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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
In 1783, Lyon began to turn his flair for business to account. He founded the village of Fairhaven, where he created a sawmill, a gristmill and an ironworks. He cut ship timbers and sent them via nearby Lake Champlain to Canada and even to England. He essayed paper making from birch wood, and is said to have done creditably well with it. Naturally, the next tool was a printing press, with which he turned out not only job work, but at least two books, and presently a small periodical which he called The Farmer’s Library, to which title, at a later date when he was running for Congress, he added Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truths.
When Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791, Lyon began itching for a seat in Congress, and he won election to it in 1796. His very first gesture in the House was not calculated to endear him to the new President, crusty old John Adams. Lyon objected to the custom, established in the previous Administration, of the representatives going in a body to the executive mansion to reply to the President’s first message and ask whether he had any other wishes. To Lyon, the wine and cake served at the call could not overcome the unpleasantly obsequious odor of the affair, and he asked to be excused from attendance with the others. “I would be glad to see this custom done away,” he added.
The year 1798 was when our bickering with France over comparatively small matters reached the point where French privateers were seizing our ships, and war talk was in the air. It would in essence have been a war between our Federalist and Democratic parties; the former, wearing black cockades, ardent partisans of England, hissing and hating France; the latter, singing ”Ça ira” and the “Carmagnole,” and topping “liberty poles” with the revolutionary Phrygian cap of chaotic France.
That summer Congress enacted the notorious “Alien and Sedition Laws,” the first against “dangerous” foreigners, the second ordering that any person who should “write, utter or publish or shall cause ... to be written, uttered or published or assist ... in writing, uttering or publishing” any words calumniating the government or either House of Congress or the President, or calculated to bring either of them into disrepute or stir up sedition in the country, should be punished by a fine not exceeding $2,000 and imprisonment of not more than two years.
That this was in flat, seemingly impudent violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution merely proves the lightness of congressional thinking at the time, and the lack of that reverence for the Constitution which developed so strongly as time went on.
Matthew Lyon had not intensified the political editorializing in his Scourge of Aristocracy, etc., and saw things through the distorted lenses of an ardent partisan. A Vermont editor published a sharp criticism of him for his antagonism to President Adams, and Lyon sent him a reply which, according to the Sedition Law, had in it the makings of a crime. In the President he saw “every consideration of public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice”; he saw “men of real merit daily turned out of office for no other cause but independency of spirit . . . men of firmness, merit, years, abilities and experience discarded in their applications for office, for fear they possess that independence, and men of meanness preferred, for the ease with which they can take up and advocate opinions, the consequences of which they know but little of.”
His first group of charges was much exaggerated; the second had some basis in fact, and is the story of partisanship in government, even down to modern times. Worse charges have been made against many a President, and Lyon’s diatribe would raise the blood pressure of a modern Chief Executive but little. But the Federalists’ catchpoles were watching and listening for just such a malfeasance. Very shortly a grand jury—packed against him, Lyon claimed, and not without a shadow of justification—in Outland, a Federalist hotbed, found him “a wicked man of a depraved mind and a malicious and diabolical disposition . . . deceitfully, wickedly and maliciously contriving to defame the Government of the United States . . . and the said John Adams, Esq. . . .”
His letter was dated June 20, though for some reason it was not mailed, or at least not postmarked, until July 7. The Sedition Bill was passed by the Senate on July 1 and by the House of Representatives on July 10. It was therefore not yet a law when Lyon’s letter was written and posted. By the time the Vermont editor had gotten the letter into type, the bill had become a statute.