When he assumed his historic post as our first president, Revolutionary War hero George Washington envisioned a new country full of citizens who would be united in their idealism. It took exactly one election to unleash the gales of partisan rancor we’ve been buffeted by ever since.
Just a few years after the 1791 adoption of the First Amendment (with its unprecedented guarantee of the freedoms of speech, religion, and the press), the Federalists in the John Adams administration felt sufficiently threatened by their opposition that they passed the so-called Sedition Act of 1798, placing limits on “scandalous and malicious” writings or utterances against the government. In “Liberty’s First Crisis” author Charles Slack revisits that nearly forgotten episode with storytelling flair and a keen eye for the latter-day implications of this early challenge to one of the country’s bedrock principles.
Among those who ran afoul of the law, Slack identifies three men in particular: Matthew Lyon, a combative congressman from Vermont who “couldn’t keep his mouth shut”; Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of his famous namesake who published dissenting views in his Philadelphia newspaper the Aurora; and, perhaps most ominously, Luther Baldwin, an apolitical sloop captain who was imprisoned after making a drunken joke during a parade in New Jersey about a military salute shooting the president in the “arse.”
During the three years that the law was on the books, dozens more like them served jail time for similar indiscretions. Ironically, as Slack notes, Adams had been one of the more forceful of the Founding Fathers in opposing “the corrosive potential of concentrated power to destroy rights.” As a younger man he had in fact published a series of articles defending the “indisputable, inalienable, indefeasible divine right” of the citizenry to criticize its leaders.
Now that he held the highest office, however, Adams was proving to be a bit thin-skinned. He was also preoccupied with the fierce international debate between the new nation forming an alliance with the British (the Republicans felt the Federalists were leaning uncomfortably toward a new monarchy of their own) and the French (whom the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, accused of fostering the anarchy of mob rule).
“For another politician,” writes Slack, “signing the Sedition Act might have amounted to a political mistake.” But Adams’s signature on the legislation represented “a stark, personal betrayal of his deepest held beliefs.”
To his credit, the author takes pains to understand the viewpoints of both the Federalists and the Republicans (not to be confused with today’s party of the same name). “One need not be a reactionary to understand the Federalists’ chagrin at being lectured on their betrayal of American principles” by newer arrivals such as the Irishmen Lyon and John Daly Burk, the “self-righteous and pedantic” editor of the New York Time-Piece, he writes.
Meanwhile, Dedham’s “brittle and intransigent” Fisher Ames, a zealous Federalist serving in Congress, “seems to have lived with the express purpose of painting himself into an oil portrait over the fireplace, that proverbial long-dead ancestor staring with disapproval upon the living.” Slack’s use of humor to recount history is judicious: At one point, he notes that it is hard to see one of Adams’s lame-duck Cabinet nominations “as anything but a middle finger delivered to the outgoing president’s bitterest foes.”
In the end, the ruckus over the Sedition Act of 1798 (which expired along with Adams’s term, in March 1801) helped the young nation’s populace recognize that the freedom of expression means unfettered freedom, in the words of a book title by the late Anthony Lewis, “for the thought that we hate.” In lucid English, Slack mounts a strong case against the contemporary inclination to legislate against speech that might offend.
To declare that people have a right against being offended, Slack writes, “automatically transfers the right of speech from the speaker to the listener.” The offended party is now empowered to say not just “I don’t like your opinion,” but “I won’t allow you to say that.”
You are more than welcome to say the former. In a truly free society, you don’t get to say the latter.