How We Got Here: Malignant Passions

Part Two in a series; Part One here

Matthew Lyon, Republican Congressman from Vermont, represented everything Federalists hated. He had been born in Ireland, a sure mark against him at a time when Federalist politicians attacked “hordes of wild Irishmen… com[ing] here with a view to disturb our tranquility.” He was ill-mannered and hot tempered, showing little regard for the aristocratic formalities of political office. He was a self-made man, having fought in the Revolution with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys, operated sawmills and other businesses in postwar Vermont, and published several anti-Federalist newspapers. In other words, a living rebuke to John Adams and his allies.

Lyon, for his part, enjoyed sparring with his enemies. Enduring one harangue from a colleague about his Irish ancestry, Lyon rejoiced that “I cannot say that I am descended from the bastards of Oliver Cromwell…or from the Puritans who punished their horses for breaking the sabbath, or from those who persecuted the Quakers, or or hanged the witches.” Lyon went further while arguing with Nathaniel Chipman, a Vermont Federalist who became the Congressman’s lifelong enemy. When Chipman dismissed Lyon as “an ignorant Irish puppy,” Lyon responded by violently pulling his hair with a comb. Only onlookers prevented Chipman from stabbing Lyon in response.

With that background, the events of January 30th, 1798 shouldn’t have shocked anyone. That day, Congress debated the impeachment of Senator William Blount of Tennessee, involved in a murky scheme known as the “Spanish Conspiracy,” proposing that American filibusters (including Blount’s protege, Andrew Jackson) and British troops join forces to invade Spanish Louisiana. It didn’t take long for the argument to grow personal, as Lyon clashed with Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold. According to some accounts, Lyon pointedly snubbed Griswold’s efforts at a good faith discussion; others claim that Griswold entered the chamber spoiling for a fight.

Matthew Lyon

Either way, their argument soon grew personal. Lyon accused Griswold of selling out his constituents, while Griswold called him a “scoundrel” and dredged up an incident from Lyon’s past: his checkered Revolutionary War service. Accused of cowardice for withdrawing troops from a crucial outpost during the Saratoga Campaign, he supposedly wore a wooden sword afterwards as punishment. The former charge was debatable (most felt Lyon’s superior, Arthur St. Clair, bore the real blame), the latter a slander spread by William Cobbett’s Porcupine Gazette. As their argument escalated, Griswold warned Lyon that “if you go into Connecticut, you had better wear your wooden sword.”

Lyon attempted to ignore the Federalist, seguing into a speech until Griswold repeated the slur. Lyon then broke off his oratory, marched over to Griswold and spat tobacco juice directly in his face. Within days, Speaker of the House Jonathan Dayton moved for Lyon’s expulsion for unbecoming behavior. Lyon made an elaborate apology to Dayton, while pointedly refusing to acknowledge Griswold; he escaped expulsion in a narrow, party-line vote. Still, the incident enraged Federalists, who complained that “the saliva of an Irishman should be left upon the face of an American.”

With their bad blood unsettled, the inevitable sequel came on February 15th, 1798. Griswold entered the chamber just as debate was about to begin. Spotting Lyon at his desk, Griswold walked over and struck him repeatedly on the head with a hickory cane. Lyon, though bleeding heavily, managed to tear himself away from Griswold and grabbed hot metal tongs from the room’s fire place. The two men continued tussling and striking each other until several horrified colleagues separated them. Now refusing to apologize, Lyon commented afterwards that “I did not come to here to have my ass kicked by everybody!”


Undignified though it was, the Lyon-Griswold contretemps wasn’t especially extreme in the explosive political climate of 1798. Benjamin Rush, the famed Philadelphia physician, predicted that America’s emerging party system would result in his countrymen “devouring each other like beasts of prey.” Backgrounded by an all-consuming foreign crisis, Rush’s fears soon became prophecy.

After months of uncertainty, President Adams received distressing news on March 4th, 1798. Three American envoys – Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall and Charles Pinckney – arrived in Paris the previous fall, hoping to negotiate with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. A Bishop-turned-diplomat possessing unparalleled intellect and enviable dexterity, he managed to survive France’s changes in government to conduct the nation’s foreign policy. Preoccupied with France’s colossal conflicts with Europe’s great powers, Talleyrand considered America “not of greater consequence…nor ought to be treated with greater respect than Geneva or Genoa.” His brief exile in the United States, apparently, taught him little about American sensibilities.

