Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Liberty's First Crisis" by Charles Slack (2015)

Imagine a law which would make it a crime to publish, or utter, “any false scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States or either House of the Congress, or the President of the United States with intent to defame the said government….. or to excite against them…..the hatred of the good people of the United States….for opposing or resisting any law of the United States or any act of the President.”

This was the most important section of the Alien and Sedition Act which was passed in 1798 in the wake of the XYZ Affair and the partisan split between the two political parties over the possibility of War with France, even as we were still struggling to find our place in the world as a Nation.

The Republicans of the time; it should be noted; were today’s Democrats and the Federalists were today’s Republicans. The Sedition Acts were the work of the Republicans of the era, and all but 6 of them voted for the passage of it. The Federalists fought it tooth and nail.

Such a law passed today would have the effect of silencing most of the 24/7 news cycle we have all come to love/hate. FOX, Rush Limbaugh and even CNN would be silenced, along with all 3 major networks. Can you picture the silence, the death of debate, and the absence political discourse? The silence; one might say; would be deafening.

With a wonderful background on the of freedom speech stemming back to the Magna Carta and Sidney’s Discourses in 1688; for which Sidney was hung 5 years earlier; and Blackstone’s Commentaries, which although fairly revolutionary for the time did call for limitations on “pretended prophecies”; the author explores the issue of our own Bill of Rights, which contains our valued First Amendment.

Interestingly, Alexander Hamilton felt that there was no need for a Bill of Rights, since none of the rights in it were specifically forbidden in the Articles of the Constitution itself. The danger there, of course, lay in the interpretation of what was not there to interpret. It is no accident that the Bible; although containing all of 613 Commandments from God; felt it necessary to have the 10 most important ones etched into stone on Mt. Sinai. Some things are too important to be left open to interpretation.

It is important to note here that the whole Alien an Sedition Act drama is precisely why we need the Bill of Rights; and it puts to lie the assertions of those; who; like Hamilton; would say that the limits on government contained within the Articles of the Constitution itself are enough to protect our individual freedoms. But without them, what might have been the outcome of this whole era of the Sedition Acts? 

The most interesting part of this book concerns the 2 men most caught up in the calamity of the Acts. They were newspaper editors Benjamin Franklin Bache; grandson of Benjamin Franklin. He died from yellow fever just before his trial was scheduled to take place.

The second man was Matthew Lyon ; an editor who had originally hailed from Ireland and was in double peril due to the deportation aspect of the law. His was the first actual Sedition trial held.These 2 men were thorns in the side of President Adams, while a balm to his Vice President; Thomas Jefferson; who lobbied extensively against the Acts. The volatile relationship between Adams and his Vice President is legendary and the author gives us great insight into this. 

There was also the case of Henry Lyon of Vermont. He was a sitting Congressman and a newspaper editor when he was jailed for Sedition. He bore ill confinement with a dignity which even impressed his political foes. He even stood for reelection while imprisoned and won. His story is particularly fascinating. 

But beyond the newspapermen there was also the trial of a man named Luther Baldwin for the crime of a public utterance. He had wished that a cannon salute being fired in respect to President Adams be fired at his "arse" instead. He was drunk at the time he said he it, yet he was charged; along with his 2 friends; under the Sedition Act. This was just 23 years after the Declaration of Independence, and was perhaps the lowest point of the Sedition Act drama. If a man could not be secure in conversation with his fellows, then what had that revolution wrought? 

This book captures all of the excitement, as well as the drama, of a new nation struggling to come to terms with itself. There was no previous example to follow in this great experiment called America. We were winging it. The lesson to be taken from this book should serve as a lesson to people on both sides of the political aisle who seek to silence one another. We have tried it before and it failed miserably.

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