Saturday, April 04, 2015

A Review of Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech,

Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech, by Charles Slack. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015, 34o pp, $26.00.

a review by Edd Doerr

Freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition, like religious freedom  and church-state  separation, were/are intended to be protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution. However, in 1798, less than a decade after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the Federalist controlled Congress and President John Adams enacted the Sedition Act, which was immediately used to prosecute/persecute the slightest printed or spoken utterance that annoyed the Federalist establishment. Even a sitting member of Congress, gutsy Mathew Lyon of Vermont,  was subjected to a sort of Star Chamber trial and sent to prison while running for re-election, which he won big while behind bars. Public reaction to these alarming clampdowns on freedom of speech and press led to the crushing of the Federalists and John Adams in the 1800 elections and the rise of Jefferson and the “Republicans” ( or Democratic Republicans, not to be confused with today’s Republicans).

The whole story is beautifully laid out  in Charles Slack’s terrific new book, a “five star” opus that you just can’t put down.

Slack’s final chapter fast-forwards to an overview of today’s situation, both in the US and internationally. Even in the most advanced modern democracies freedom of expression is being burdened with a newly concocted “right not to be offended” that threatens the prior right. Slack concludes that the US stands virtually alone with its “Parchment Barrier” to safeguard the right to free expression, just short of “yelling Fire! in a crowded theater”. He sums up: “The Bill of Rights’ first great accomplishment was to formally declare rights off-limits to government meddling.” But, the author warns, there are still those in our country, some liberals as well as conservatives, who would tighten down on freedom of expression.  It’s too bad that our federal and state highest courts have of late shown inadequate devotion to the religious liberty portion of the First Amendment, but that is beyond the scope of this book.
Posted by Gary Berg-Cross

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