So Talleyrand pointedly snubbed the Americans, refusing to meet them during the first months in Paris. Then Talleyrand sent three intermediaries – listed as X, Y and Z in American accounts – to negotiate terms. “Z,” an exiled sugar tycoon named Lucien Hauteval, met the Americans on October 27th, 1797, the day Talleyrand concluded a peace treaty with Austria. “Gentlemen, you do not speak to the point,” Hauteval told the envoys. “It is money. It is expected that you will offer money.” In fact, a lot of money: an official loan of several million dollars, with a £50,000 “sweetener” for Talleyrand’s personal use.

Bribery, if not exactly admirable, was common practice in contemporary European diplomacy. (Talleyrand, an associate admitted, “loves money and…is determined, when he retires from public office, not to be forced on the public dole.”) But the Americans treated Talleyrand’s demand, along with his refusal to meet them, as a personal insult. Pinckney indignantly responded, “No, no – not a sixpence!” (which, through embellishment by American newspapers, transformed into the grander “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!”) Any hopes of rapprochement between America and France vanished; at home, the war scare escalated to a fever pitch.


Not entirely without cause. The French Navy initially harassed American and other neutral merchant vessels in the Caribbean, within the Anglo-French zone of conflict (and where France reluctantly tolerated Haiti’s independence, for the moment). Now, however, French warships openly prowled off the American coastline, waiting for merchantmen to leave port for attack. Between 1797 and 1798, an estimated 300 American ships fell pray to the French, making a peaceful settlement seem increasingly unlikely.

Confronted with this French intransigence, Republicans sought refuge in distraction. Thomas Jefferson refused to believe reports of Talleyrand’s demand, dismissing it as “a dish cooked up by Marshall, where the swindlers are made to appear as the French Government.” Congressman Albert Gallatin insisted that Secretary of State Timothy Pickering publish Franco-American correspondence in full, rather than the select passages officially released, a demand which backfired when the correspondence proved more damning than even the Federalists anticipated.

Congress soon authorized the Provisional Army Law in May 1798, authorizing the creation of twelve infantry regiments and six companies of dragoons, at an estimated strength of 10,000 men (these in addition to the 3,000 regular troops already under Anthony Wayne’s command in the Northwest Territory). While a far cry from Hamilton and Pickering’s original hopes for a 50,000-man army, it struck many Republicans as the nucleus for a much larger, more dangerous force to suppress domestic dissent. Appointing George Washington as its commander did little to alleviate criticism – not least when Washington insisted on making Hamilton his second-in-command.

Fisher Ames, the sickly but ferocious Massachusetts Federalist lionized for defending the Jay Treaty from a cot, commented that “a number [of Americans] who would flinch from a declaration of war would urge the enacting, one by one, of the effects of a state of war.” His solution, then was to “wage war, and call it self-defense.” Timothy Sedgwick was even blunter, arguing that the crisis “will afford a glorious opportunity to destroy faction.” Not only would Federalists exploit the crisis for future electoral gain, they would use it to smash Republicanism as a whole. Then, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “there will shortly be national unanimity as far as that idea can ever exist.”

Fisher Ames

Such sentiments reflected the widespread view, shared both by Federalists and Republicans, that a party system would destroy America’s “national unanimity” and render the country ungovernable. In that sense, Hamilton and Sedgwick’s utterances were more naive than authoritarian. Partisanship was already ingrained into American political culture, with the country divided along both broad governmental philosophies and specific policy matters. Now, it seemed, the Federalists believed that they could best save America by destroying democracy.

Naturally, foreigners became their first target. Everywhere Federalists saw conspiracy and ruin, impending invasion and constant menace, and French and Irish emigrants appeared the well-spring. Adams himself, during a proclaimed fast day in May 1798, felt threatened by a group of about forty Philadelphians wearing hats with French cockades, who gathered menacingly outside his office. Fearing assassination (he had already received several written death threats), the President called for assistance, enlisting his staff to summon militia and to collect firearms for his personal defense.

Neither proved necessary. A mob of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of patriotic Americans gathered, seemingly over their own volition, to defend the President. When the pro-French faction refused to disperse, the mob attacked them, pummeling them with fists, clubs and rocks and singing patriotic songs until they fled. Adams approvingly reported that “the citizens flew to arms, and the villains were dispersed.” But the President, and his allies, preferred that there were no longer any immigrants to loiter outside the President’s home.

John Adams

This, in June 1798, Congress passed four of the most repressive laws in American history. First came the Naturalization Act, passed on June 18th, which extended citizenship requirements for immigrants and aliens from five to fourteen years. A week later, Congress passed the Alien Act, which authorized the President “to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United Slates.” Then came the Alien Enemies Act, which extended the previous measure to wartime foes, presumably French. In a stroke, all foreigners became fair game for harassment, imprisonment and deportation.

