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Martyr For A Free Press

May 2024
12min read

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.

There have been two downright attempts by government to curb freedom of the press in America since Plymouth Rock. The first took place when John Peter Zenger, a New York publisher, was jailed in 1735 for criticizing the British colonial governor, but through a brilliant defense by Andrew Hamilton, a salty old Philadelphia lawyer, was acquitted. In the second instance, 63 years later under our own young Constitution, the accused was less fortunate.

This latter case was an outcome of the first, last and only effort of the United States government to curb freedom of expression by statute; namely, the Sedition Law of 1798. This law was enacted when we were, as a government, young, amateurish and excitable; when, of our two parties, the Republican-Democrats suspected Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists of plotting a return to monarchy, while the Federalists regarded Jefferson, the Democratic leader and a frank admirer of the wild and bloody French Revolution, as a dangerous Communist. The victim in this case was an ebullient, red-headed Irishman named Matthew Lyon, who, as one might have known, would get into trouble of this sort sooner or later.

Among the many bizarre and colorful figures in American history, none has been more distinctive than this indomitable son of Erin. Born in Wicklow in 1750, Matthew Lyon was not yet thirteen and had been in school two years in Dublin when his father was executed for plotting against the British Crown. For two years more the boy worked in a printer’s shop in Dublin. Then at fifteen—here the versions differ—either he was inveigled into coming to America on a ship whose captain trickily sold him in New York for the remainder of his minority as an indentured servant, or he made the arrangement himself to get passage across the ocean. Anyhow, when the captain put the sturdy, broad-shouldered lad on the block in New York, he represented him as aged eighteen, thereby shortening his possible servitude from six years to three. A Connecticut Yankee with the flavorous name of Jabez Bacon bought him for twelve pounds.

Mr. Bacon, a prosperous merchant of Litchfield County, liked to trade in cattle, and Matt, looking around for a way out of his thraldom, found a couple of likely-looking bulls which could be bought for something like $40 in later American money. Their owner, one Hannah, agreed to let him have them and work out their purchase price after he had obtained his freedom. Mr. Bacon agreed to accept the animals in payment for Matt’s remaining time, so the youth was free after only one year.

For two years thereafter he was in Hannah’s store, working out his debt. Meanwhile, he was attracted to Ethan Allen—one of the few loud, flamboyant fellows who are also doers—who was mining coal nearby and had established a furnace and ironworks. Under him, young Lyon learned smelting and ironworking, and (a fast worker, Matt) at 21 he had acquired a small piece of property and married a young widow of one of Allen’s nephews.

In 1769, the Allen tribe—Ethan, his brother Ira, and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts—moved en masse to the new wild country later known as Vermont, over whose possession New Hampshire and New York were squabbling. Connecticut’s Litchfield County supplied it with such eminent founders as the Allens, Seth Warner, Matthew Lyon, and Thomas Chittenden, its first governor. In fact, Litchfield gave the young state four governors, three United States senators, seven congressmen and other honorables.

Lyon, like the other settlers, obtained his land title from New Hampshire, though New York was denying the legality of such grants and trying to invalidate them. In fact, Ethan Allen organized his Green Mountain Boys to protect their patents against attempts of New York and its claimants to oust them, and there were some rough doings in the course of the bickering. Lyon hadn’t more than gotten a toe hold in the Vermont foothills—and joined the “Boys,” of course—when the long-simmering Revolution boiled over, and Great Britain became the common enemy. On May 10, 1775, three weeks after Paul Revere rode, Allen and his 85 men, including Matthew Lyon, snatched Fort Ticonderoga from a sleepy, nightshirted British commander.

Lyon’s private affairs must have been a secondary consideration that year, for he was on the Committee of Safety, watching and foiling the evil designs of Tories, and in the fall and early winter he invaded Canada as an officer under the brave but ill-fated General Montgomery, who was killed at Quebec. Off and on for the next two years, Lyon fought with militia or colonial troops, serving in the smashing victory of Bennington and in the final hammering of Burgoyne around Saratoga.

