Anthony Haswell is jailed!
Anthony Haswell was an English-born American patriot, a Bennington postmaster, printer, and newspaper publisher who was arrested, charged, tried, convicted, fined, and jailed by the United States government in 1799 and 1800 for publishing criticism of his own government.
Actually, it was a slightly lesser offense than that. Haswell was arrested, charged, tried, convicted, fined, and jailed merely for publishing support of another editor who had been jailed for criticizing the president.
It was one of the lowest points in civil liberties in the history of this nation. It happened here in southwestern Vermont.
Haswell had violated a law passed by Congress and signed by President John Adams in 1798 called the Sedition Act. It was one element of a four-part law known generally, and infamously, as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The Alien Act gave the president authority to expel any persons he considered “dangerous,” although John Adams never invoked it. The Enemy Alien Act authorized the president to detain, deport, or otherwise restrict the liberties of citizens of countries with which the U.S. was at war.
The Sedition Act provided for fines and imprisonment for any “false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government, Congress, or the President,” or any attempt “to excite against them . . . the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition.”
But the real and obvious intent was to stifle the anti-Federalist or so-called Republican press.
Those laws were allowed to expire a couple of years later, after the government changed hands for the first time in its brief history – from John Adams and the Federalists to Thomas Jefferson and the so-called Republicans (also called, confusingly to us today, the Democratic-Republicans). But the very existence of laws of this nature, passed by an act of Congress – enforcing the notion that a citizen of the United States could be arrested and jailed because of what was said or written – became the first great test of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
If the Sedition Act had been enforced, or could have been enforced, it would have prevented the formation of political parties and thus dramatically changed the character and energy of the new American nation. A curtain of orthodoxy would have smothered the republic and snuffed out the Bill of Rights, which form the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
Here is the text of the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
So this great statement contains not only the guarantees of free speech and of the press, but also the vitally important separation of church and state, as well as the right of assembly, and of petitioning the government. It is the rock-solid core of basic American principles that many thousands, over the course of many wars, have fought and died to uphold. But the First Amendment also has been subject to challenge and dilution repeatedly over the course of our history. The most recent challenge was the Patriot Act, rushed into law after the 9/11 attacks by a Congress that didn't even bother to read it. But that's another story.
Fortunately, the First Amendment survived the test of the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws provoked among the citizenry considerable resentment that contributed to the defeat of the Federalists in the 1800 election. President John Adams, the Federalist who succeeded George Washington, does not get high marks for his role in this episode, which will be mentioned later.
The early stipulation that the vice president was the losing candidate was changed quickly after it became apparent that factions, or political parties, were going to exist and must be dealt with. So John Adams's vice president was Thomas Jefferson who, after he was elected to the presidency in 1800, pardoned the editors who had been convicted, and the law was allowed to expire.
About Anthony Haswell himself, much biography is known, but also much is also known to have been lost. Haswell does deserve a full biography, and there has been only one published, that by John Spargo, founder of the Bennington Museum. Spargo wrote a thick and elaborate leather-bound book, which contains reprints from pages of the Vermont Gazette and several of the books and other papers that came from Haswell's press, as well as numerous poems and ballads Haswell wrote. Spargo's work is good in many respects, and he churned up some useful research, but you need to filter out a great many of Spargo's gratuitous adjectives and attitudes. His writing tended heavily to involve defending his heroes and assailing adversaries, along with a habit of making assumptions and accepting stories of dubious authenticity.
Here's what Spargo noted, regretfully, about Haswell: “A strange fatality seems to have attended all efforts to write the biography of Anthony Haswell, who was, taken all in all, one of the most interesting figures among the notably able and interesting men in an around Bennington in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, whose wisdom and courage established the state of Vermont.”
After Haswell died in 1816, his sons announced their intent to collect and publish a formal biography, including his abundant writings in prose and verse, Spargo explains. But a disastrous fire in 1804 had destroyed a great many of those papers. Haswell tried to make up for those losses by dictating memoirs to his daughters. Another son, Nathan Baldwin Haswell, seems to have scattered this material. Then a granddaughter devoted many years to culling together what was left, but all of that was destroyed by a fire in San Diego. Still another collection of family papers and copies was lost in another accident. Finally, what material remained, in the hands of another granddaughter, vanished in the famous San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906.
