The Sedition Act

April 15, 1799

Landry Farm

Middlebury, Vermont

 

Meriwether Landry leaned back on the long reins and hollered for his plow horse, Lafayette, to stop. The horse whickered and shook his head in irritation. The beast sure loved to pull.

Landry shook the reins loose from the tight coils he’d made around his right forearm. Due to good fortune and the services of a skilled field surgeon, it ended in a stump at his wrist instead of his elbow. He’d always considered himself lucky. So many of his compatriots were dead, and many of them without the dignity of a musket ball through the brain or a bayonet thrust to the gut. They’d died of sickness or starvation before firing a single shot at the Brits.

Behind Landry stretched a curl of black dirt. The newly turned earth released its rich smells, which to a farmer like Landry was sweet as lilacs. He lifted his hat and swiped a forearm across his brow. Still twenty rows to go on this patch of ground. As unusually hot as it was that April afternoon, he wanted to keep working. But that wasn’t going to happen.

A group of mounted men sat their horses on the verge of his field. One slide down, holding the reins of his palfrey in one hand, a flintlock pistol in the other. They all wore mismatched and ragged uniforms. Thigh-length blue coats, tan breeches. Green coats, red breeches.

The lead man tossed his reins to another rider and stomped into Landry’s field, leaving black foot-impressions in Landry’s neat furrows of earth.

With no introduction, the man flicked a finger against patch on his coat. “I’m U.S Deputy Marshal Richard Craig. I have a warrant from the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Vermont for your arrest.” He didn’t present said warrant. Landry didn’t ask to see it.

Landry turned his head, glancing to the tidy white farmhouse where his wife Jane looked after their three-year-old son Thomas. “May I take Lafayette back to the barn first? Wash myself and change into clean clothes?”

“Of course.” Marshal Craig waved to his men and they moved toward the house. “Don’t you want to know why you are being arrested?”

“I already know. The pamphlet.”

Marshal Craig nodded, then swung onto his horse. He sat there, watching as Landry loosened the straps and buckles to free Lafayette from the plow.

 

***

May 10, 1799

Rutland, Vermont

Each footstep boomed in the courthouse chamber like distant canon-fire as William North, the U.S. District Attorney for Vermont, paced upon the oak plank floor. The air hung heavy and wet in the room, odd for May. The door behind the judge’s bench stood open, allowing a whiff of freshness–and horse manure–to waft in on the occasional puff of breeze.

Meriwether Landry sat upon his chair, left hand cupping his right stump, straining to keep his face passive. A bitter laugh was always bubbling in his gut these days. Across the aisle to his left, two young lawyers scratched notes with their quills. Landry had no idea what they could be writing about. They had the erect and pinched-lipped demeanor of men whose sole occupation was to look busy. Landry wanted to yank loose their bowed-up neckties to see if their heads would fall off.

Landry had known many men like these two during the war. They were the exact kind of men who never had Landry’s pay, his rations, or the boots he’d been promised. But these men were too young to have known those bitter and brutal days.

Justice James Cincinnatus Clement slouched at the bench in his white wig and black robes. His mouth drooped at the corners so that they pulled his face into a weary scowl. His black eyes peeked from his beneath wiry white eyebrows, each orb crouching amongst the briars like a mean little hedgehog.

North’s voice warbled like a turkey’s as he read the Federal complaint against Landry. “The evidence against Mr. Landry is plentiful and clear.” He turned to the jury, all men of serious faces, worn but clean dress, and soft hands. Townsmen. “He indicts himself through his own words, knowing, as any reasonably educated man must, what effect they could have on his fellow citizens. Especially coming from him, a man who once nobly prompted, through pamphlet and speech, so much enthusiasm for our great cause against the British.”

The jurymen eyed Landry. One heavily-jowled, bald-pated gentleman with a red nose, squinted and twisted his lips. Yes, Landry thought. That man remembers me. Or, at least, the name Meriwether Landry.

William North held up a copy of the incriminating pamphlet, pinched between thumb and forefinger, so the jury could fully appreciate its evil. “Not since Benedict Arnold has a man–nay, a hero–so completely turned his coat upon his fellow countryman.”

Pausing to allow this assertion to take root in the jurymen’s brains, North spun on his heels and spiked Landry with a fiery glare. “And he printed this–this–this seditious screed, in full knowledge of the law against such licentious writing. Yes. He flaunted the law of the country he fought to establish upon this continent, a country founded upon the idea of brotherhood and comity.”

