Charles Slack and “Liberty’s First Crisis”
Liberty’s First Crisis, by Charles Slack, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015
“The greatest enemy of liberty is fear…When [people] feel threatened, their tolerance shrinks.”
Liberty and freedom in America have been threatened many times since the United States Constitution was drafted in 1787. People around the world who acknowledge themselves as free people always seem to be willing to sacrifice freedom when they are afraid. Americans are no different.
Americans willingly gave up privacy and some of our dignity under the banner of self-protection after 9/11 by passing the Patriot Act. Fear of nuclear holocaust during the cold war created a toxic atmosphere of prejudice against Americans suspected of being Communists in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
As World War 2 was raging in Europe, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act of 1940 creating criminal penalties for advocating government overthrow. In the Supreme Court, government officials lied to the justices and to the American people about the need to relocate Japanese Americans to detention camps by insisting that they posed a national security threat to the country.
Before the modern era, World War 1 saw the imprisonment of Eugene Debs, a candidate for President, under the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918. During the Civil War, but for the blanket pardon granted by President Andrew Johnson in 1869, many former Confederates would have been imprisoned for supporting their cause. President Johnson himself was victimized by impeachment proceedings brought by Congress.
America’s first crisis of liberty occurred less than a decade after passage of the Bill of Rights. Some of the very same people who Americans worship today as icons of freedom and liberty and the very people who voted for the Bill of Rights also voted for a law that had the effect of punishing political speech.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by Congress in 1798 as a result of fear of war with France. The four laws included a Naturalization Act that increased the residency requirement for citizenship from 5 to 14 years; the Sedition Act which criminalized criticism of the government and dissent against the laws of the United States; and the Alien Act and Alien Enemies Act which authorized the President to deport any alien he deems to be a threat to national security.
While the public generally favored these measures when they were initially adopted because of the fear of war with France and the disclosure of the XYZ affair, public approval quickly waned. The President and the majority of Congress were Federalists, and they ultimately lost control of both the executive and the legislative branches of government in the election 1800.
Charles Slack’s Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech is a compelling historical account of the political atmosphere that gave rise to the Sedition Act, as well as the actions of a few men who ultimately preserved the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. As described by the publisher, “Liberty’s First Crisis vividly unfolds these pivotal events in the early life of the republic, as the Founding Fathers struggled to define America off the page and preserve the freedoms they had fought so hard to create.”
In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Sedition Act, which criminalized speaking openly against the government and imposed severe sanctions, including jail time. Proponents of the law argued that it was necessary to bolster national security in response to the undeclared naval war with France, but it was largely intended to silence growing criticism from the Republican Party.
The Federalists zealously enforced the controversial law, while Republican journalists wrote stinging criticisms. Not surprisingly, they accounted for the majority of the prosecutions. In opposition to the Sedition Act, Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which argued that the law violated the First and Tenth Amendments. Meanwhile, President John Adams, regretful that he signed the law, threatened to resign and allow Jefferson to accede to the Presidency.
In his well-written narrative, Slack tells the story of the characters that shaped this pivotal era in American history. While rooted in fact, Liberty’s First Crisis reads as a thrilling novel and uses vivid storytelling to bring the events to life.
Not surprisingly, Slack has received significant critical acclaim for bringing an important, yet largely forgotten, time in history back into the contemporary debate about liberty and freedom in America’s post 9/11 era.
“Slack does more than just tell the story of the Sedition Act and the political crisis it created; he recasts the story as a chapter in a larger narrative about the philosophical right to be heard even when the opinion offered proves unpopular or even dangerous,” The Dallas Times wrote. “The lesson seems clear from Slack’s well-written and well-researched work: Free speech and free expression don’t have to be respected by society, but they must always be protected by law.”
Liberty’s First Crisis is available in a variety of formats, including paperback and e-book, on Amazon.com.