He then quitted army life, being far too busy with his civic duties to spare the time for soldiering. Vermont organized itself as an independent state in 1777, and elected Chittenden governor, whilst young Lyon became secretary to the governor and council, assistant treasurer and paymaster general of the state troops and militia. He also remained on the Committee of Safety, was at various times a selectman, and in 1779 entered the legislature for the first of several terms.

In 1783, Lyon began to turn his flair for business to account. He founded the village of Fairhaven, where he created a sawmill, a gristmill and an ironworks. He cut ship timbers and sent them via nearby Lake Champlain to Canada and even to England. He essayed paper making from birch wood, and is said to have done creditably well with it. Naturally, the next tool was a printing press, with which he turned out not only job work, but at least two books, and presently a small periodical which he called The Farmer’s Library, to which title, at a later date when he was running for Congress, he added Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truths.

When Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791, Lyon began itching for a seat in Congress, and he won election to it in 1796. His very first gesture in the House was not calculated to endear him to the new President, crusty old John Adams. Lyon objected to the custom, established in the previous Administration, of the representatives going in a body to the executive mansion to reply to the President’s first message and ask whether he had any other wishes. To Lyon, the wine and cake served at the call could not overcome the unpleasantly obsequious odor of the affair, and he asked to be excused from attendance with the others. “I would be glad to see this custom done away,” he added.

The year 1798 was when our bickering with France over comparatively small matters reached the point where French privateers were seizing our ships, and war talk was in the air. It would in essence have been a war between our Federalist and Democratic parties; the former, wearing black cockades, ardent partisans of England, hissing and hating France; the latter, singing ”Ça ira” and the “Carmagnole,” and topping “liberty poles” with the revolutionary Phrygian cap of chaotic France.

That summer Congress enacted the notorious “Alien and Sedition Laws,” the first against “dangerous” foreigners, the second ordering that any person who should “write, utter or publish or shall cause ... to be written, uttered or published or assist ... in writing, uttering or publishing” any words calumniating the government or either House of Congress or the President, or calculated to bring either of them into disrepute or stir up sedition in the country, should be punished by a fine not exceeding $2,000 and imprisonment of not more than two years.

That this was in flat, seemingly impudent violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution merely proves the lightness of congressional thinking at the time, and the lack of that reverence for the Constitution which developed so strongly as time went on.

Matthew Lyon had not intensified the political editorializing in his Scourge of Aristocracy, etc., and saw things through the distorted lenses of an ardent partisan. A Vermont editor published a sharp criticism of him for his antagonism to President Adams, and Lyon sent him a reply which, according to the Sedition Law, had in it the makings of a crime. In the President he saw “every consideration of public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice”; he saw “men of real merit daily turned out of office for no other cause but independency of spirit . . . men of firmness, merit, years, abilities and experience discarded in their applications for office, for fear they possess that independence, and men of meanness preferred, for the ease with which they can take up and advocate opinions, the consequences of which they know but little of.”

His first group of charges was much exaggerated; the second had some basis in fact, and is the story of partisanship in government, even down to modern times. Worse charges have been made against many a President, and Lyon’s diatribe would raise the blood pressure of a modern Chief Executive but little. But the Federalists’ catchpoles were watching and listening for just such a malfeasance. Very shortly a grand jury—packed against him, Lyon claimed, and not without a shadow of justification—in Outland, a Federalist hotbed, found him “a wicked man of a depraved mind and a malicious and diabolical disposition . . . deceitfully, wickedly and maliciously contriving to defame the Government of the United States . . . and the said John Adams, Esq. . . .”


His letter was dated June 20, though for some reason it was not mailed, or at least not postmarked, until July 7. The Sedition Bill was passed by the Senate on July 1 and by the House of Representatives on July 10. It was therefore not yet a law when Lyon’s letter was written and posted. By the time the Vermont editor had gotten the letter into type, the bill had become a statute.