John Daly Burk proved an easy target. A journalist and playwright of Irish descent, Burk fled England after trying to halt an execution, earning unwelcome “charges of deism and republicanism.” Reemerging in the United States, Burk gained some minor attention writing a patriotic play about Bunker Hill, and a less-successful depiction of Joan of Arc, which instantly marked him as suspect. He also published a Republican newspaper in New York, the Time-Piece, which criticized Adams as a “champion of the well-born” and attacked Federalist preparations for war.

Timothy Pickering posited that “if Burk be an alien, no man is a fitter object for the operation of the Alien Act.” When an informant claimed that Burk hoped that “every scoundrel in favor of this government would be put to the guillotine,” Pickering snapped into action, placing Burk under arrest in July 1798. Burk enlisted the assistance of Aaron Burr, who paid Burk’s bail and helped him escape into anonymity in Virginia, where he taught quietly at a college. Ironically, Burk died in a duel ten years later, slain by a Frenchman incensed with his attacks on Napoleon.

General Collot’s work

Nor did Frenchmen escape scrutiny, some with more reason than others. General George-Henri Victor Collot, the former Governor of Guadeloupe, had spent 1796 undertaking an intelligence-gathering mission in the Western United States, mapping the Western United States, contacting French settlers in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, and assessing the region’s political loyalties. He raged against “the formation, in the midst of a bloody war, of [American] ties of friendship and mutual advantage with our cruelest enemies,” and funneled his findings to Ambassador Pierre Adet in Washington.

Adams naturally viewed Collot’s continued presence in America with suspicion; branding him “a pernicious and malicious intriguer,” the President had Pickering block his emigration while authorizing Secretary of War James McHenry to investigate and track his movements. But McHenry’s agents couldn’t pin any charges on the wily Frenchman, who thereafter confined himself to land speculation in Pennsylvania. Collot remained in the United States until summer of 1800, when he returned to France unmolested.

Less explicable was Adams’ persecution of Médéric Louis Elie Moreau de St. Méry. A former member of Parliament who fled the Reign of Terror for Philadelphia, he ran a bookstore in Philadelphia who counted the President as a client. Neither outspoken nor particularly radical (aside from wearing a tricolor cockade), as the French exile community’s unofficial leader Moreau drew the ire of Federalists, who arranged for his prosecution under the Alien Act. Moreau, seeking an explanation, wrote the President a cordial letter asking why the government targeted him. “Nothing in particular,” Adams retorted, “but he’s too French.”

Moreau forestalled deportation by returning to Paris in August 1798, on a ship called the Benjamin Franklin. His voyage proved traumatic in its own right; the Franklin suffered an outbreak of yellow fever which killed several passengers and nearly claimed Moreau’s son. For much of their voyage, the ship was trailed by a British frigate, which only broke off their pursuit once they noticed the trail of diseased corpses floating in the Franklin‘s wake. After several months of harrowing journey, Moreau and his family reached France, never returning to the United States.

Moreau de St. Mery, too French

In fact, the Alien Act ultimately produced no actual prosecutions or deportations. Many aliens who wouldn’t flee abroad merely went into hiding, like Burk, or, worse in Adams and Pickering’s eyes, applied for citizenship, rendering them exempt from expulsion. Future laws, even more repressive in design, proved more successfully implemented.

On June 26th, Senator James Lloyd of Maryland introduced the Sedition Act, which proscribed naked oppression in the Republic’s defense. “If any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress,” the Bill authorized imprisonment.

The Bill’s most eloquent opponent was Albert Gallatin, a Republican Congressman representing western Pennsylvania. Gallatin insisted that the Bill, with its massive infringement upon free speech, proved “subversive of the principles of the Constitution itself.” Rather than a reasonable response to enemies foreign and domestic, he argued that “the true object of the law is to enable one party to oppress the other; that they mean to have the power to punish printers who may publish against them, whilst their opponents will remain alone, and without redress, exposed to the abuse of Ministerial print.”

Like Matthew Lyon, Gallatin seemed highly suspect. He, too, was of foreign birth; though a Swissman from Geneva, Gallatin’s Gallic surname and accent caused Federalists to label him “suspiciously French.” Elected to the Senate, his colleagues blocked his seating on the grounds of his foreign birth. During the Whiskey Rebellion several years earlier, he openly sympathized with the rebels, only to disavow them just as Washington led an army into Pennsylvania. With a such a history, and in such a tense climate, Gallatin’s actions were nothing short of heroic.

