- Historic Sites
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
Senator Stevens T. Mason of Virginia was another who took the matter of the fine into his own hands. He collected $1,060 in gold, the amount of the fine and costs—which must be paid in coin—from good Democratic party men in his own bailiwick, and with it in his saddlebags (and perhaps a pair of pistols), set forth on horseback shortly after the New Year to plod northward through mud, rain, snow, sleet and freezing cold to Vermont. We do not know when he reached Vergennes, but he was there by February 6, the day of Lyon’s release, as were other messengers of relief.
The situation becomes a little confused as we hear of these others. There was of course a great crowd present, and it is reported that an appeal for small contributions had begun building a pile of quarters and half dollars on a stump when Apollos Austin—a name still eminent in Vermont—rode up with $1,060 in silver, the produce of the lottery. But before the prison door could be opened, Mrs. Lyon is said to have appeared in a sleigh and thanked the donors for their generosity. She pleaded that she and her husband would prefer to pay the penalty themselves, and hence she had sold some of his property to raise the money. Here there is a blank in the story, but a letter of thanks from the Democrats of Vermont to Senator Mason, appearing in the Vermont Gazette on March 28 following, seems to indicate that the gold which he had collected and ridden so far through bitter winter weather to deliver had been considered the worthiest of the proffered ransoms.
However that may be, the jail doors opened and the prisoner came forth, already wearing his greatcoat. As the officer reached into his inner pocket for the new warrant—we would not venture to suggest that anybody jostled him—Lyon leaped into the sleigh with his wife, cried out, “I’m on my way to Congress!” and they sped away. Someone must have told the marshal that Lyon, being a member of Congress, was immune to ordinary arrest, and he was not pursued.
His journey to Washington was a triumphal progress—cheers, flags waving, crowds thronging to applaud him. At the school at Tinmouth, little girls carried a banner on which was inscribed, “This day satisfies Federal vengeance. Our brave Representative, who has been suffering for us under an unjust sentence and the tyranny of a detested understrapper of despotism, this day rises superior to despotism.” The little girls were not prosecuted.
Steadily the Federalist party tottered to its fall. In the election of 1800 two Democrats, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, were tied in the electoral college with 73 votes each. Adams could muster only 65 and C. C. Pinckney 64. This threw the election into the House of Representatives. Through 35 ballots Jefferson and Burr were deadlocked. Two states divided their votes between them, Maryland giving them four each and Vermont one each. Lyon was the steadfast Jeffersonian in Vermont. On the thirty-sixth ballot the Burrites weakened; their Maryland and Vermont members cast blank ballots, with the result that both states went for Jefferson and he became President.
Lyon did not seek re-election that year. His businesses had fallen into disorder, and a few bitter enemies were responsible for acts of sabotage and mysterious fires in his properties. Andrew Jackson urged him to move to a new frontier, and in 1801 he did so; he settled at a bend of the Cumberland River in western Kentucky, where he built up the town of Eddyville, in what was eventually to become Lyon County. Here he founded industries, as he had done in Vermont, and seemed on the way to a second manufacturing career. But he could not resist the call of politics. He entered the Kentucky legislature in 1802, and went back to the national House of Representatives in 1803, to serve another eight years.
The Embargo Act of 1807 and other trade curbs rapidly following hurt his businesses and drew him closer to his old Federalist opponents in New England, particularly with Josiah Quincy. Lyon tried to attend to business with one hand and politics with the other; both suffered. Neglect of his political “fences” and his opposition to the drift towards war with England combined to end his career in Congress.
He was growing old, and what with many distractions, he was losing his magic touch in business. The loss of a valuable cargo on its way to New Orleans was a staggering blow to his fortunes. In 1820 President Monroe appointed him factor to the Cherokee Indians, with headquarters at Spadra Bluff in western Arkansas. Here he toiled at his job with the nervous drive of a man forty years younger. Young Arkansas Territory elected him a delegate to Congress in 1822, but his overstrained heart gave way, and he died, “a hero of three frontiers,” before he could take his seat.