Anthony Haswell and Freedom of the Press
Text of a talk Oct. 8, 2003
Sponsored by the Vermont Council on the Humanities
by Tyler Resch, Librarian, Bennington Museum
Anthony Haswell was a Bennington printer and
publisher who was arrested, charged, tried, convicted, fined, and
jailed by the United States government in 1799 and 1800 for publishing
criticism of the government. Actually, it was a 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 right here in southwestern
Haswell had violated a law passed by Congress 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 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 the Democratic-Republicans). But the very existence of laws of
this nature, passed by an act of Congress - enforcing the concept 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 could have been enforced, it
would have prevented the formation of political parties and thus
severely changed the character and energy of the new American nation. A
curtain of orthodoxy would have smothered our republic and snuffed out
the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment says,
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
amendment 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
have fought and died to uphold. But it has been subject to challenge
and dilution repeatedly over the course of our history.
Fortunately, the First Amendment survived the test
of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which 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 grades for his role
in this episode, which will be addressed later.
John Adams' vice president was a figure of the
opposite political party, the great Thomas Jefferson who, after he was
elected in 1800, pardoned the editors who had been convicted, and the
law was allowed to expire.
Let's start with some
biography of Haswell himself. Much is known about him, but also much is
not known and has been lost.
Haswell fully deserves a biography. There has been
only one published, and that was written in 1925 by John Spargo,
founder of the Bennington Museum, who assembled as much material as he
could locate. Spargo's work is excellent in many respects and he dug up
some valuable research, but you need to filter out a great many of
Spargo's gratuitous adjectives and attitudes.
Spargo noted factually and regretfully:
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
and 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 his
numerous writings in prose and verse, with a formal biography, Spargo
explains. But a disastrous fire in 1804 had destroyed a great many of
those papers. Haswell tried to make up for some of those losses by
dictating memoirs to his daughters. That material was gathered up by
another son, Nathan Baldwin Haswell, who seems to have then scattered
it despite his best efforts. 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. And finally, what material remained, in the
hands of another granddaughter, vanished in the famous San Francisco
earthquake of 1906.
The fates did not treat well the memoirs of Anthony Haswell. Yet his memory endures.
Therefore, what we can
piece together of the life of Anthony Haswell 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 Stewart Pretender to the
English crown at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, and later escaped to a
ship and ended up at Portsmouth.
In 1768, when Anthony was twelve, the father brought
him and his brother William, age fourteen, across the Atlantic and
settled in Boston, where the boys were to be apprenticed until they
were 21. The elder William returned to England, expecting to come back
to America with his family as soon as arrangements could be made. But
war was declared with France and men were not allowed to leave England.
Before the war ended, William Haswell had died.
In Boston, Anthony was apprenticed to a potter,
where he was evidently influenced by talk of the 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 his songs and was helpful in releasing Anthony
from his indenture to the potter and instead apprenticed him to Isaiah
Thomas, publisher of the Worcester Spy. Now, Anthony was under the
tutelage of one of the strongest patriots in the colonies and he helped
print a highly influential newspaper that upheld the cause of American
freedom and independence.
Indeed, Haswell became a printer-publisher for life,
and was imbued with the strong principles that a few years later would
make the new nation great.
While still an apprentice on Dec. 16, 1773, he
joined the Boston lads 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 three patriots were killed and others wounded. When the
Revolutionary War came, Haswell joined up and helped dig the redoubt on
Dorchester Heights during the siege 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 but the details have been
While still in the American army in 1779 he married
Lydia Baldwin, daughter of his employer. After the war he responded to
a published request from the legislature of the new Republic of
Vermont, which was looking for "a printer, to print the laws."
This new would-be state, west of the Connecticut
River and east of the Hudson needed a printer because Vermont 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. To bring us from the computer age down to the rustic
realities of 1783, we must remember that there was no electricity, no
radio or television, no power of any kind except that provided by
muscle. It was a society carved out of the wilderness that depended
entirely on the horse or navigable waters for all forms of
communication as well as transportation.