Albert Gallatin, photographed in 1848

But Gallatin’s gallant arguments fell on deaf ears. The Federalists passed the Act on July 5th, which went into effect with the President’s signature on July 14th. Federal James Bayard of Delaware insisted that the Sedition Act, modeled on English laws passed earlier that decade, was in fact more moderate than it appeared. “It was [only] the combination of wickedness and falsehood alone that was punished” under the Act, Bayard claimed. In practice, such fine distinctions proved moot.

In his post-presidential writings, John Adams maintained a cautious distance from the Acts. He blandly asserted that “there was need enough for both, and therefore I consented to them,” implicitly passing responsibility to Federalists in Congress. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson many years later, Adams proved more animated and defensive. “What think you of terrorism, Mr. Jefferson?” he thundered, excusing them as a logical response to the supposed “Jacobin” threat to America. It seems clear, then, that any reservations Adams developed came from the Acts’ unpopularity, rather than any remorse over their details.

Though, it must be said, few Federalists expressed any reservations, and most were positively enthusiastic. George Washington remarked that “all secret enemies to the peace and happiness of this country should be unmasked, for it is easier to meet two enemies in the open field…than one coward behind the scenes.” Alexander Hamilton agreed, praising the Act for “restraining and punishing incendiary and seditious practices.”  Most virulent was Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, the man actually charged with prosecuting sedition. Pickering soon distinguished himself as the Grand Inquisitor of Federalism, suppressing political opponents with ferocious relish.

Timothy Pickering

Most historians portray Pickering as merely a cat’s paw for Hamilton, a tool allowing the exiled Treasury Secretary to manipulate or counterbalance Adams’ policies. In fact, Pickering was a full-throated Federalist fanatic who excoriated Republicans (“a party of mad Americans ready to join [the French] at a moment’s notice”) in terms as fierce as publishers John Fenno or William Cobbett. Hailing from Salem, Massachusetts, it seemed appropriate that this crabbed, scheming Puritan emerged as Adams’ witch hunter, exceeding both the President and Hamilton in his reactionary zeal.

Once the Sedition Act became law, Matthew Lyon commented that it “very likely would be brought to bear on me the very first.” Never one to shy away from confrontation, Lyon practically dared Adams and Pickering to prosecute him. In July, shortly after the Sedition Act passed, he sent a letter to Spooner’s Vermont Journal, accusing the President of tyranny. He advocated that Congress should “send [Adams] to a mad house” for provoking France, saying that under the President’s Administration, “every consideration of the public welfare [was] swallowed up in a continuous grasp for power.”

Further incendiary missives by Lyon inspired William Paterson of the Supreme Court, with Pickering’s blessing, to convene a grand jury against the Congressman. On October 5th, Lyon was formally indicted under the Sedition Act, accused of trying “to bring the President and the government of the United States into contempt.” After a brief trial in which Lyon represented himself, the jury proclaimed Lyon guilty; Paterson sentenced the Congressman to four months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. The Albany Centinel implored that “this may be the case of every Jacobin.”

Judge Paterson
Judge Paterson

Lyon was imprisoned in Rutland, confined in a cell with “horse-thieves, money-makers [and] runaway negroes,” not to mention a public toilet which emitted “a stench about equal to the Philadelphia docks in the month of August.” Nonetheless, Lyon eagerly wrote letters to friends and supporters, earning support even from men who previously loathed him. Still the hated “Beast of Vermont” to his enemies, Lyon appeared to most a “Republican hero suffering unmerited punishment for having upheld freedom against his enemies.”

Once President Adams refused demands for Lyon’s pardon (“penitence must precede pardon”), his martyrdom became assured. Along with his reelection: he won in a nearly two-to-one landslide against his Federalist opponent. Several Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson, Albert Gallatin and others, paid off the Congressman’s fine, and in February 1799 he left prison to resume his congressional duties. Lyon still endured jibes in the Federalist press (he “looks remarkably well for a gentleman out of jail,” sneered the reliably venomous William Cobbett) and another attempt to expel him, but resumed his duties nonetheless.

Nonetheless, Lyon’s vindication seemed an aberration. Other Americans still equated Republicans with France, and dissent with treason. In a Fourth of July toast, one patriotic wag hoped that Adams would “slay thousands of Frenchmen with the jawbone of Jefferson!” Indeed, it seemed almost a matter of grace that the Vice President wasn’t targeted under the Acts, despite his vocal disapproval of Federalist actions.

Perhaps it was because, as the Lyon case demonstrated, the government would alienate moderate Americans by attacking political opponents. After Lyon, they rarely tried such a prosecution again. Instead, Federalists focused most of their wrath on that perennial target of insecure, oppressive governments: the press.

Lyon Newspaper

Part Three will discuss the repression of Republican newspaper editors, including Benjamin Franklin Bache, William Duane and James Callender.