The fates did not treat well the memoirs of Anthony Haswell. Yet his memory endures, as well it should.
What we can piece together of Haswell's life begins with his origins in Portsmouth, England, where he was born on April 6, 1756. His father, William, a Scot, had fought on the side of the Stuart Pretender to the English crown at the battle of Culloden in 1745. William escaped on a ship and ended up at Portsmouth.
In 1768, when Anthony was 12, his widowed father brought him and his brother, William, age 14, across the Atlantic and they settled in Boston, where the boys were to be apprenticed until they were 21. The father returned to England, expecting to remarry and come back to America with his family. But war was declared with France and men were not allowed to leave England. Before the war had ended, William Haswell was dead.
In Boston Anthony was apprenticed to a potter, where he was evidently influenced by talk of British injustices to the American colonies. He joined the Sons of Freedom, and using his gift for verse wrote some songs to support the cause. Benjamin Franklin reportedly heard some of these songs and was helpful in releasing Anthony from his indenture to the potter, and apprenticed him instead to Isaiah Thomas, publisher of the Worcester Spy. Thus Anthony came under the tutelage of one of the strongest patriots in the colonies, who helped to print a highly influential newspaper that upheld the cause of American freedom and independence. Haswell edited this journal for about six months in 1778 while Isaiah Thomas was away.
Indeed, Haswell had found his calling, and he also seemed imbued with the strong principles which, a few years later, would become the foundation of the new nation, a nation founded on ideas.
This next paragraph, quoting loosely from Spargo's account, has not been verified: “While still an apprentice, Haswell joined the Boston men on Dec. 16, 1773, who donned blankets, war paint, and feathers, and threw boxes of tea into the harbor to protest the hated English tea tax. Earlier, he had witnessed the so-called Boston Massacre in 1771, where jumpy British soldiers killed three patriots and wounded several others. When the Revolutionary War began, Haswell joined up and helped dig the redoubt on Dorchester Heights during the seige of Boston. He marched with a company from Springfield, Mass., and fought in the Battle of White Plains. He took part in the decisive fight at Monmouth, N.J. There is no doubt much more in his military record.”
In trying to document Haswell's Revolutionary War activities, I found that Spargo had resorted to second- and third-hand recollections of descendants. The fact is that there appears to be no confirming documentation that Haswell ever really served in the military. The only place where Haswell is so listed is in the DAR Patriot Index, which gives the names of his first and second wives, and then the abbreviation: SOL, meaning “soldier, no details known.” Haswell is not listed in the massive 17-volume Mass. Soldiers and Sailors, nor in the website Footnote.com., which offers abundant details on Revolutionary veterans. The authority on Revolutionary participants who had Vermont connections, Fishers' “Soldiers, Sailors & Patriots of the American Revolution, Vermont,” only credits Haswell with patriotic, not military, service.
To proceed with the rest of Haswell's life. In 1779, while the war was still on, he married Lydia Baldwin, daughter of an employer. Just before the war ended, Haswell responded to a published report from the legislature of the new independent republic of Vermont, which was looking for “a printer, to print the laws.”
At that time the place newly called Vermont, west of the Connecticut River and east of the Hudson, north of Massachusetts, south of Canada, aspired to join the Union of the thirteen American colonies. Vermont needed a printer because it had resorted to using tradesmen in New Hampshire and Connecticut who possessed the metal type and printing equipment with which to press words onto paper. It is helpful to remember the rustic realities of 1783: there was no electricity, no radio or television, no power of any kind except that provided by muscle or waterwheel. It was a society carved out of the wilderness that depended entirely on the horse or navigable waters for all forms of communication and transportation.
Haswell answered the ad for a printer and arrived in Bennington, the de facto capital of Vermont, a town where the legislature met more often than in other towns. In 1784 the legislature established several post offices, and Governor Thomas Chittenden appointed Haswell the first postmaster. So as both printer and postmaster he was at the very center of this primitive society's communications network. Bennington, besides being where the Legislature met, was Vermont's principal settlement because the other towns we think of as larger, Rutland and Burlington, awaited the development of railroads or shipping to develop into Vermont's dominant municipalities. Montpelier did not become the capital until 1808.
