The awful events of January 6 at the US Capitol revived talk of the crime of sedition. That crime is defined in the law books as “overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward incitement of discontent or rebellion against the established order.”
In 1798 the Federalist Party, which saw itself as the only valid established order, passed the first Sedition Act, and its first target was Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon of Fair Haven. He was convicted of publishing ” false, scandalous and malicious writing” that brought the federal government, the Congress, or the president into disrepute.” Lyon went to jail in Vergennes, from which he was defiantly reelected to Congress by those early Vermonters.
The Sedition Act expired after three years, but another one was enacted at the behest of the Democratic Wilson administration in 1918 to muzzle critics of Wilson’s war effort. Two years later a Republican Congress repealed it and a year later President Harding pardoned the socialist leader Eugene Debs, who had been jailed under it.
Today the militant Left is keen to revive a Sedition Act to imprison anyone who gets too far out in front spreading “misinformation” criticizing the Biden Administration, or employing extralegal tactics to suppress free speech as the Sedition Acts did. We’ve done that twice, and both were dark chapters in this land of liberty. Let’s hope we never hear of that again, from either the Left or the Right.
The author is founder and vice-president of the Ethan Allen Institute.