To make matters worse, Lyon had published a letter from the poet Joel Barlow, then sojourning in Paris—where lie prudently remained—expressing horror over a message of President Adams to Congress in which he said that there was no dependence to be put in any agreement with the French, “that their religion and morality were at an end, and that it would be necessary to be perpetually armed against them.” Barlow was amazed “that the answer of both Houses had not been an order to send him [Adams] to a mad-house.” Worse still, Lyon editorially urged Americans to prepare to resist the efforts of the Federalists to establish “a state of abject slavery and degrading subjection to a set of assuming High Mightinesses in our own country, and a close connection with a corrupt, tottering monarchy in Europe.”

Lyon’s trial had some of the aspects of a cut-and-dried affair. His plea of the unconstitutionality of the act was brushed aside by the judge (Justice Paterson of the United States Supreme Court), another proof of the as yet unimpressive stature in the judicial mind of the Magna Carta of our being. Lyon hadn’t the ghost of a chance. He hoped to show that the publication was innocuous and—his only defense under the law—to prove the truth of his allegations, which would have been well-nigh impossible, even by a horde of witnesses; the charges were too intangible.

The judge’s charge to the jury was heavily weighted against the prisoner, and it is no wonder the verdict shortly brought in was one of Guilty. The judge complimented his own leniency in sentencing Lyon to no more than four months’ imprisonment and a line of $1,000 and costs for so heinous an offense. The marshal proposed to set out immediately with the convicted man for Vergennes, forty miles away, where he was to be immured. Lyon asked permission to go to his lodgings to take care of some papers. “I was answered in a surly tone, No, and told to sit down. I stood up.”


The cell into which Lyon was finally thrust was twelve by sixteen feet in size, with a “necessary” in one corner, “which afforded a stench about equal to that of the Philadelphia docks in August.” There was little light and no heat, and his small, barred window had no glass in it, making his entombment there through most of the winter a pretty bleak prospect. He was at first denied writing materials, but presently the authorities realized that if he had them, he would undoubtedly violate the law again, so Lyon was given pen and paper, and the inevitable happened. He wrote:

“Every one who is not [in] favor of this mad war [with France] is branded with the epithets of Opposers of Government, Disorganizers, Jacobins, etc. It is quite a new kind of jargon to call a Representative of the people an opposer of the Government because he does not, as a Legislator, advocate and acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the Executive.”

This was of course another violation, and another warrant was issued, to be served when the prison doors opened for him on February 6.

Lyon’s term as congressman had expired, and just before his trial an election was held to fill the vacancy. He was the only Democratic candidate, and the Federalists, fearing his popularity, had nominated several men, not expecting that any of them might win, but hoping that they would draw enough votes from Lyon to prevent his winning. This negative strategy prevented his getting a majority, though he polled the largest vote, but checked him only momentarily. His stature as a persecuted hero was increasing. In December there was a second election, and this time the prisoner was re-elected overwhelmingly.

From the time of his incarceration, Lyon held frequent conferences with his loyal partisans through the little barred window of his cell. The Green Mountain Boys were all for shortening his term by demolishing the jail, but he dissuaded them. A petition signed by several thousand persons was presented to the President, asking for Lyon’s release from a frigid and allegedly filthy cell. Mr. Adams declined unless the prisoner signed it, too. “Penitence before pardon,” was the executive epigram. But Lyon was anything but penitent; he refused to sign and remained in his dungeon.

The question now arose: how was his fine to be paid when his prison term expired? He had property but little cash; his business had suffered from lack of his expert management until he was well-nigh in a state of bankruptcy. A lottery was proposed, with some of his property at Fairhaven as the prize. Anthony Haswell, publisher of the Vermont Gazette, a veteran of the Revolution and now state postmaster-general, willingly published an advertisement of the lottery—with a scorching reference to Revolutionary Tories now in government—and wrote an editorial beginning, “Our Representative is holden by the oppressive hand of usurped power in a loathsome prison, suffering all the indignities which can be heaped upon him by a hard-hearted savage.” This was considered a libel upon the Vergennes jailer, and Haswell was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for it, plus a fine of $200.

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.

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