common enemy. On May 10, 1775, three weeks after Paul Revere rode, Allen and his 85 men, including Matthew Lyon, snatched Fort Ticonderoga from a sleepy, nightshirted British commander.
Lyon’s private affairs must have been a secondary consideration that year, for he was on the Committee of Safety, watching and foiling the evil designs of Tories, and in the fall and early winter he invaded Canada as an officer under the brave but ill-fated General Montgomery, who was killed at Quebec. Off and on for the next two years, Lyon fought with militia or colonial troops, serving in the smashing victory of Bennington and in the final hammering of Burgoyne around Saratoga.
He then quitted army life, being far too busy with his civic duties to spare the time for soldiering. Vermont organized itself as an independent state in 1777, and elected Chittenden governor, whilst young Lyon became secretary to the governor and council, assistant treasurer and paymaster general of the state troops and militia. He also remained on the Committee of Safety, was at various times a selectman, and in 1779 entered the legislature for the first of several terms.