Book Commentary: “Liberty’s First Crisis”

Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech-Charles Slack (Amazon)

Image via Charles Slack

The Alien and Sedition Acts are widely recognized as some of the worst laws ever enacted  by our government, synonymous with the Fugitive Slave Act and Executive Order 9066 (which imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II). Slack’s Liberty’s First Crisis attempts to provide an accessible account of how a nation founded under the banner of freedom could pass such onerous legislation.

Americans today take for granted the fact that our political regime is stable and that we are secure from foreign invasion. To the former: America’s Constitution is only its second governing document (following the Articles of Confederation) and has been in effect since 1788. To the latter: America has been recognized as either a first-rate power, regional, or global hegemon since the end of World War I.

But Americans in 1798 faced entirely different circumstances. The Articles of Confederation almost crushed the nation before it started, and the newly-ratified Constitution was a grand, unprecedented experiment. It represented a compromise between two groups with vastly different theories of interpersonal relations, political philosophy, and foreign policy. Meanwhile, its ability to defend even established borders was highly in-doubt; Spain, France, and Great Britain all had more powerful militaries and economies.

As Slack notes: “By 1798, the euphoria surrounding the American Revolution, the sense of a common purpose and a common enemy, was gone. Everyone agreed that the new nation founded amid high hopes and noble ideas was in danger of collapse. The one thing they could not agree on was who to blame.”

It is these almost incomprehensible circumstances in which we’re introduced to the book’s two main protagonists, Matthew Lyon and Benjamin Franklin Bache. Lyon was a Scottish-born Vermonter who ascended from poverty to business and political success, ultimately earning a congressional seat in a rural western Vermont district. Bache was the grandson and favored progeny of Benjamin Franklin. Using money, equipment and know-how inherited from his grandfather, Bache founded one of the nation’s first major newspapers, the Philadelphia-based Aurora.

After brief but fascinating biographies, Slack shows us how both men found themselves in the crosshairs of the Federalist-controlled national government. Lyon had a legendary temper and couldn’t take an insult; his political enemies egged him on whenever possible, which ultimately resulted in Lyon spitting on, and later fighting, a Federalist congressman. Bache, meanwhile, was raised by his grandfather as a philosophical free-speech and small government advocate. He used the Aurora to lambast newly sworn-in Federalist president John Adams…and just about everyone else in the federal government.

Events reached a tipping point when  journalist Thomas James Callendar published a damning report about treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, accusing him of, among other things, having had an extramarital affair and then paying off his lover’s husband to stay quiet. Both turned out to be true, but that was besides the point for enraged Federalists. To them, America was on the brink of destruction and couldn’t survive its leaders and their legitimacy being questioned. That Callendar was an English emigrant made it even worse.

Days later, Bache was arrested and for libeling the president. Soon after, Congress passed the first of the Alien Acts, which collectively made it tougher for foreign-born residents to become citizens and easier for the government to deport them. Finally, on July 14th, president John Adams signed the Sedition Act, giving the government formal, arbitrary and wide ranging power to arrest citizens for remarks critical of congress, the president, but notably not the vice president. This, of course, was because the VP was Republican Thomas Jefferson.

To recap: during the Adams presidency, a sitting congressman and descendant of a Founding Father went to prison for speaking ill of government figures. A US attorney general expended precious time and money prosecuting people for printing op-eds critical of federal foreign policy. Select branches of government used their newly-acquired power to stifle the speech of political opponents, and weren’t even particularly shy about doing so.

Slack describes the efforts of ordinary citizens to build opposition to the acts, which were ultimately allowed to expire after Republicans overtook control of both the presidency (via Thomas Jefferson) and congress. Their stories are inspiring, and the author navigates between them deftly while occasionally interjecting with contemporary insights. What he makes abundantly clear, however, is that it was by no means a given that these acts would go away. The reader can see just how close America was to going down the route of authoritarianism.

To find this book compelling, one must start with the belief that free speech is a-if not the-critical component of the American experience. I do not think the censorship-favoring reader will be swayed by his concluding arguments for what they may consider “free speech absolutism”. As such, they also may find the preceding drama to be somewhat mundane; not a “crisis” so much as a bunch of old white guys arguing and less than a dozen of them going to jail. (I’ve long put off a blog post that will attempt to sway this camp and articulate why unconditional free speech is critical. This is not that post.)

For those who don’t fall into this latter camp, however, Liberty’s First Crisis is as immersive, fast-moving, and fascinating a history book as you’ll ever read about a subject you probably know very little about. While I love history and politics, many of these books can get caught up in minutiae seemingly there just to remind you how smart the author is. To me, Slack struck the perfect balance between providing enough detail to make this a substantive book while still making me want to turn the page.

While recent events at the University of Missouri and elsewhere provide it an interesting contemporary backdrop, this book will remain relevant as long as the concept of America as a beacon of freedom exists. Perhaps Slack’s work will remind readers how tenuous that concept really is.

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