Great thoughts: Mathew Lyon and freedom of speech

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(Host) On Mondays in January, VPR continues to explore the Great Thoughts of Vermont. Commentator Frank Bryan tell the story of Mathew Lyon and how he came to personify freedom of speech.

(Bryan) February 9 will be the 204th anniversary of a dramatic event in America’s struggle to create a Republic that would secure both the civil rights of individuals and (this is the tricky part) a democratically elected government. This was the day Vermont’s Jeffersonian Congressman, Mathew Lyon, was released from jail in Vergennes where he had been placed for violating the federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts.

A huge crowd, including many former Green Mountain Boys, was on hand to celebrate Lyon’s release. Present also was a United States senator who had traveled on horseback from Virginia across the ice over Lake Champlain with a $1,000 in gold raised by Virginians to pay Lyon’s fine. Lyon’s wife, Beulah, who had sold some of her husband’s property to pay the fine, politely refused the gift, citing family pride.

As he leaped into his sleigh to leave the prison yard, a federalist sheriff reached into his pocket for yet another warrant to re-arrest Lyon since he had continued to publicly criticize the government while in jail. This would have put Lyon (whom Vermonters had re-elected to Congress from his jail cell) right back into prison. But the enterprising Lyon whipped up the team, yelled to the sheriff, “I’m off to Congress” and took off. Indeed, since Congress was then in session and Lyon had been duly elected, the constitution’s guarantee of congressional immunity trumped the federalists’ warrant and Lyon was in the clear.

He had served four months of solitary winter confinement in a heatless, lightless, 16×12-foot cell because he had dared to criticize the government. No single act at this time did more to save our constitutional protection of freedom of speech. For this was a pivotal moment and Lyon’s imprisonment had made him a martyr throughout the country. The showdown between the forces of aristocracy and those of democracy in our young republic was upon us.

The presidential election of 1800 was so close it was decided by the U.S. Congress. There, Jefferson and democracy won by a single vote. Vermonter Mathew Lyon was there to cast it. More importantly, however, Lyon’s martyrdom, his courage and commitment had awakened Americans to the insidious nature of government-sponsored censorship.

Think about that as you go about your business on February 9 this year. Think about the smell of horses and the swish of sleighs over the snow. Think about Mathew Lyon yelling to the crowd in Vergennes, “I’m off to Congress.” Think about the children of the little town of Tinmouth, Vermont who stood outside their school house in the cold, cheering as he passed, waving signs that read, “This day rises superior to despotism.” Think about these things and smile.

This is Frank Bryan in Starksboro.

Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches political science at the University of Vermont. Learn more about VPR’s Great Thoughts of Vermont commentary series.

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