Haswell's first edition of the newspaper he called the Vermont Gazette made its appearance on Thursday, June 5, 1783. On its front page was a prominent notice “To the Public” that promised three important principles would be fulfulled. His own choice of goals was wordy but compelling:
First, wrote Haswell: “The paper to be published regularly on such day as shall be found most likely to answer the principal end of publications of this nature, viz, the speedy conveyance of the most important intelligence.”
Second, “The freedom of the press to be inviolably preserved, and the productions of the ingenious, on every subject, at all times gratefully received and duly tended to.”
And third, “The price to subscribers in the town of Bennington, and its vicinity, to the distance of twenty miles, will be ten shillings per year . . . The papers will be assorted by post riders to towns more remote, at a price proportionately reasonable.”
So that sounded like a really good deal. A free press, published regularly, and at a fair price. I especially like the promise of “the productions of the ingenious on every subject.” Wish that were true of more journalism today.
That first edition of the Gazette happened to contain a gruesome account of the death in a sawmill accident of Captain Elijah Galusha of Arlington (related to Jonas Galusha of Shaftsbury, Vermont's third governor). The article went into detail about how “some obstruction,” under the water gate, prevented his shutting the gate down so as to stop the saw.” When Captain Galusha tried to remove a log it kicked back in such a way that “The larynx, or upper part of the trachea arteria, or windpipe, was thereby lacerated, as also one of the jugular veins . . . “
It was unusual for newspapers of this era to include such a local story on the front page. The editor's usual assumptions were that readers were extremely interested in international news, and that in small towns everyone knew what was going on locally. Some of the important local news was found in the ads – in terms of what shipments of shoes or pottery or textiles had arrived in town. An important column was the list of persons who had letters waiting for them at the post office. Deaths were usually recorded simply with a name, date, and town of residence, with no other details.
Haswell had a difficult time making it financially. Though he had a state-granted monopoly on government printing, and his position as postmaster placed him at the center of communications, he was in and out of debt repeatedly.
On June 25, 1792, Haswell launched a satellite operation and started a newspaper in Rutland called “The Herald of Rutland – or Rutland Courier.” But after only twelve weekly editions the print shop burned along with all his equipment. It was never clear whether the cause was arson but that was the suggestion left to history. Ironically, today's Rutland Herald claims no link to Haswell's newspaper there because two years later, in 1794, two cousins, both named Samuel Williams, launched a weekly paper called the Rutland Herald, which has continued without interruption from that day to this. It went from weekly to daily publication during the Civil War to meet demands of news from the war between the states.
Haswell and the Williams cousins came from opposite ends of the political spectrum at a time when factions, or party politics, were becoming a major phenomenon in the new America. Haswell was a Jeffersonian Republican and the Williamses were ardent Federalists.
Haswell's Vermont Gazette, which began in June 1783, has earned a nice reputation. A vivid description of it is found in “Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties” by James Morton Smith, published in the 1950s, one of several books on the subject. The author writes, “The leading Democratic-Republican newspaper in Vermont at the end of the 18th century was Anthony Haswell's Vermont Gazette in Bennington. One of the few Jeffersonian journals in Federalist New England, it stood out like a fire in the Green Mountains on a dark night. Long an ardent supporter of the 'immortal Jefferson,' Haswell was a vigorous critic of President John Adams, his principles, and the policies of his administration.”
At the Bennington Museum's library the Gazette is readable on microfilm, and particular articles or pages can be printed.
Haswell's jailable offense was interrelated with that of Matthew Lyon, another anti-Federalist printer, who was one of Vermont's two members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Lyon was prosecuted and jailed for publishing criticism of President Adams in his newspaper in Fair Haven, The Scourge of Aristocracy. What Haswell did was to publish, on several occasions in early 1799, a defense of Lyon, and to promote a lottery designed to raise the $1,100 needed to free Lyon from the cold, smelly jail where he was held in Vergennes.
Lyon, clearly a bombastic fellow, chose to use his press rather than debate in the halls of Congress, to argue against the Sedition Act. After the Rutland Herald refused to publish his letters, Lyon started his own paper. In this journal and elsewhere he sought to expose the unconstitutionality of the Sedition Act. After the act was passed into law he continue to consider it unlawful and to argue for free speech.