Landry couldn’t help but snort. Comity had never entered into it. Anyone who knew what went on at the Constitutional Convention knew that. But North could say what he wanted. The trial was a formality, anyway.

North turned away from Landry and whined to Justice Clement, “Will the court please direct the accused to keep silent during my statement?”

“Keep silent, Mr. Landry,” rumbled Justice Clement.

North’s shoulders rolled back and he arched an eyebrow, as imperious as any schoolmaster Landry had every seen. Fortunately, he’d seen few. His father had hired private tutors, one of whom had been a fetching young lass from Boston. After the war, Landry had married his tutor’s even more fetching younger sister, Mary.

How he wished his dear wife could be here to witness this mockery of justice. Oh, how she would have raged.

The District Attorney for Vermont approached his busy young men and conferred with them in whispers. One produced a kerchief, with which, the esteemed lawyer wiped his brow. He turned back to the jury and opened the pamphlet.

“I will not read this entire, for I neither wish to sully my tongue with Mr. Landry’s reprehensible slanders, nor do I want to beat the dead horse, so to speak. I believe it will be sufficient to read a mere two paragraphs to demonstrate Mr. Landry’s deplorable and clearly seditious intent.”

The jurymen shifted in their seats, each leaning a bit closer to North. Landry suppressed a smile. All men loved deplorable and seditious talk.

North cleared his throat and read from the pamphlet:

“All clear-minded men must agree, through his ambassador’s treaty with the English monarch, President Washington drove a blade between the citizens of The United States and our patriotic brethren in France–brothers whose blood hallowed the battlefields of our War for Independency, which, once won, inspired them to shed yet more in their motherland to attain that highest ideal to which all men aspire. Liberté. In light of our Natural friendship with France, neither can Reason nor God explain the policies of Mr. Washington and his successor Mr. Adams, who both once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us beneath the banner of Freedom, but who have since abandoned that noble post to raise the Federalist flag in Pennsylvania, to place upon our necks the very yoke from which we fought to break free.”

North dabbed a gleam of spittle form his lips, then continued:

“As for President Adams, one cannot but be struck by his presumptuous and profligate spending, as if the luxuries of Princes were his due. But what else can one expect of such a bloviating windbag? Perhaps one must witness the phenomenon first hand to believe it, but our esteemed President’s ruddy cheeks and porcine eyes fairly gleam in response to the profundities spurting from his own flaccid lips. A man with such grandiose notions must see a crown upon his head in every reflexion. Some argue he would refuse the title of King. I fear he will accept no less. To see his ambition, one need only look at the court of Federalist imbeciles surrounding him. Highest among them is the Jester of the Treasury himself, Alexander Hamilton, a man who sees citizens as mere revenue-makers for the building up of Armies and unneeded Ships of the Line.”

Landry had forgotten that part about Hamilton. A rather deft and accurate assessment of the little troll, a man who imagined himself a great general like Washington.

Washington. Landry thought the pamphlet a bit hard on the old man. But Mary had wanted that bit in. “The truth is the truth,” she had said in answer to his objections, “and the once-great man has fallen completely under the thrall of those sorcerers Adams and Hamilton.” And so the criticism of Washington had stayed.

***

Over the course of the next two hours, North brought forth several witnesses. One testified that Landry had confessed to writing the words printed in the pamphlet. This seemed an unnecessary waste of time to Landry, whose name was printed in the pamphlet as the author, a point he had not denied.

Another witness, the printer, testified he was paid by Landry a sum of $55 to print five thousand copies. They were to be delivered in lots of five hundred to various Republican newspapers, the publishers of which would circulate Landry’s book to their most influential subscribers.

Again. A waste of time. Landry would have testified to as much himself, were he asked.

His patience waning, he spoke up once, prepared to concede all these points. But Justice Clement shouted him down and threatened him with immediate incarceration. North grinned at this, showing all four of his teeth.

When the United States finally rested its case, Justice Clement allowed Landry the floor.

As he rose to speak, Landry felt a chill of doubt. Perhaps he should have hired a lawyer, someone practiced in the protocol of such a trial. But no. The verdict was a forgone conclusion. And as for speaking up for his own interests, that was Meriwether Landry’s forté. And, as was his wont, he had his statement memorized.

He strode to stand upon a particular spot favored by North, directly before the jury. “In 1777, upon learning of the formation of the Continental Army under the leadership of General Washington, I left my home in Massachusetts to volunteer. I was twenty-three. As Mr. North noted, I had to that point endeavored to rouse support for the cause of Independency through pamphlets and the occasional speech. And so I joined, and I fought. I was discharged from the Continental Army in December, 1780, after losing my hand in battle at–”

“Mr. Landry,” barked Justice Clement, “please confine your remarks to the charges against you. Many served in the war, and many gave more than a hand.”