Haswell arrived in the de facto capital of Vermont,
Bennington, 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 society's
communications network. It might be well to recall that besides being
de facto capital of Vermont - Montpelier was not named the capital
until 1808 - Bennington was the principal settlement. The other towns
one thinks of today as larger, Rutland and Burlington, awaited the
railroads (and in the case of Burlington, shipping) to develop into
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 fulfilled. His own choice of goals deserves our
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. (It was also promising
that it would heed "the productions of the ingenious on every subject."
I wish that were true of more of today's journalism.)
That first edition happened to contain a most
gruesome account of the death in a sawmill accident of Captain Elijah
Galusha of Arlington. 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 . . ."
Though he had a state-granted monopoly on government
printing, and his position as postmaster placed him at the center of
communications, Haswell still had a difficult time making ends meet
financially, and he was in and out of debt repeatedly.
On June 25, 1792, he launched what might be called 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, on December 8, 1794,
two cousins, both Federalists, both named Samuel Williams, launched a
weekly newspaper called The Rutland Herald
that has continued unceasingly from that day to this. (The Herald moved
from weekly to daily during the Civil War to meet the demands of news
from the war between the states.)
A few words about Haswell's newspaper, the Vermont Gazette, which began publication in Bennington in June of 1783. I found a vivid description of the Gazette in a textbook titled Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties,
by James Morton Smith, published in the 1950s, one of several scholarly
books on the subject. The author writes, "The leading
Democratic-Republican newspaper in Vermont at the end of the eighteenth
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 Œimmortal Jefferson,' Haswell
was a vigorous critic of President John Adams, his principles, and the
policies of his administration."
In the Bennington Museum's library we have
(virtually) the full set of the Vermont Gazette on microfilm and the
ability to print out particular articles or pages. These newspapers are
a bit difficult for us to read because of the custom of the 18th
century to use the English s, which looks life an f. So for example the
word "assistance" seems to come across with visual lisps as affiftance.
There is a subtle difference between the s and the f, but it takes some
adjustment to get beyond this image handicap. The English s was
abandoned in the first decade of the 19th century.
Newspapers of that time also placed mostly
international or national news on the front page and downplayed state
and local articles. You have to take on a mindset that in the absence
of radio or television or national newspapers, people were extremely
interested in what was happening in the bigger world out there, and it
was sort of assumed that in small communities everyone knew what was
going on locally. Some of the most important local news was found in
the ads - in terms of what shipments of shoes or pottery or textiles or
spices had arrived in town. An important item in the newspaper was a
list of persons who had letters waiting for them at the post office.
(These lists are important for genealogists, who find proof that
certain persons were indeed in the town on a certain date.) Deaths were
recorded simply with a name, date, and town, and no other details.
offense is interrelated to that of Matthew Lyon, another
anti-Federalist printer and a member of Congress, who was prosecuted
and jailed for publishing criticism of President Adams in his newspaper
in Fair Haven, Vermont. 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 jail where he
was held in Vergennes.
During debate in Congress, Lyon chose to use the
press rather than the floor of the House, to argue against the Sedition
Act. When the Rutland Herald refused to publish his letters he began
his own newspaper in Fair Haven, called The Scourge of Aristocracy.
In this journal and elsewhere, Lyon sought to expose the
unconstitutionality of the Sedition Act; and after the act was passed
he continued to consider it unlawful and he continued to criticize and
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 fundamentally lacking in fairness. One of two
presiding judges, Samuel Hitchcock, has been Lyon's principal opponent
in a runoff election for Congress 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
summoned by the infamous marshal Jabez Fitch, who was able to select
political opponents of Lyon. And when Lyon sought to challenge these
jurors he was overruled.