As a result, Congressman Matthew Lyon was the first to stand trial under the Sedition Act. He was convicted and jailed in a judicial process that was ludicrously lacking in fairness. One of two presiding judges, Samuel Hitchcock, had been Lyon's principal opponent in a runoff election in 1796. The prosecuting attorney was Charles Marsh, a close friend and associate of attorney Nathaniel Chipman, a Federalist and leading critic of Lyon. The jurors were summonsed by the infamous marshal Jabez Fitch, who was able to select political opponents of Lyon. And when Lyon sought to challenge those jurors he was overruled. A kangaroo court if there ever was one!
After a trial marked by political persecution and acrimony, Lyon was ordered to serve four months in jail and to pay a $1,000 fine. He was taken to a notoriously unpleasant prison cell in Vergennes where he continued to be taunted by marshal Jabez Fitch and was denied heat and a window that would close. (Lyon wrote that the cell afforded “a stench about equal to the Philadelphia docks in the month of August.”) But instead of being silenced, he became a national martyr and waged a campaign for re-election in 1798 from his jail cell and won.
When Lyon was released triumphantly from prison in February 1799 he came to Bennington, where Haswell gave him a lengthy welcoming speech and condemned his imprisonment as “the unprecedented and crual prosecution of our federal representative.” (The full text of Haswell's euphoric speech is found in Spargo's biography.)
Haswell's seditious offense was to publish, on three or four occasions, in early 1799, a description of the lottery that was proposed to raise the $1,100 needed to release Lyon. The precise words that constituted sedition in early America were these:
“To the Enemies of POLITICAL PERSECUTION in the Western District of Vermont: Your Representative is holdenby the opporessive hand of usurped power, in a loathsome prison, deprived of almost the light of heaven, and suffering all the indignities which can be heaped on him by a hard-hearted savage, who has to the disgrace of federalism, been elevated to a station, where he can satiate his barbarity on the misery of his victims; but in spite of Fitch, and all the rest, and to their sorrow – time will pass away, the ninth of February will arrive, and will bring liberty to defedneer of our rights? NO, without exertions, it will not. Eleven hundred dollars must be paid for his ransom. This money it is impossible for Col. Lyon, to raise in an ordinary way . . .”
Haswell's seizure and incarceration was eventually described in his own words, though he took his time telling the story. He did so in the Gazette published March 31, 1813, some fifteen years later, as he warned his readers “to beware of those men calling themselves the Peace Party”:
“It was a rainy chilly morning, the 8th of October 1799, when two deputy marshals came to my house, and arrested me by order of government. Being unwell I requested a sight of the warrant, that I might appear by an agent if admissible; the officer told me I must go personally and produced a warrant as near as I can recollect about as follows:
“'You are hereby commanded to arrest Anthony Haswell, of Bennington, Priniter, and cause him forthwith to appear before our circuit court of the United States, now sitting in Rutland. Of this fail not at your peril.'”
Haswell went on to say that he could get no information as to the charges against him, whether he could get a lawyer or even a friend to go with him. Without even being allowed to change his clothes he was taken on horseback through cold rain and mud, arriving at Wallingford at 11 p.m. He said he was too sick and exhausted to continue to Rutland. But his keepers persuaded him to go on because they would have better accommodations at Rutland.
This took place a week after he had married his second wife, Betsy Rice, and when his 14-year-old son was seriously ill and faced amputation of a leg. Haswell's first wife, Lydia, had died earlier in the year, leaving him with eight children; he kept the older boys in his household but sent some daughters to live with relatives.
After being released on bond, he was indicted before the U.S. Circuit Court and in 1800 after a trial at Windsor was sentenced by Judge Patterson to pay a fine of $200 and costs, plus a two months in jail. His trial was about as fair as the one provided to Matthew Lyon, and every word and phrase in his alleged seditious libel was parsed and spun and castigated before a jury of carefully selected political opponents.
Haswell was first jailed at Rutland. But at least he had an influential lawyer, Israel Smith, who was a congressman and would later be elected governor. Smith intervened successfully with the notorious Jabez Fitch – they were both officers in the statewide Masonic Lodge – and Haswell was allowed to be transferred to a little jail in Bennington, then located next to today's Walloomsac Inn. The two-month sentence at least took place in warm summer months, and Haswell was able to receive visitors, who brought him home-cooked meals. He was not allowed to attend the funereal of his sickly twelve-year-old daughter, Mary, who had been adopted by relatives in Orwell, but he was allowed to continue writing for his Vermont Gazette. He became quite a celebrity.
