About the only good to come from the horrific attack on the French satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January is that it got everybody talking about free speech. That event, combined with the more recent shooting at a free speech event in Copenhagen, have awakened the world to the threat to liberty posed by individuals willing to use violence to silence those who offend them.
Unfortunately, governments are often tempted to respond to such events by clamping down on voices that they deem to be offensive or dangerous. The French, for example, have demonstrated their concern for the victims of Charlie Hebdo by arresting those who write or speak words seeming to support or favor acts of terror. And in so doing they have contradicted everything that the writers and editors of that newspaper stood and stand for.
Among the French arrests, one in particular stood out to me—that of a drunken driver who, when arrested, said he supported the terrorists and hoped the French police would be next. He was sentenced to four years in jail. The case reminded me of a similar incident that took place in the early days of the United States, and became a part of the first great crisis in America over free speech.
Late one morning in July 1798, the town of Newark, New Jersey, was buzzing in anticipation of the carriage transporting President John Adams and First Lady Abigail from the capitol in Philadelphia to Massachusetts for the summer. As the carriage passed, supporters let loose an artillery salute. Not everyone in the crowd was an Adams admirer, and one onlooker suggested that the cannon was aimed at the president’s rear end. Luther Baldwin, a 46-year-old local waterman who had spent the morning drinking and was, according to newspaper accounts, feeling “a little merry,” remarked that he didn’t care if the cannon fired through the president’s rear end. A tavern owner named John Burnet, a loyal Adams supporter, overheard Luther’s wisecrack and cried, “That is Sedition.”
Just days earlier, the United States government had passed the Sedition Act, a repressive measure that dictated fines of up to $2,000 and jail sentences of up to two years for anyone convicted of criticizing government officials.
Though the Sedition Act clearly contradicted the unambiguous wording of the First Amendment prohibiting Congress from abridging freedom of speech and of the press, the Federalist majority (like the French government today) believed they had uniquely urgent and necessary reasons for clamping down on speech that was dangerous to the republic. The Sedition Act, Federalists claimed, would do nothing to harm liberty—would, if anything, enhance liberty by clearing away the detritus of deranged, fringe thinkers distracting people’s attention, and enable the right kind of freedom—freedom for reasonable people—to flourish.
Yet the events that followed the passage of the bill showed how quickly laws of this kind reach their fingers into the population. Luther Baldwin’s drunken comment marked the beginning of a two-year ordeal in which he would be hounded by an ambitious young prosecutor who described poor Luther in his indictment of having “maliciously, diabolically, seditiously, wickedly and scandalously” defamed the president, and having posed a direct threat to “the peace of the United States government and dignity of the same.”
In the end, Luther Baldwin pleaded guilty and got off relatively lightly, with a fine of $150. Others did not fare so well. David Brown, a wandering misanthrope who traveled around Massachusetts giving antigovernment talks in people’s homes, spent more than two years moldering in a dank Boston prison for the crime of erecting a “liberty pole”—a sign along a main thoroughfare in the town of Dedham, expressing his displeasure over Federalist rule. Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin and publisher of the notoriously anti-administration newspaper The Aurora, would die of yellow fever while manning his press in disease-ridden Philadelphia, preparing to defend himself against charges of sedition.
As the roundups, rigged trials, and jailing of Sedition Act defendants proceeded, Americans slowly awoke to the dangers to their own freedoms, not from the words of misanthropes, opposition journalists, or drunken fools—but from a government seeking to enforce standards of acceptable speech. Something about the sight of fellow Americans being locked up for using rights that had been declared unalienable struck the populace as wrong.
In the end, the Sedition Act did as much damage to the Federalists as it did to their political opponents—perhaps more. Their leader, John Adams, lost the presidential election of 1800 to Republican Thomas Jefferson—whom the Federalists had pointedly exempted from protection under the Sedition Act. In the same election cycle, Federalists lost control of both houses of Congress and, despite their years of dominance, would never win another major national election.
Jefferson, in his inaugural address, struck an emphatic note for the importance of free expression, including voices we find most repugnant or dangerous. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Instead of seeking political revenge against his Federalist opponents, Jefferson famously declared, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” In other words,“Je suis Charlie.”
The lesson that first American generation learned (and one we’ve had to relearn every generation or so ever since) is that freedom can’t flourish when a government uses its coercive powers to shut down objectionable voices. That’s when the government, not the radicals, becomes the threat to freedom. A country that can absorb offensive, contrary, and even dangerous opinions is one that is sure of its values, confidant, strong, and unafraid.
Charles Slack is author of Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech.