History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Sedition Act Trials — Historical Background and Documents
Historical Documents

Matthew Lyon statements cited in the indictment for seditious libel

Lyon’s indictment for seditious libel cited one example of his own writings and two excerpts from a letter by Joel Barlow that Lyon recited at political rallies and allegedly helped to publish.

The first excerpt was from a letter that Lyon sent to Alden Spooner, publisher of Spooner’s Vermont Journal, on June 20, 1798, in response to a bitter personal attack on Lyon that had been published in Spooner’s newspaper. Lyon’s defense of his own character included an explanation of why he opposed President Adams and his administration. Spooner published the letter on July 31, 1798, less than three weeks after passage of the Sedition Act.

The two following passages were from the letter that Joel Barlow, a prominent poet and ardent Republican, sent from France to his brother-in-law, Representative Abraham Baldwin of Georgia. Baldwin shared the letter with Lyon, who read from it as a regular part of his campaign appearances in Vermont during the summer and fall of 1798. Prosecution witnesses testified that Lyon’s wife delivered a copy of the letter, in Lyon’s handwriting, to the printer who published the letter in Fairhaven, Vermont, on September 1, 1798.

Lyon defended the passages as both true and innocent of any malicious intent. In his instructions to the jury, Justice Paterson asked the panel to decide if the language in the excerpts “could have been uttered with any other intent than that of making odious or contemptible the President and the government, and bringing them both into disrepute.”

[Document Sources: 1. Spooner’s Vermont Journal, vol. 16, n. 784, July 31, 1798; 2. James Lyon, A Republican Magazine: or, Repository of Political Truths (Fairhaven, Vt.: 1798), 79–80.]

1. As to the executive, when I shall see the efforts of that power bent on the promotion of the comfort, the happiness, and accommodation of the people, that executive shall have my zealous and uniform support: but whenever I shall, on the part of the Executive, see every consideration of the public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulations, and selfish avarice; when I shall behold men of real merit daily turned out of office for no other cause but independency of sentiment; when I shall see 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 take up and advocate opinions, the consequence of which they know little of: when I shall see the sacred name of religion employed as a state engine, to make mankind hate and persecute one another, I shall not be their humble advocate.

2. “The misunderstanding between the two Governments,” (France and the United States,) “has become extremely alarming; confidence is completely destroyed, mistrusts, jealousy, and a disposition to a wrong attribution of motives are so apparent, as to require the utmost caution in every word and action that are to come from your Executive; I mean, if your object is to avoid hostilities. Had this truth been understood with you, before the recall of
Munroe, before the coming and the second coming of Pinckney; had it guided the pens that wrote the bullying speech of your President, and stupid answer of your Senate, at the opening of Congress in November last, I should probably have had no occasion to address you this letter.

. . . But when we found him borrowing the language of Edmund Burke, and telling the world, that although he should succeed in treating with the French, there was no dependence to be placed on any of their engagements: that their religion and morality were at an end, that they had turned pirates and plunderers, and it would be necessary to be perpetually armed against them, though you were at peace: we wondered that the answer of both Houses had not been an order to send him to a mad house. Indeed of this, the Senate have echoed the speech with more servility than ever George the third experienced from either House of Parliament.”


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