Upon release from jail, at 10 o'clock on the morning of July 9, the town of Bennington had postponed its Fourth of July festivity and held a wild celebration attended by some 2,000 people.
Haswell's ordeal has been immortalized by a granite plaque located at the site of his printing press, which happens to be a few feet east of where the Bennington Battle Monument was located 100 years after Haswell first labored there. This plaque was presented in 1941 as the first of a series commemorating American Freedom of the Press by the national honorary journalism fraternity, Sigma Delta Chi.
The Alien and Sedition Acts may have been the first test of the First Amendment but they would not be the last. The list of challenges to these constititional principles seems to crop up every time citizens perceive enemies in their midst. The next serious attempt at government censorship took place in 1836 when John C. Calhoun and other slave-state senators proposed to empower the U.S. Post Office to ban from the mails certain abolitionist literature they thought would incite slaves to rebellion. Senator Daniel Webster and Vermont's own Congressman Hiland Hall of North Bennington helped to defeat that bill. But then after the Civil War broke out in 1861 the post office on its own initiative barred from the mails certain disloyal Northern newspapers; and in 1864 military authorities suppressed certain newspapers for a time.
The nation has a long history of overreaching to deal with supposed or dangerous aliens and allegedly seditious verbiage. There was a time in the early 1950s when the fear of Communists and “fellow travelers” caused a kind of reign of terror, suspicion, and accusation by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In more recent times, the attacks of September 11, 2001, produced the Patriot Act, quickly passed by a Congress that didn't have time to read the details. Similar to the Sedition Act of 1798, it provided for the deportation of persons deemed enemies of the state, potentially targeted individuals who checked out suspicious books from a library, and forbid the librarians to talk about it to anyone.
So the Haswell story can be seen as the first chapter in a continuing saga of this nation's wrestling with the dichotomy of some very enlightened and venerable civil liberties versus recurring conservative curtailments of those liberties. There always seem to be in our midst some duplicitous politicians and crafty bureaucrats who devise legal and extra-legal ways to subvert the intent of the First Amendment.
Some context of the times in which the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 is found in several books. One is David McCullough's biography of John Adams. McCullough describes the summer of 1798 as dominated by rampant fear that the French were enemies from within, and there was a kind of fever going around of expectation that war was coming with France. The French were everywhere. There were French newspapers in Philadelphia, French schools, French booksellers, French restaurants and French bread. So the Federalist majority in Congress adopted some extreme measures. President Adams never invoked the Alien Act to deport foreigners but his secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, favored massive deportations.
Even George Washington, according to McCullough – and this was the year before Washington's death – privately expressed the view that some publications were overdue for punishment because of their lies and unprovoked attacks on political leaders. Vice President Jefferson took the opposite view and thought that the Alien Act was “something worthy of the ninth century.” He saw the suspicious times as “a reign of witches.” Not wanting to be present for the inevitable passage of the Alien and Sedition laws, Jefferson quietly packed up and went home to Monticello.
McCullough contends that President Adams neither asked for nor encouraged the Alien and Sedition Acts, but to his discredit he did not oppose them. His signatnre on these laws, wrote McCullough, was “to be rightly judged by history as the most reprehensible act[s] of his presidency.”
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A footnote is that the election of 1800 was so close that it went into the House of Representatives, where once again it was incredibly close. On the final roll call, the states were called alphabetically and Congressman Matthew Lyon from Vermont was able to cast the deciding vote that elected Jefferson president.
Another footnote is that Haswell's lawyer, Israel Smith, was one of Vermont's first two representatives to Congress at statehood in 1791; he was out of office for a couple of terms, then came back to take Lyon's seat. Smith was elected governor in 1807, when there were one-year terms.
Still another footnote is that Lyon left Vermont and re-settled in Kentucky, where he was elected to the state legislature and then was elected back in the U.S. House. After that he went to Arkansas, where he was again elected to Congres but died before he could take his seat in Washington.
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Suggestions for further reading:
Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, by Geoffrey R. Stone, published in 2004 by Norton.
America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800, by Bernard A. Weisberger, published in 2000 by HarperCollins.
Matthew Lyon: “New Man of the Democratic Revolution, 1749-1822, by Aleine Austin, published in 1981 by Pennsylvania State University Press.
-- Tyler Resch