After a trial marked
by acrimony and political persecution, Lyon was ordered to serve four
months in jail and pay a fine of $1,000. He was taken to a notorious
cold and smelly prison cell in Vergennes where he continued to be
taunted by 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 silencing
Lyon, prison made a national martyr out of him. He waged a re-election
campaign from his jail cell and won. (Many great details about all this
are found in Aleine Austin's biography of Lyon, though you need to be
aware of her confusion of the two Samuel Williamses.)
When Lyon was
released triumphantly from prison in February 1799, he stopped at
Bennington, where Haswell gave him a lengthy welcoming speech and
condemned his imprisonment as the "unprecedented and cruel prosecution
of our federal representative." (Most of the text of Haswell's
exuberant speech is found in Spargo's biography.)
offense - his sedition, so to speak -- 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 Matthew Lyon from prison on
Vergennes. It began:
Haswell's seizure and
incarceration should also be told in his own words. He took his time
telling the full story, but 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":
"To the Enemies of POLITICAL
PERSECUTION in the Western District of Vermont: Your Representative is
holden by the oppressive hand of usurped power, in a loathsome prison,
deprived almost of 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 the defender
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. . . ."
"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:
hereby commanded to arrest Anthony Haswell, of Bennington, Printer, 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.'
"Exclusive of the
introduction and date, this I think was the whole warrant. It excited
my surprise and detestation about equal to my feelings on contemplating
a French Lettre de Catchet,* which I had often heard of but never had
seen in operation before. I asked but could get no information of the
nature of the charge against me, or whether it was requisite to procure
council, have a friend go with me, or to take a change of raiment. All
was still, as the midnight police officers of the French Bastile, the
secret messengers of the Spanish Inquisition, or the Mutes of the
Turkish bow-string for strangling. . . ."
* A Lettre de Cachet is an order to imprison a person without trial under the king's seal.
Haswell went on to
describe how, on horseback through cold rain and mud, they reached
Wallingford at 11 p.m. and he said he was sick and too exhausted to
continue on to Rutland. But his keepers persuaded him to go on because
they would have more comfortable accommodations in Rutland, which they
reached about 1 a.m. This took place a week after he had married his
second wife, Betsy Rice, and at a time when his 14-year-old son was
seriously ill and faced amputation of a leg. His first wife, Lydia, had
died earlier in the year, leaving him with eight children; he kept the
older boys in his household but had to farm out several daughters with
After being released on bond, Haswell 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 two
months in prison. His trial was about as fair as the one provided to
Matthew Lyon, and every word and phrase in his alleged libel was parsed
and castigated before a jury of carefully selected Federalists.
Haswell was initially jailed in Rutland, but his
lawyer, Israel Smith, later a governor of Vermont, successfully
interceded with marshal Jabez Fitch - they were both officers in the
statewide Masonic Lodge - and Haswell was allowed to be transferred to
the little jail in Bennington, then located next to today's Walloomsac
Inn. The two-month sentence at least took place in warm summer months.
Here Haswell was able to receive visitors, who brought him home-cooked
meals; he was not allowed to attend the funeral 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,
and 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
celebration and held a wild celebration attended by some two thousand
Haswell's ordeal has
been memorialized by a granite plaque located at the site of his
printing plant, which happens to be a few feet east of where the
Bennington Battle Monument was located nearly a century after Haswell
labored there. This plaque was presented in 1941 as the first of a
series commemorating Freedom of the Press by the national honorary
journalism fraternity, Sigma Delta Chi (of which I was at one time a
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
constitutional principles seems to have cropped 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 post office to ban from
the mails certain abolitionist literature they thought would incite
slaves to rebellion. Senator Daniel Webster and our own Hiland Hall,
Congressman from North Bennington, helped to defeat that bill. But then
after Civil War broke out in 1861 the post office on its own initiative
barred from the mails certain allegedly disloyal Northern newspapers;
and in 1864 military authorities suppressed other papers for a time.
