The Sedition Act: Anthony Haswell

In part 7 of my series on the Sedition Act, I chronicle the challenges faced by Anthony Haswell...

Anthony Haswell

Anthony Haswell was the postmaster general of Vermont and editor of the Vermont Gazette, a Democratic-Republican journal in the heart of Federalist New England. A vigorous critic of John Adams, Haswell opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, publishing a subtle piece of criticism in the Aug. 18, 1798, Gazette in which the Sedition Act was printed directly below the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution, contrasting the personal liberty guarantees of two documents. Three weeks later, Haswell reported that Federalist sympathizers threatened him with prosecution under the Sedition Act, with tarring and feathering, and even with having his house pulled down. After Congressman Matthew Lyon’s arrest and indictment under the Sedition Act, Haswell viewed Lyon’s trial as an attack on American liberty and democratic principles, condemning it as a “persecution” rather than a prosecution.

Haswell became Lyon’s most ardent supporter, writing editorials in the Gazette in support of Lyon and condemning his Federalist accusers. When Lyon was sentenced and fined for violating the Sedition Act, Haswell opened the Gazette to advertisements signed by Lyon’s friends urging the purchase of tickets in a lottery to raise money for his “ransom.” In the same issue, Haswell reprinted a paragraph from the Philadelphia Aurora, attacking the Adams administration for its dismissal of officeholders for their political principles and accusing Adams of appointing British sympathizers to public office. When Lyon was released from jail, Haswell headed the welcoming committee for Lyon and made a speech congratulating the congressman upon his escape “from the fangs of merciless power.”

On Oct. 8, 1799, Haswell was arrested by two deputy marshals on a writ containing no specifics of the charge against him. The writ merely directed that he be brought before the Circuit Court of the United States “then and there to answer unto an indictment pending in said Court which was presented against him by the Grand Jurors.” When he appeared before Associate justice William Cushing of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 9, 1799, Haswell learned that he was charged with a “false malicious wicked and seditious libel” against the government of the United States. The first count was based on the assertions in the lottery advertisement and the second on the paragraph about Adams appointing Tories to office. Although Haswell willingly admitted publishing the items, he pleaded not guilty to the charge of sedition. His trial took place in April 1800, the delay allowing the prosecution to call Secretary of War James McHenry and General William Darke of the Virginia militia to testify to rebut the Tory charge. A jury found Haswell guilty, sentenced him to two months in jail and fined him $200. When Haswell completed his sentence and emerged from his jail cell, he received a hero’s welcome. A band struck up “Yankee Doodle,” cannons roared, and a crowd of nearly 2,000 cheered.



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