One of the most famous victims of the Sedition Act of 1798 was Luther Baldwin (dates of birth and death not known).
Baldwin was the pilot of a garbage scow (sailing dinghy) in Newark, New Jersey, and a former member of the Continental Army in Essex County, New Jersey.
Sedition Act of 1798 limited First Amendment freedom of speech
Contrary to the First Amendment, the Sedition Act greatly limited freedom of speech. Anyone who criticized government leaders or who promoted resistance to federal laws in violation of the Sedition Act was subject to a fine or imprisonment.
During the summer of 1798, President John Adams and his wife were traveling from Philadelphia to Quincy, Massachusetts, to enjoy some vacation time. Along the way, they stopped in Newark, where they were greeted by a crowd of citizens and a sixteen-gun cannon salute to the commander in chief.
Baldwin convicted of sedition for drunk, derogatory comment about the president
A group of men who included Baldwin observed the proceedings from the doorway of a nearby tavern. One of the men said something to the effect that the shots were being fired at the rear end of the president. An inebriated Baldwin was then overheard to reply that he did not care if they fired through President Adam’s “arse,” a comment that would help change course of U.S. history.
The owner of the tavern, John Burnet, said that Baldwin had committed an act of sedition. A group of nearby Federalists agreed with Burnet.
For his misdeed, Baldwin was indicted and convicted in federal court for speaking “seditious words” that defamed President Adams. He was fined $150, assessed court costs, and jailed until he paid the fine and fees.
Baldwin’s plight spurred opposition to restrictions on First Amendment rights
Despite his troubles, Baldwin became a national hero.
His plight helped spur opposition to President Adams and the restrictions he had placed on First Amendment rights. This opposition proved instrumental in helping Thomas Jefferson win the presidential election of 1800 and in strengthening the First Amendment.
One of Jefferson’s first acts in office was to grant Baldwin, as well as others imprisoned under the Sedition Act, a formal pardon and apology and to drop any imposed fines.
This article was originally published in 2009.