Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Philadelphia Aurora: The more things change, they stay the same.

After reading about the case of Steven Howard's in the NYT -- the man who was arrested in Denver for mouthing off to Darth Cheney -- my thoughts strangely went immediately to the case of Luther Baldwin of Newark, New Jersey, who was arrested for making fun of president John Adams in the year of our Lord 1798.

This was the year Congress passed the Alien & Sedition Acts, which read in part:

Sec.2: And be if further enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish . . . 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 . . . or bring them or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them the hatred of the good people of the United States . . . or to impede the operation of any law of the United States . . . or to resist, oppose or defeat any such act or law or act. . . then such persons, having thereof convicted, before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by fine not exceeding two thousand dollars and by imprisonment not exceeding two years. . . "

Many anti-Adams partisans were arrested under this act including the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, William Duane, who was a constant thorn in the side of his highness John Adams.

[This is an excerpt from Richard N. Rosenfeld's excellent book American Aurora.]

The Philadelphia Aurora July 27, 1798:

Today as the President and Mrs. Adams pass through Newark, New Jersey, on their journey home, a local resident violate the Sedition Act. From reports:

"[T] he approach of the President of the United States was announced -- Great preparations were made for his reception by the true Federalists. . . the honorable exclusive friends of their country, with [black] cockades in their hats, paraded . . . The very 'respectable part of the young men,' (who had informed the President that they were surrounded by the enemies of the government who were endeavoring to blast the buds of their patriotism) . . . procured a piece cannon of the Company of Artillery, distinguished themselves in their livery consisting of a blue jacket, not forgetting the emblems of all emblems, the adorable [black] Cockade. . . and displayed flags from three conspicuous places in town.

[A] bout 11 o'clock A.M. the President's carriage was seen at the lower end of town. The discharge of cannon commenced, a general peal from the bells joined . . .when to the astonishment and mortification of the self-constituted federalists, the President pushed his horses into full speed, kept the curtains of his carriages down, and passed this assembled friends to good order in a second, without even deigning to drop a nod of approbation. . .

Luther Baldwin happening to be coming toward John Burner's dram [of liquor] shop, a person who was there says to Luther, 'there goes the President and they are firing at his a [ss]. Luther, a little merry, replies that he did not care if they fired through his a [ss]. Then exclaims the dram seller, 'this is sedition' -- a considerable collection gathered -- and the pretended federalists, being much disappointed that the president had not stopped that they might have the honor of kissing his hand, bent their malice on poor Luther, and the cry was that 'he must be punished. . . '

Luther Baldwin was punished. The U.S. Federal Circuit Court of New Jersey will find Luther Baldwin guilty, under the new federal Sedition Act, of 'seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States' and order him to pay a fine of $400; $250 for speaking those words and $150 for costs and expenses."

On the question of obeying laws that aren't Consitutional:

"Orator M u m takes this very orderly method of announcing that a T H I N K I N G C L U B will be established in a few days at the sign of the MUZZLE in Gag street. The first subject for cogitation will be "Ought a Free People to obey laws which violate the constitution they have sworn to support?"

The Constitution of the United States says that 'Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press' but Congress have passed a law abridging the freedom of the press and therefore the Constitution is infracted. Quere, of what efficacy is a law made in direct contravention of the Constitution?"

[Gosh, I wonder if anyone could get away with this sort of thing nowadays?]


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