“Indeed. I merely explain my history to provide a bit of context. Allow me to finish by saying, though pressed by many Officers and even General Washington himself, I chose not to seek public office in Massachusetts. Instead, I retired to a small farm in Vermont where I currently reside with my son and wife. A year ago, I received a letter from a . . . prominent figure. He encouraged me to resume my writing in defense of the principle upon which this country was founded. Namely, liberty. This, he said, was needed more than ever in response to the new act by congress, and signed into law by President Adams, that made illegal any writing that criticized or undermined the Federal government.

“I had not dipped a pen for five years, but I did that night. Slowly, of course. I had always preferred to draft with my right hand, but as you can see, that was no longer practicable. So in a none-too-fair hand, I put to paper my thoughts and beliefs. The words fairly flowed from my brain to the paper. I was overtaken. Any man who has been insulted would know the rage roiling in my guts that night. Adams’ law against sedition was a bayonet driven in and twisted. I wrote deep into the night. My dear wife Mary remarked to me, ‘I have never seen such fury in your eyes, my love.’ To which I replied, ‘I have not felt such since Saratoga.’ And on I wrote until I ran out of paper and had to turn my already-filled sheets on their sides and continue to write upon them cross-wise.”

Justice Clement wrapped  his desk. “I hear no defense at all, Mr. Landry. You simply incriminate yourself.”

Landry smiled. “I do not offer this as defense, your honor. I offer it as offense. I fought for liberty once. I shall fight again if I must. I shall continue to fight while I still have this hand, and this foot, and this foot, this mind, and this tongue. This head!”

Landry’s last syllable snapped from the chamber walls.

Justice Clement glowered and let out a long, whistling sigh through his nose. “Are you quite finished?”

In answer, Landry returned to his chair, heart pounding. He only wished Mary had been there to see. She would have been so proud to hear those words.

 

***

Judge Clement lectured the jury for twenty minutes, concluding with his instructions. “You are not here to decide whether the pamphlet contains seditious messages or if Mr. Landry had seditious intent. That is up to me. Your sole task is to determine whether Mr. Landry wrote and printed the pamphlet in question.”

Landry fumed at the ridiculous farce. It was clear from the faces on two of the jurymen they weren’t best pleased either. The jowly man with the red nose seemed ready to speak. The man next to him wrapped his shoulder and shook his head. In Landry’s opinion, that was the wisest counsel the courtroom had seen all day.

The jury returned their verdict in twenty minutes, which seemed long to Landry considering how little they had to decide.

“Guilty,” the jowly man said, though he seemed hard pressed to spit it out.

North beamed and thrust his chest out. His lawyers bent over their papers and scratched away.

“Mr. Landry,” intoned Justice Clement, “you are hereby sentence to eighteen months in prison and to pay a fine of 400 dollars.” He smacked the gavel on his bench and beat a hasty departure, wig already in hand by the time he passed through the rear door.

Deputy Marshal Craig appeared, accompanied by a bailiff. The buffoon tried to placed irons on Landry’s wrists but soon realized the uselessness of that effort. He seemed confused as to how to proceed, so Landry said. “Just shackle my feet.”

And he did.

***

December 18, 1800

Landry Farm

Middlebury, Vermont

Meriwether Landry shook out the folds of a letter written fifteen days before. It had just arrived at his farm. He could have gone into town in search of the news it contained, but he hadn’t wanted to spend a single minute away from his family since returning from prison. And why leave for results of a Presidential election, anyway? Especially when he had a jolly son, a warm and welcoming wife, and all the food he could gorge himself on. Not to mention a very soft bed.

A smile lit up Landry’s face as he read the bold strokes of his old friend’s handwriting. “Adam’s is out,” he told Mary. “Jefferson won.”

Mary was too possessed of her grandmother’s puritanical ways to allow more than a placid smile. “Hardly an improvement. The man keeps slaves.”

Landry tossed the letter aside, and scooped Mary into his lap. She shrieked in a most unpuritanical way.

Landry kissed her nose. “I’ve been considering that problem, my love. I think it’s time for another pamphlet, don’t you?”

She smiled and drew her hand down his stubbly jaw. “My dear Meri, I’ve already written it.”

 

THE END


I hope you enjoyed this odd little short story. It’s not my typical style, but it was fun to write.