Among its other virtues, Liberty’s First Crisis presents several healthy reminders that elected officials have always been capable of uncivilized behavior toward their colleagues.
Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech by Charles Slack. Grove Press, 340 pp, $17. (paperback)
By Blake Maddux
Liberty’s First Crisis is, much to its benefit, more about “the misfits who saved free speech” than it is about John Adams or Thomas Jefferson. But of course, a book cover that included the names and pictures of Matthew Lyon, Benjamin Franklin Bache, Luther Baldwin, and James Thomson Callender would be unlikely to move very many units.
Still, reading about the forgotten — if ever learned about in the first place — figures of history is often far more compelling, enlightening, and enjoyable than curling up with yet another massive tome devoted exclusively to the supposed greatness of a founding father.
The fulcrum on which author Charles Slack pivots Liberty’s First Crisis is the 1798 Sedition Act. Passed seven years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights by massive majorities in both houses of Congress, Slack describes the law as “breathtaking in its capacity for tyranny and mischief” and as seeming to include “virtually any speech or writing that a government official felt made him look bad.”
Basically, it made any actual or perceived form of criticism of or expression of ill-will toward a federal office holder a federal crime.
But as Slack points out, the Sedition Act did not punish critics of the occupier of the vice presidential office, and it expired on March 1, 1801. So what, you ask? The veep at the time was Thomas Jefferson, a member of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party. The expiration date, meanwhile, guaranteed that John Adams’s Federalist Party would be immune from punishment under its own law if Jefferson were to win the 1800 election. (He did, whereupon he pardoned all who had been convicted under the act.)
President Adams defended signing the bill into law on the ground that it was a wartime measure. He could further justify the expiration date on the basis that the tensions vis-à-vis France would have eased by that time. “Never mind,” as Slack writes, “that this ‘wartime measure’ lacked one crucial component: a war.”
Adams did not evince genuine enthusiasm for the Sedition Act after leaving office in 1801. Moreover, his defenders—including his grandson Charles Francis Adams—also took pains to distance the second president from it. In fact, Slack observes, the website for the Adams National Park in Quincy, MA, notes, “Adams played no part in the formation of these acts nor did he take steps to enforce them, but he was held responsible for these unpopular measures in the public mind.”
In addition to Slack’s deft handling of the Sedition Act and its consequences, there is much to be appreciated about the passages that do not address the book’s main subjects. The author’s discussions of the pathology of the yellow fever that gripped Philadelphia in the summer of 1798, the pre-Constitution history of the idea of free speech, and the relevance of the English ex-patriot scientist Joseph Priestly are illuminating but not excessive.
The book also presents several healthy reminders that elected officials have always been capable of uncivilized behavior toward their colleagues. The most obvious example of this is the incident that led to Matthew Lyon, a member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, earning the nickname “the spitting Lyon”: “for a man who had been street fighting his entire life it seemed like the only thing to do: he turned and spit in [Connecticut Congressman] Roger Griswold’s face.”
58 years later, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would be beaten unconscious by the cane-wielding representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina. However low our opinion of elected officials have sunk nowadays, and even though Senator Lindsay Graham may joke about horrific things befalling Ted Cruz, we can all rest assured that nothing like this is likely to ever happen again.
In the final chapter of Liberty’s First Crisis, Slack considers the laws throughout the 21st-century world that echo the Sedition Act in an uncomfortable fashion. That world, of course, includes the United States, which has made its own missteps in respecting the First Amendment rights guaranteed to citizens, irrespective of whether they are in the media or to whom they direct their opinions. Laws such as the Sedition Act may no longer officially apply, but extralegal acts on the part of those inside and outside of government can also result in the ever-dreaded chilling effect.
Overall, Slack has written a hearty work of history that is entertaining, educational, and serious about its topic without being so much so in tone.
Note: Charles Slack will be speaking at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA on Friday, April 1, at 7 p.m.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who also contributes to The Somerville Times, DigBoston, Lynn Happens, and various Wicked Local publications on the North Shore. In 2013, he received an MLA from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.