History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Sedition Act Trials — Historical Background and Documents

Matthew Lyon (1749–1822)
Member of Congress and defendant in sedition trial

One of the earliest prosecutions under the Sedition Act centered on an Irish-born member of Congress who had come to represent much of what Federalists feared about the potential excesses of popular government. In the early stages of party conflict, the Republican Matthew Lyon established a newspaper devoted exclusively to his political writings. As a new member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Lyon in 1797 immediately challenged the customary procession by which House members paid their respects to the President. In one of the era’s most notorious episodes of partisan rancor, an exchange of insults between Lyon and Connecticut Representative Roger Griswold led to Lyon spitting in his colleague’s face. When Federalists failed to win the vote to expel Lyon from the House, Griswold attacked Lyon with a cane in the House chamber. Lyon defended himself with a pair of fireplace tongs in a struggle that was soon satirized in a print distributed throughout the nation. By the time he began campaigning for reelection, Lyon was known to Federalists as the “Beast of Vermont.”

Lyon had emigrated to Connecticut as an indentured servant at age fifteen. Within a few years he moved to the region that would become Vermont and joined the militia group known as the Green Mountain Boys. He participated in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and served in the Continental Army, although he was discharged from the service because of a mutiny of troops under his command. After the Revolution Lyon established several successful manufacturing enterprises, and by the 1790s he was actively involved in Vermont politics. After three attempts, he was elected to the House of Representatives for the term beginning in March 1797.

During debates on the Sedition Act, Lyon predicted he would be among its first targets. He was indicted for writing and publishing a letter allegedly defaming the President and for publishing and publicly reading from a letter written by a prominent Republican who was critical of the administration’s policy toward France. Lyon pleaded not guilty and submitted a second plea stating that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional. When his lawyers failed to arrive in time for the trial, Lyon defended himself in his own provocative style and called as his only witness the presiding justice, William Paterson. Paterson guardedly agreed to comment on President Adams’ style of entertaining but then rebuffed Lyon’s obviously facetious line of questioning. Lyon was convicted and sentenced by Paterson to four months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. While in jail he wrote letters seeking support for his reelection to Congress and published an account of the trial.

After Lyon won reelection from jail, Federalists tried and failed to expel him from the House of Representatives. Meanwhile the federal district attorney in Vermont sought to arrest him on new charges of seditious libel. At the end of his congressional term in 1801, Lyon moved to Kentucky where he was twice elected to the House of Representatives. He later moved to the Arkansas territory and ran for election as a delegate to Congress. In 1840, Congress granted Lyon’s heirs reimbursement for his fine, with interest.


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