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‘Liberty’s First Crisis’ Is a Reminder of the Fragility of Freedom of Speech

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Deadly attacks on cartoonists who had the temerity to portray Mohammed in unflattering terms are only the most recent and visible manifestations. Across the globe, from the dominions of tyrannical dictators to the effete offices of some of America’s finest universities, officialdom is attempting to squelch voices that dare to disagree.  

As Americans, we view our First Amendment right to free speech — to write and say what we like without interference from the government — as a first principle. Without freedom to speak, there is no freedom.  

But within a handful of years after adoption of the First Amendment, that right came under withering attack from the highest levels of government. Amid worries about war with Great Britain, the growing excesses of the French Revolution and doubts about the whole idea of republican government, Americans who questioned their leaders’ policies were arrested, tried and jailed for doing so.  

In the end, right prevailed. But it was, as the Duke of Wellington called Waterloo, a near-run thing. In “Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech,” Charles Slack recounts the closeness of the contest in a rousing testimonial to the virtues of freedom.  

Slack, the biographer of inventor Charles Goodyear and of female robber baron Hetty Green, here focuses his story not on the great — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton — but on a more rambunctious, less well-heeled set that includes slightly unsavory journalists such as Benjamin Franklin Bache and James T. Callender and firebrand Vermont Rep. Matthew Lyon.  

That approach has produced a rollicking story of politics, journalism and what it means to be a free people.  

The clear villain is Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. Paranoid, self-righteous and vain, Pickering “made his way through life with a sense of moral superiority unmitigated by wit, irony or the slightest awareness of his personal shortcomings.”  

Pickering bears the brunt of Slack’s wrath in prosecuting seditionists.  

But President John Adams also comes in for a dose of deserved criticism, although Slack delivers it more in sorrow than in anger. “For another politician, signing the Sedition Act might have amounted to a political mistake,” writes Slack. “Adams’ signature on this legislation rises to the level of tragedy because it represents a stark, personal betrayal of his deepest held beliefs, one of those moments when a great man under pressure contradicts his soul.”  

And for the hapless Federalists, he has sympathy. “In a sense, they simply had the misfortune to be the first party in power,” he writes. “And, as such, they responded to criticism the way the powerful had throughout history — by vilifying it and doing everything in their power to stamp it out.”  

The story abounds with the sorts of ironic details that tend to cast America history in a sort of mythical mist. The Senate passed its version of the bill on, of all days, July 4. Adams signed it in to law on July 14, 1798, the ninth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.  

One crucial date was not a coincidence — in modern parlance, a feature, not a bug. The law included a sunset date: March 3, 1801. So, just in case the Federalists were run out of power in the 1800 election — and they were, resoundingly — Jefferson and his ilk would not be able to use it against them.  

One result of the Jeffersonian victory was electoral disaster for the Federalists and more than two decades of virtually unchallenged supremacy. Another was a legacy of state’s rights, born of Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution (James Madison’s Virginia version was less strident), which — despite Madison’s and Slack’s arguments to the contrary, helped lay the intellectual foundation for nullification and secession.  

Had the states not stood up and challenged the Sedition Act, however, the nation that would tear itself apart 60 years hence might well have come apart in the 1790s.  

It didn’t. For that happy outcome, we owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to those who understood that freedom comes with the responsibility to bear up under criticism, including speech that many find offensive. We’re in the midst of relearning that lesson today. We can only hope we learn it as well, and in time.  

John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.” The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.