Attacking Congressman Jailed
for Violating Alien and Sedition Act:
“the in-famous Lyon... we are in an age of excentricity”
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Boudinot discredits Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon, the first politician to be jailed for criticizing the president under the terms of the Sedition Act of 1798. “I am sorry that your state have so disgraced themselves by sending again as their Representative the in-famous Lyon – but, we are in an age of excentricity! May we weather the storm!” To the chagrin of John Adams and the Federalists, Lyons was re-elected while in jail. ELISHA BOUDINOT.
Autograph Letter Signed, to Governor Isaac Tichenor. “New Ark,”
N.J. February 12, 1799. 1 p. With integral address leaf (half missing).
New Ark 12th feb 1799
Mr. Chipman sent me the one hundred dollars you forwarded by him – as I propose to begin raising a house this spring, if it is in my power to raise the means – I shall esteem it as a particular favor if you will remit me the balance, either by the post or some private opportunity, as whether I get a house or not will in some measure depend on it and I have been so driven about from place to place that I long for a resting spot
I am sorry that your state have so disgraced themselves by sending again as their Representative the in-famous Lyon – but, we are in an age of excentricity! May we weather the storm!
Will you please to make my best respects acceptable to Mrs. Tichenor.
I am Dr Sir
Your most obd sert
[address leaf:] [Ti]chenor Esqr / Bennington [Vermont]
[docket:] Letter 12 Feby 1799 / Mr Boudinots Ret / for $1200 by Jno Chipm[an]
Under the Sedition Act of 1798, passed amid mobilization for war with France, the United States began to restrict basic American freedoms. It was now a crime to utter or publish “any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame ... or to bring them into contempt or disrepute.” The Alien and Sedition Acts are seen by most historians as an overreaching attempt by High Federalists to criminalize dissent during a war scare.
The first person to be convicted under its provisions was Matthew Lyon, a sitting U.S. Congressman from Vermont. Lyon, an Irish émigré and aggressively opportunistic self-made man, was uncouth in manners. Lyon was friendly with the deist Ethan Allen, and supported the French Revolution and advocated the creation of Democratic Societies, radical groups which had drawn the ire of President Washington in 1793. In Congress in 1797, during a nasty debate with Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold, Lyon spit in Griswold’s face. Griswold beat Lyon with a hickory cane in a subsequent encounter.
In October, 1798, Lyon was brought to trial for publishing and criticizing a letter from Joel Barlow, written in Europe, in which Barlow analyzed the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and France and counseled mobilization for war. He also savaged President Adams regularly in his paper. Lyon was fined $1,000 and imprisoned for four months. To the dismay of Federalists such as Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, the most ardent advocate of sedition prosecutions, Lyon became a hero. He was reelected to Congress by a wider margin and he used a new publication, The Scourge of Aristocracy, to resume his attacks on John Adams and on Federalist elitism. The Lyon episode shows how far Federalists were willing to go to preserve the post-revolutionary world. Their fear and scorn of democracy caused them to become increasingly unpopular. The party never recovered after Thomas Jefferson’s victory in the election of 1800.
Isaac Tichenor (1754-1838) was a lawyer and Federalist politician from Bennington, Vermont. He served as his state’s agent to the Continental Congress lobbying for official statehood, which was achieved in 1791. He served as assemblyman, chief justice and governor (1797-1807, 1808-1809), and was elected to the U.S. Senate twice, serving from 1796-1797, and 1815-1821.
Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (New York, 1993), pp. 699-711.