The Case of the Drunk’s Joke

Say what you will about Luther Baldwin, but the garbage scow captain had a way with words. At least, he did on a July day in 1798 when he sat in a Newark tavern as President John Adams and his wife Abigail passed by. It was about what you’d expect, a course, drunken, jest among friends. Except the tavern owner took exception and several patrons agreed. So it was that Luther Baldwin was brought up on charges of seditious words and disrespectful comments, convicted, fined $150 (well over $3,000 in modern currency), and thrown in jail until he could cough it up.

When a drunk’s joke can be taken as sedition, you know something else is going on, and it was. Politics in the 1790s was as contentious as it is now, with the added complication in 1796 of Federalist John Adams being elected president, and his opponent, Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson, being elected vice-president. Think of a Democrat elected president and the runner-up, a Republican serving as vice-president, and you have a good idea of what happened in 1796. This state of affairs is why we have the 12th Amendment. Adams and Jefferson had radically different views of the federal government and its powers. Federalists took the view that what wasn’t explicitly forbidden by the US Constitution was permitted, while the Democrat-Republicans held that what wasn’t explicitly permitted was forbidden. Add to this that the Federalists tended to support trade, and that meant doing business with Great Britain in a time of lingering anti-British sentiment, while the Democrat-Republicans supported the new French Republic. To top it off, Britain and France were at war and the US had two conflicting treaties, one with Great Britain promising neutrality, and another with France that promised military assistance. Then the French seized US ships trading with Britain, and when officials demanded a bribe in what’s known as the XYZ Affair, simmering tensions boiled over into the Quasi-War between the US and France.

Simply put, things were a mess.

An axiom in politics is to never let a crisis go to waste, and the Adams administration didn’t. Playing up to American’s fears, the Federalist pushed through what’s known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Promising Americans increased security, the acts gave the president the power to imprison and deport non-citizens, to detain non-citizens in a time of war, and made what was called “false” and “malicious” statements and “to stir up sedition” a crime.

Keep in mind that this was less than seven years after states had ratified the Bill of Rights, which included the 1st Amendment. The Sedition Act ran afoul of the 1st Amendment, but Americans were frightened. Early on, the Federalists had claimed Jefferson supporters wanted a French style revolution on this side of the Atlantic. Now the US, then a small country, was at war with its former ally, Claiming a need to protect Americans, the Adams administrations pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts. Fortunately, there was still enough love of liberty that the Sedition Act had an expiration date, but not enough that the Federalists weren’t able to use it to prosecute their political enemies. And prosecute they did. Criticism of John Adams was apt to send you to jail.

Thus was the fate of Luther Baldwin. Had he made his jest about Jefferson, he likely never have went to jail. Criticism of Adam’s political opponent, Jefferson, got a pass, though it, too, was illegal under the Sedition Act.

When we think about authoritarian governments, we usually think in terms of the State wielding absolute power. That’s not the entire picture. What happens is that a person or a group uses the powers of the State to their own ends. So it was with the Federalists. Given the means to suppress dissent, the Federalists were more than willing to do so. How did a drunken joke endanger America? For that matter, how was accusing the Adams administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” a public danger? Yet that was sufficient to impose a $1000 fine on Congressman Matthew Lyon and send him to jail. The Federalists may have claimed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were to protect the US, but in practice they served only one purpose: to protect John Adams and the Federalist party.

Whether that was the intent of those who voted in favor of the bills is unknown. We have only speculation that perhaps says more about us than them. Regardless of intent, what happened is a point of history, one perhaps not discussed as much as it should. The whole point of limited government was to prevent the abuse of powers. As someone pointed out in the early 19th Century, the power to do all that is good is the power to do all that is evil. Once given the proper lever, the Federalists were more than willing to use it to their own ends. Only a few years earlier, those who drafted the US Constitution understood this. How quickly such things are forgotten.

Or maybe not. The Sedition Acts were met with protests. The idea of states nullifying Federal action began circulating. The Democrat-Federalists used anger at the Alien and Sedition Acts in their 1800 campaign, and it was likely instrumental in electing Jefferson as president. On taking office, Jefferson pardoned those convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. The acts with an expiration date lapsed, and a dark chapter of US history drew to a close.

Yet the lesson of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 shouldn’t be forgotten. Not even a decade after adopting the US Constitution, America came very close to an authoritarian government. And while there were protests at the Sedition Act, there were also supporters. The tavern owner where Luther Baldwin made his joke apparently thought the act was good and proper. So did others who took exception with his joke. The terrible lesson is that liberty is fragile, broken in a moment by fear and convenience.

I wonder how many who called for the arrest of Luther Baldwin realized that what was applied to him could just as easily be applied to themselves. Did any have second thoughts? Did any conclude that the Alien and Sedition Acts were a bad idea after all? It’s nice to think that they did.

They probably didn’t.