The 1st amendment has been debated in this country before the ink was dry on the Bill of Rights. Whether the issue is civility or national security, there have always been those who would shackle unpopular speech and ideas.
During the administration of John Adams, there arose a voice of dissent by no less a personage than Ben Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Benny inherited his grandfather’s press, and his outspoken defense of freedom. He started a newspaper known as The Philadelphia Aurora , which championed the cause of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The following articles and letters were part of the national conversation in 1798.
THE AURORA (July 17) – “Persons pretending to the upmost liberality, professing the most unbounded toleration, and perpetually blubbering out praises on liberty, justice and the rights of private opinion, are yet hourly supporting persecution for opinion’s sake….Dr. Franklin, in his celebrated examination, briefly told the English parliment that men’s opinions are not to be conquered. ”
Today, US marshalls arrest William Durrell, Republican editor of The Mount Pleasant Register in upstate New York for criticizing the President of the United States. After posting $4000 bail, Durrell is released pending trial. Today’s edition of the Register is the last that will ever appear.
THE AURORA (July 18) – Newburgh, New York…A liberty pole is erected in this town with the following inscription thereon: LIBERTY 1776 JUSTICE – THE CONSTITUTION INVIOLATE – NO SEDITION ACT!
“The ensuing trials for libels will determine whether the press is to be the palladium and centinel of liberty or the mere vehicle of madrigals, rebus’ [pictures] and lampoons on the people…”
THE GAZETTE OF THE UNITED STATES (a federalist paper) on August 16… “It is an undoubted truth that some of the jacobin (Republican) papers under the direction of as GREAT LIARS as ever escaped the hands of justice…Since the passage of the Sedition Law, the scum, filth and foam of the Aurora cauldron has flowed more than ever.”
THE AURORA (August 28) – “The encrease of circulation of this paper has been beyond the editor’s most sanguine expectations; and since persecution has assumed against him a “form and Pressure,” it has been rapid beyond parallel. ”
THE GAZETTE – “Who are the characters that are intended to be stigmatized by [the Republicans} as old Tories? They are Adams, Washington, and Jay…”
THE AURORA (August 30) – “It behooves every republican who values the liberties of his country, his own security and that of his family to secure arms …for the tenets preached up by the wretches who follow in the train of our administration are calculated to convert the people into two classes, Indians and mutes.”
(Bache’s sedition trial is more than a month away. Others have offered to pay any fine. Tonight, in the Gazzette…)
“It appears that all the honor of persecution for violating the Sedition Act will not accumulate on Citizen Bache. Some of the printers who have incurred the penalty of the law are to be indemnified from a purse raised among the faction.”
(On September 10th, one month before he is to stand trial and face imprisonment for criticizing the President, Benny Bache dies of malignant yellow fever at the age of twenty-nine. )
On Thursday, October 11, Vice President Thomas Jefferson writes U.S. Senator Thomson Mason… “The Alien and Sedition Acts are merely an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the constitution. If this goes down, we shall immediately see attempted another act of Congress, declaring that the President shall continue in office during life, reserving for another occasion the transfer of the succession to his heirs.”
“Benjamin Bache…in his Aurora…became of course one of the most malicious Libellers of me. But the yellow fever arrested him in his detestable career and sent him to his grandfather from whom he inherited a dirty, envious, jealous and revengefull Speight against me for no other cause under heaven than because I was too honest a man to favour or connive at his selfish schemes and Averice.” – John Adams, President of the United States.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.