Freedom of speech: it's something most Americans take for granted. Now a days, few of us fully appreciate that we can say whatever we like, about whatever we like, and not fear persecution. Fewer still realize that this was not always the case, that there was a time in America when it was a crime to insult the president.
In Liberty's First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech, author and historian Charles Slack tells the fascinating story of the Sedition Act of 1798. Passed during the Adams administration, this law made criticizing the government, the president, or any member of Congress, a crime punishable with heavy fines and/or prison time. In this book, Slack explores the times, political climate, and people that brought the law into (and later out of) existence; the meaning and significance of Freedom of Speech; and the people, then and now, who have fought, or are still fighting, for their right to it.
In 1798, when the Sedition Act was passed, the U.S. House, Senate, White House and Supreme Court were controlled by the Federalist party. Though it may sometimes seem as though the political party system is written into the Constitution, this is not so, and in 1798 the idea was not yet fully developed. The Federalists were the only unified party in existence at that time and many prominent politicians (such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) were members. The Federalists believed America should have a powerful standing army and a strong central government controlled primarily by America's wealthy; for, to quote Slack, “They had little faith in the intelligence or morals of average men. As such, they believed in liberty, yes, but liberty as guided by a natural aristocracy consisting of themselves.” Though this may seem an absurd definition of liberty today, we must remember: these people had nothing to go on. They had pretty much created the idea and were still trying it figure out what it meant.
Though most of the non-Federalist congressmen and senators shared many of the same viewpoints, they did not belong to an organized party and went by a variety of names including Republicans, Jeffersonians, Jeffersonian-Democrats, and Democratic-Republicans (for the purpose of the book Slack refers to them all as Republicans). In general, Republicans believed that the majority of power in America should go to the individual states and that a large federal army could too easily be misused by those in power to oppress the American people.
As the Republican politicians and newspapers became increasingly more critical of the Federalist leadership, many people began to believe they were trying to undermined the American government and envelope the fragile young nation in upheaval and rebellion. The Federalist leaders thought that if only they could silence these treacherous new upstarts, they could focus more on the important work of protecting America from the very real possibility of foreign invasion. Now was a time for patriotism, not inner turmoil! And so the Sedition Act was introduced to the U.S. Senate.
The first test of America's ideals had begun...
I loved Liberty's First Crisis. Slack's writing style is entertaining and not at all dense. The book taught me a lot about a relatively obscure but vastly important piece of American history. It made me think about power and corruption, human nature, and the responsibilities that come with freedom. Through it all, Slack does not portray either the Federalists or the Republicans as “the bad guys” or “the good guys”, but simply as people; people who ultimately had the same goal, despite their differing viewpoints: trying to make the American experiment work.
In the last chapter, Slack discusses the Bill of Rights, that “parchment barrier” that protects Americans from having their rights violated. He reminds us how important it is, but also that without the American people enforcing it, the Bill of Rights is just a piece of paper. It is an important barrier, but also a fragile one, in that it will never be any stronger or weaker than the people who stand behind it. We must all reinforce it with our words and actions if we wish it to endure for the future.
I highly recommend Liberty's First Crisis to anyone interested in history and politics, or just looking for a good read. It reminds us that even in America, freedom is not something we should take for granted. It tells us the crucial but mostly forgotten story of just a few of the many people who fought for the rights we enjoy today. It is the story of the newspaper editors, an obscure congressman, a traveling preacher, and others; who fought back against the Sedition Act and faced the consequences; the people who were, to use Slack's term, “the misfits who saved free speech.”