Matthew Lyon

’s Unfair Prosecution Essay, Research Paper

Freedom of the Press: Matthew Lyon?s Unfair Prosecution

Freedom is a right guaranteed to us by the Constitution. Matthew Lyon was unfairly

prosecuted under the Sedition Act and should have been allowed to publish his

opinions. The First Amendment guarantees the rights to freedom of speech and the

press. Both of these rights of Matthew Lyon were infringed upon when he was

prosecuted under the Sedition Act. It has long been thought that criticism is an

important part of democracy (Ingelhart). Criticism is necessary and Matthew Lyon did

it which helped democracy. The sedition act was politically motivated. All it was

meant to do was to suppress the Republicans (Boorstin 167). Matthew Lyon should

have been permitted to publish his opinions about the government and its leaders for

the following reasons: the First Amendment guarantees him this right, criticism is a

necessary part of democracy, and the Sedition Act was politically motivated.

Matthew Lyon is guaranteed the right to say what he wishes by the first amendment.

The First Amendment says that ?Congress shall make no law? abridging the freedom

of speech, or the press? (Const.). This means that the Sedition Act was illegal as it

said that anyone ?publishing false, scandalous, or malicious writings against the

President, Congress, or the government of the United States? would be subject to many

legal ramifications (qtd. in Boorstin 167). Matthew Lyon thus should have been

protected and not punished for his writings against Adams, no matter what the

circumstances were. As James Madison said:

The Sedition Act was unconstitutional. ? The First Amendment was intended to

supersede the common-law on speech and press. Freedom guaranteed by the amendment

was absolute as far as the federal government was concerned because it could not be

abridged by any United States Authority (qtd. in Ingelhart).

This quote reveals Madison?s views on the Sedition Act. He clearly thought that it was

unconstitutional and violated the First Amendment. Both Jefferson and Madison

thought that the act was a ?clear violation of the second amendment? (qtd. in James

Madison). This led to the writing of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (James

Madison; Boorstin 169). I think it means a great deal that two of the founding fathers

denied the constitutionality of the act and sought to challenge it. Matthew Lyon should

have been permitted to publish his opinions because what he was doing was

completely legal under the ultimate law, the Constitution. The act also severely limited

the freedom of the press (Boorstin 169). Thomas Jefferson said long before the sedition

acts that ?Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited

without being lost? (qtd. in Ingelhart). This quote was written in 1786, long before the

Sedition Act was enacted. It shows that Jefferson was a firm believer in the freedom of

the press which was infringed upon by the Sedition Act. Matthew Lyon was only

exercising these rights when he wrote his letter in the Vermont Gazette. Clearly, the

Sedition Act should have been repealed on the basis that it was unconstitutional and

Matthew Lyon thus should not have been imprisoned.

Criticism is needed to form new ideas and get rid of outdated or infective ones.

Matthew Lyon?s criticism should thus have been acceptable. Criticism is an essential

part of democracy. As Calvin Coolidge said in 1925, ?It is the ferment of ideas, the

clash of disagreeing judgments, the privilege of the individual to develop his own

thought and shape his own character which makes progress possible? (qtd. in.

Ingelhart). Without criticism, the same antiquated ideas will prevail forever. The

?ferment of ideas? is something needed to allow democracy to grow and work. It has

been argued that the circumstances surrounding the time may have justified the Sedition

Act (Boorstin 167; James Madison; Peterson 43). However, according to London B.

Johnson, ?Opinion and protest are the life breath of democracy – even when it blows

heavy? (emphasis added) (qtd. in Ingelhart). I think that this quote is especially fitting

and it clearly speaks that Lyon?s writings should be allowed, no matter what events

were taking place in the country. Also, the Sedition Act did a bad job of defining what

sedition was (Ritchie 12). Benjamin Franklin Bache, thought ?to laugh at the cut of a

coat of a member of Congress will soon be treason? (qtd. in Ritchie 12). The act left

the courts to decide what was sedition and what was not (Boorstin 168). The idea that

criticism is a key part of democracy is another of the reasons why Matthew Lyon?s

opinions should have been allowed to be published.

The third and final reason that Matthew Lyon should have been able to publish his

writings is that the Sedition Act was politically motivated. The Federalists took

advantage of the situation with France to push the laws past Congress. The idea of the

acts was to stop the numbers of new immigrants who voted Republican. It also tried to

stop the Republican press(Boorstin 167). Matthew Lyon was thus a victim of ?partisan

politics? and should have not been prosecuted for his opinions. Of the twenty-five

people that were prosecuted under the act, all were Republicans (Peterson 43). This

proves that the acts were obviously against the Republicans and thus against Matthew

Lyon who was a Republican. Many Republicans thought that the point of the Sedition

Act was to destroy them under the guise of protecting the public (Peterson 43). The

Alien Acts, which were passed along with the Sedition Act, were also against the

Republican editors, many of whom were born overseas (Ritchie 12). Matthew Lyon

came under attack because he was a Republican, not because of his seditious opinions.

The Sedition Act was a politically motivated attack on the Republicans by the

Federalists and was an unfair persecution of Matthew Lyon.

Matthew Lyon?s rights were infringed upon in many ways when he was prosecuted

under the Sedition Act. He should have been allowed to say whatever he wanted to say.

I think that the fact that an act such as the Sedition Act could be passed speaks against

the idea that the Constitution is the ultimate protector of our rights. If the Congress is

allowed to pass laws which defy the document on which our country was based, what

do we have left?

Works Cited

Boorstin, Daniel J. and Brooks Mather Kelly. A History of The United States.

Nedham, MA: Hall, 1992.

Ingelhart, Louis E. Ed. Famous quotes on the First Amendment. Online. Internet.

18 Dec. 1996. Available:

James Madison on the Sedition Acts: Context. Online. Internet. 18 Dec. 1996.


Peterson, Merril D. ?Alien and Sedition Acts.? Encyclopedia of the American

Constitution. New York: Macmillan 1986.

Ritchie, Donald A. The Young Oxford to the Companion to the C


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