The nation has a long
history of overreaching to deal with supposed or dangerous aliens and
allegedly seditious verbiage. Some of those included the Palmer Raids
against anarchists during World War I; the rounding up and
incarceration of persons of Japanese descent during World War II; the
time (well within my memory) of fear of Communists and fellow travelers
in our midst during the reign of the House Un-American Activities
Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in the early 1950s.
It is almost too obvious to point out that today, in
the earliest years of the 21st century, we have newly serious
challenges to the Constitution with Patriot Acts I and II and the
Homeland Security Act: once again, all prompted by the fear of enemies
in our midst. We now call them by a different label: terrorists.
So the Haswell story can be seen as the first
chapter of 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 clever
bureaucrats who devise legal and extra-legal ways to subvert the intent
of the First Amendment.
Some context of the time in which the Alien and
Sedition Acts were formulated can be found in a couple of recent books:
one is titled America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800,
by Bernard A. Weisberger; and the other is David McCullough's massive
biography of John Adams, the second president of the U.S.
McCullough's biography describes America in 1798 in
a fever pitch over the possibility of war with France -- which
fortunately did not happen. In the halls of Congress, things became so
partisan and out of control that at one point early in 1798 Federalist
Congressman Roger Griswold of Connecticut and Anti-Federalist Matthew
Lyon of Vermont resorted to physical combat. Griswold insulted Lyon,
who strode across the floor of the House and spat in Griswold's face.
Griswold retaliated by striking Lyon with his cane, prompting Lyon to
pick up a set of fireplace tongs and the two tussled on the floor until
separated by other members.
The summer of 1798
was dominated by rampant fear that the French were enemies from within.
The French were everywhere. There were French newspapers in
Philadelphia, French schools, French booksellers, French restaurants.
The Federalist majority adopted some extreme measures: the Alien Act
granted the president the legal right to deport any foreigner he
considered "dangerous." Adams never invoked the law despite the urging
of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, who favored massive
Even George Washington, according to McCullough -
and this was the year before Washington's death - privately expressed
the view that some publications were long overdue for punishment for
their lies and unprovoked attacks on national leaders.
Vice President Thomas Jefferson, of course, took the
opposite view and thought that the Alien Act was "something worthy of
the 9th century." Not wishing to be present for the inevitable passage
of these acts, Jefferson quietly packed up and went home to Monticello.
Author David McCullough contends that President
Adams neither asked for nor encouraged the Alien and Sedition Acts, but
neither did he oppose them. His signature on these laws, wrote
McCullough, was "to be rightly judged by history as the most
reprehensible act(s) of his presidency."
x x x
A footnote to the
episode of the jailing of Federalist editors 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 Thomas Jefferson
Another footnote is that Haswell's lawyer, Israel
Smith, was one of Vermont's first two representatives in Congress in
1791; he was out of office for a couple of terms, then came back to
take Matthew 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 Congress but died before he
could take the seat in Washington.
Copyright © 2003 by Tyler Resch
- The freedom of speech, to discuss and debate
On the deeds of our servants who govern the State,
We'll never resign to sticklers for power,
Though courtiers and sycophants frown and look sour.
---From a broadside by Anthony Haswell upon the release from prison of
Congressman Matthew Lyon, Vermont, Feb. 12, 1799.
Come take a glass and drink his health,
Who is a friend to Lyon,
First martyr under Federal law
The junto dared to try on.
--- Haswell, an inveterate rhymester, also on the occasion of Matthew Lyon's release from jail in February 1799.
Books and documents to exhibit:
Spargo biography of Haswell
Aleine Austin biography of Lyon
David McCullough biography of John Adams
Bernard Weisberger on America Afire: Adams v. Jefferson
Haswell's seditious article
Haswell's 1813 account of being seized by federal agents
Federal indictment: United States v. Anthony Haswell
Vermont Gazette's publication of Matthew Lyon's letter from jail in Vergennes
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