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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
To make matters worse, Lyon had published a letter from the poet Joel Barlow, then sojourning in Paris—where lie prudently remained—expressing horror over a message of President Adams to Congress in which he said that there was no dependence to be put in any agreement with the French, “that their religion and morality were at an end, and that it would be necessary to be perpetually armed against them.” Barlow was amazed “that the answer of both Houses had not been an order to send him [Adams] to a mad-house.” Worse still, Lyon editorially urged Americans to prepare to resist the efforts of the Federalists to establish “a state of abject slavery and degrading subjection to a set of assuming High Mightinesses in our own country, and a close connection with a corrupt, tottering monarchy in Europe.”
Lyon’s trial had some of the aspects of a cut-and-dried affair. His plea of the unconstitutionality of the act was brushed aside by the judge (Justice Paterson of the United States Supreme Court), another proof of the as yet unimpressive stature in the judicial mind of the Magna Carta of our being. Lyon hadn’t the ghost of a chance. He hoped to show that the publication was innocuous and—his only defense under the law—to prove the truth of his allegations, which would have been well-nigh impossible, even by a horde of witnesses; the charges were too intangible.
The judge’s charge to the jury was heavily weighted against the prisoner, and it is no wonder the verdict shortly brought in was one of Guilty. The judge complimented his own leniency in sentencing Lyon to no more than four months’ imprisonment and a line of $1,000 and costs for so heinous an offense. The marshal proposed to set out immediately with the convicted man for Vergennes, forty miles away, where he was to be immured. Lyon asked permission to go to his lodgings to take care of some papers. “I was answered in a surly tone, No, and told to sit down. I stood up.”
The cell into which Lyon was finally thrust was twelve by sixteen feet in size, with a “necessary” in one corner, “which afforded a stench about equal to that of the Philadelphia docks in August.” There was little light and no heat, and his small, barred window had no glass in it, making his entombment there through most of the winter a pretty bleak prospect. He was at first denied writing materials, but presently the authorities realized that if he had them, he would undoubtedly violate the law again, so Lyon was given pen and paper, and the inevitable happened. He wrote:
“Every one who is not [in] favor of this mad war [with France] is branded with the epithets of Opposers of Government, Disorganizers, Jacobins, etc. It is quite a new kind of jargon to call a Representative of the people an opposer of the Government because he does not, as a Legislator, advocate and acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the Executive.”
This was of course another violation, and another warrant was issued, to be served when the prison doors opened for him on February 6.
Lyon’s term as congressman had expired, and just before his trial an election was held to fill the vacancy. He was the only Democratic candidate, and the Federalists, fearing his popularity, had nominated several men, not expecting that any of them might win, but hoping that they would draw enough votes from Lyon to prevent his winning. This negative strategy prevented his getting a majority, though he polled the largest vote, but checked him only momentarily. His stature as a persecuted hero was increasing. In December there was a second election, and this time the prisoner was re-elected overwhelmingly.
From the time of his incarceration, Lyon held frequent conferences with his loyal partisans through the little barred window of his cell. The Green Mountain Boys were all for shortening his term by demolishing the jail, but he dissuaded them. A petition signed by several thousand persons was presented to the President, asking for Lyon’s release from a frigid and allegedly filthy cell. Mr. Adams declined unless the prisoner signed it, too. “Penitence before pardon,” was the executive epigram. But Lyon was anything but penitent; he refused to sign and remained in his dungeon.
The question now arose: how was his fine to be paid when his prison term expired? He had property but little cash; his business had suffered from lack of his expert management until he was well-nigh in a state of bankruptcy. A lottery was proposed, with some of his property at Fairhaven as the prize. Anthony Haswell, publisher of the Vermont Gazette, a veteran of the Revolution and now state postmaster-general, willingly published an advertisement of the lottery—with a scorching reference to Revolutionary Tories now in government—and wrote an editorial beginning, “Our Representative is holden by the oppressive hand of usurped power in a loathsome prison, suffering all the indignities which can be heaped upon him by a hard-hearted savage.” This was considered a libel upon the Vergennes jailer, and Haswell was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for it, plus a fine of $200.