Free Speech Pioneers

Matthew Lyon was the first person to be fined and imprisoned under the Sedition Act of 1798, one of four federal laws passed that year known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. His crime: public criticism of President John Adams that was deemed seditious.

Lyon was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Vermont. His conviction in October 1798 came near the end of his first term. Vermonters overwhelmingly re-elected Lyon to a second term, and to this day he remains the only person elected to Congress from jail.

Anthony Haswell was a printer in Bennington, Vermont, and publisher of the Vermont Gazette newspaper. His publications in his newspaper in support of Lyon incurred the wrath of federal authorities, and Haswell was also arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned, and fined under the Sedition Act. When his prison term ended, a crowd of 2,000 people gathered in Bennington to celebrate his release.

This post is about three pioneers of free speech: Anthony Haswell, Matthew Lyon, and Ethan Allen. Ethan Allen?? Yes, read on.

Ethan Allen was the Vermont hero who captured Fort Ticonderoga in the early days of the American Revolution, as I mentioned in my previous post about Bennington Battle Day. He was also a free speech pioneer, but his target was different from Lyon and Haswell – who attacked politicians and government officials. Allen attacked the clergy.

All three men knew each other. Above I mentioned Haswell and Lyon working together in the late 1790s. Both men knew Ethan Allen in earlier years. (Allen died in 1789 at age 51.)

Lyon met Allen in Litchfield, Connecticut, where they both lived in the 1760s. They became friends, and Lyon married Allen’s niece. Both men moved to Vermont in the 1770s.

Haswell moved to Vermont from Massachusetts in 1783 and subsequently published Allen’s 500-page book attacking the clergy:

In 1785, [Haswell] published Ethan Allen’s religious ponderings, “Reason, the Only Oracle of Man: Or a Compendious System of Natural Religion.” The book’s deist viewpoint, which strayed from Christian doctrine, scandalized many people, so by publishing it Haswell gained his share of notoriety.

Haswell must have been sympathetic to Allen’s anti-Christian ideas at the time he agreed to publish the book, but he apparently changed his perspective later. In 1854 a printer in Boston named Josiah P. Mendum published a condensed 170-page version of Reason, the Only Oracle of Man. This version of Allen’s book was re-published in 2012 by Forgotten Books and is available on Amazon. I have a copy. The following comments in Mendum’s introduction are interesting:

Soon after the close of the revolution, Col. Allen composed the following work; which, on account of the bold and unusual manner, particularly in this country, that the subject of religion is treated, he had great difficulty to get published. It lay a long time in the hands of a printer in Hartford, who had not the moral courage to print it.

It was finally printed by a Mr. Haswell, of Bennington, Vt. in 1784. Not long after its publication, a part of the edition, comprising the entire of several signatures, was accidentally consumed by fire. Whether Mr. H. deemed this fire a judgment upon him for having printed the work or not, is unknown—but, the fact, is, he soon after committed the remainder of the edition to the flames, and joined the Methodist Connection; so that but few copies were circulated.

People are complicated.

Allen suffered only scorn and financial loss for his book, but he demonstrated that even heretical ideas could be published. Lyon and Haswell were imprisoned and fined, and the public reaction to their punishments helped banish the Sedition Act of 1798.

Today we struggle with how to deal with people who espouse ideas that some may find offensive. It is not a new problem. It is inherent in free speech. Ethan Allen, Matthew Lyon, and Anthony Haswell were all deeply offensive to some. Indeed, it would be hard to find three people in any age more disputatious than these men. But whatever one thinks about the quality of their ideas or the offensiveness of their speech, they were pioneers of free speech.

Matthew Lyon is still remembered today for his free speech legacy. Anthony Haswell has been largely forgotten. I myself was not familiar with him until I read a recent column in VTDigger by Vermont historian Mark Bushnell (link below). Ethan Allen is remembered, but more for his actions than his ideas. We Vermonters should know the contributions that these three men with connections to our state made to our American heritage of free speech.

For more information, see Mark Bushnell’s excellent “Then Again” columns in VTDigger: Anthony Haswell, Matthew Lyon, and Ethan Allen. I am indebted to those columns for some of the material in this post, including the quote that begins “In 1785…” This post, however, is my own free speech, and Mark may not agree with everything I have written.

The image at the top of this post is Norman Rockwell’s famous painting “Freedom of Speech” on the cover of Frank Byran’s book Real Democracy. For background about the book and the painting see this earlier post. Rockwell witnessed an incident at a Vermont town meeting that inspired the painting. What is noteworthy about that incident is that few in the room agreed with the man speaking, yet he was allowed to speak freely and all listened respectfully. Real democracy requires free speech.

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