Between the Lines: A Vergennes jail and freedom of speech

The jail in Vergennes where Congressman Matthew Lyon was imprisoned is long gone. But his legend lives on, in part thanks to another former congressman and current U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders.
When you’re sailing against the prevailing political winds, it can be reassuring to know that others have done so and eventually prevailed.
Maybe that’s part of the reason that Sen. Sanders chose in a recent “Vermont Bernie Buzz” newsletter to highlight Matthew Lyon’s story.
Lyon was born in Ireland and emigrated to the colonies in 1765 as a teenager. “He had a hardscrabble beginning as an indentured servant,” Sanders noted when we talked about Lyon earlier this week. “He was a fighter for people who didn’t have a lot of money.”
Lyon went on to establish highly respectable Vermont credentials — fighting with the Green Mountain Boys, marrying Gov. Chittenden’s daughter, and founding the town of Fair Haven.
But it isn’t for his marriage or even for his Revolutionary War exploits that Lyon is remembered. Rather, he went down in history largely for his courage in standing up to a president’s efforts to silence him.
Lyon, who represented Vermont’s Western District in the U.S. House of Representatives, was the first American — and the only member of Congress — to be indicted and tried under the Sedition Act.
Passed in 1798, this infamous law led to federal prosecutions of those who had the temerity to speak up when they felt the president’s actions were not in the best interest of the country.
Today we are accustomed to broad protections for free speech.
We can, as Mother Jones magazine once did, give new subscribers a doormat containing the image of then-Pres. Ronald Reagan, so they could wipe their feet on the president’s face.
We can also assert, without fear of reprisal, that a deeply patriotic, middle-of-the-road president who has a valid Hawaiian birth certificate is in fact a Kenyan-born socialist with a secret agenda to destroy America.
Not so in the early decades of the American republic.
At a time when the U.S. had conflicts with both Britain and France, President John Adams pushed through the Sedition Act. This broad-reaching law made it a crime to speak or publish even the most mild criticisms of the president. The era posed, as Sanders put it, “a classic conflict between security and freedom of speech.”
How dangerous was the Sedition Act?
Matthew Lyon got in trouble over a letter to the editor.
Writing in 1798 in Spooner’s Vermont Journal, Lyon said he saw in Adams “every consideration of the public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”
The Adams administration responded by putting Lyon on trial. He tried to argue in court that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional. But the judge ruled no constitutional issues were at stake.
Lyon was quickly convicted and thrown into prison in Vergennes. There he served out his four-month sentence, on top of a $1,000 fine.
“He paid the price for standing up for what he believed,” Sanders said.
As with Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” nearly 200 years later, Lyon courageously continued to speak his mind from prison.
His efforts were rewarded when Vermonters, ever fond of outspoken underdogs, reelected Lyon while he sat in prison. He went on to cast the deciding vote in Congress that led to the elevation to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, a bitter political rival of John Adams.
Continually hounded by his political rivals, Lyon eventually left Vermont and moved to Kentucky. There he was again elected to Congress — proving again that an indomitable will sometimes does prevail in the toughest political circumstances.
Sanders wants Vermonters to remember that lesson. “A lot of young people don’t have a sense of history, especially Vermont history,” he said. “I want people to know that Vermont had an early champion of freedom of speech. In a vibrant democracy, people have a right to express their point of view.”
Yet the powers that be will always try to suppress dissenting voices.
Sanders and other people of my generation, for example, remember how we couldn’t question the wisdom of killing millions of innocent people in Vietnam without being accused of being unpatriotic.
It remains a familiar pattern: When the Bush administration spread lies as justification to occupy Iraq, its apologists questioned the motives and patriotism of the war’s critics.
An unfortunate outgrowth of that era, in Sanders’ view, was “the Patriot Act and other attacks on freedom of speech.”
Among today’s challenges, he adds: “In the corporate world and in government, there’s new technology out there with cell phones and e-mails that make it possible for corporations and the government to know what we are saying and what we are sending. The question is, how do we take advantage of these new technologies without infringing on freedom of speech.”
Can we truly trust Big Brother not to be watching?
Sanders plans to continue using the “Bernie Buzz” newsletter to use history to make points about present-day issues.
Fighting the battle to protect postal service jobs in Vermont, he used the most recent newsletter to highlight contributions the Postal Service has made to Vermont through history. A subsequent issue will focus on our state’s history of promoting women’s rights.
“It’s especially important for young people in Vermont,” he said, “to understand that things didn’t begin yesterday.”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at [email protected].

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