Lyon was born in County Wicklow, Ireland, on July 14, 1749. He attended school in Dublin. By the age of 13 he began to learn the printer’s trade but within a year he felt an itch to move. He stowed away aboard a ship to America but was caught by the ship’s captain while en route and, upon landing in Connecticut, the captain sold the boy to farmers in Woodbury, CT, as an indentured servant until the fee for his voyage was paid. He was fortunate as he was allowed to continue his education. Woodbury was in the same general area where Ethan Allen lived. Within a few years Allen was in Vermont buying up land, waging a guerrilla war against New York land speculators, and was head of a tumultuous band of ruffians known as the Green Mountain Boys. It was an adventure that Mathew Lyon could not resist and by 1774 Lyon was living in Wallingford, VT, which was then the wild New England frontier. Lyon organized a local militia company for defense against the Yorkers as well as Native Americans.
When the American Revolution began in April 1775, Lyon joined Ethan Allen’s cousin, Col. Seth Warner, in a regiment of men who helped with the invasion of Canada in 1775 and the retreat from there in early 1776. He served under Warner as adjutant and was commissioned lieutenant in 1776. In 1777, Lyon moved to Arlington and served briefly under Gen. Horatio Gates at Fort Edward, NY. He later returned to Warner’s regiment as paymaster, rose to the rank of captain and fought in the Battle of Bennington, at Saratoga, and served in other, lesser, frontier combat situations. In the following years he served on the Vermont Council of Safety, which helped arm citizens for defense, and he rose to the rank of colonel and became paymaster general of the Vermont Militia, deputy secretary to Gov. Thomas Chittenden, and assistant to Vermont Treasurer Ira Allen.
At that time, each Vermont town had a single representative in the Vermont House of Representatives. From 1779 to 1783 Lyon served as the representative from Arlington. In 1783 he founded the town of Fair Haven and returned to the House as its representative from 1783 to 1796. During his time in Fair Haven, Lyon built several mills, including one that manufactured paper. In 1793 he established a printing office, publishing a pamphlet called the Farmers’ Library. By 1794 it became the Fair Haven Gazette and was being operated by Lyon’s son James.
Lyon had tried twice for election to Congress and failed. He finally succeeded on his third attempt, serving in the US House of Representatives from 1797 to 1801. While representing Vermont he was a member of the Democratic-Republican Party.
President John Adams, elected in 1796 as America’s second president, came to power with George Washington’s warning that the country was not prepared for war. Washington was concerned with the country’s small, poorly equipped army, as well as the general unfitness of state militias, and a precarious financial condition.
Adams believed in the rule of law above all else. He also had a strong sense that most of the American public was uneducated. Many Americans did not own land and had no knowledge of the law and thereby in his mind had no right to be part of the ruling class. He was dubbed an elitist by the press, the implication being that he not only looked down on common Americans, but was also unsure that the majority of Americans would ever be fit to be part of the political system.
Adams seemed to admire Great Britain’s system of a monarch leader kept in check by an educated ruling legislative body composed of aristocrats that were held in office as much by a caste system as by being elected. In addition, recent immigration from European countries of a more educated populace with a suspected European political agenda made immigrants a political danger to the republic.
With the above issues the American press had reason enough to dislike Adams, but in addition to these shortcomings, Adams saw critics of the government as enemies of the state. It is still debated whether or not Adams just had a very thin political skin which bristled at criticism, or whether he saw critics as potential inciters of internal revolution, war with Europe or with the government overall. Adams knew these things could be so financially damaging as to destroy the republic.
Adams was proud of the fact that while he was president, from 1796 to 1800, he had avoided having America take sides in the wars between Great Britain and France. The French were embroiled in their revolution and were spreading unrest and military conquest across Europe while England was trying to keep France in check. Both countries had American supporters although most sympathies and support were given to France. Both of these countries adopted various policies to attract or coerce support to their cause from America and thereby drag America into war.
Adams also used harsh rhetoric against France and in the press he was portrayed as something of a warmonger. His rhetoric, combined with building up the Navy and coastal fortifications, kept France in check and at bay, while allowing America the comfort of neutrality.
While in Congress, Lyon was accused of “gross indecency” for spitting, while chewing tobacco, in Rep. Roger Griswold’s face. Griswold was a Federalist and the two men were on opposite sides of whether or not to remove Rep. William Blount, of Tennessee. The fight escalated with Lyon saying he wanted to fight, calling Griswold a scoundrel (which was akin to profanity in those days) while at the same time saying that he was willing to fight for the common man and Griswold was not. Griswold mocked Lyon as a coward. Lyon again spit on a retreating Griswold, earning himself the nickname “the spitting Lyon.”
Lyon later apologized to the entire House for the incident but Griswold was unsatisfied and attacked Lyon with his cane. Eventually Lyon, being badly beaten, made it to the fireplace, grabbed a set of iron tongs, and defended himself. The duelers were separated with great effort by several other representatives. A committee was later appointed to investigate the matter and they recommended to the House that both men be censured but the House as a whole rejected the motion and the issue was dead. Hence Lyon had a fiery reputation, which served him well when he fought for freedom of speech and freedom of the press against the Sedition Act of 1798. The act prohibited citizens and the press from being critical of the government. Lyon defied the act openly.
The dark shadow cast on the Adams presidency comes with the passage of four bills in 1798 by the fifth US Congress, dominated by Federalists. These were known as the Alien and Sedition acts. Most of this legislation has to be characterized as bad governance with much of it unconstitutional (although the Supreme Court had not yet established itself as a body for constitutional review until Marbury vs. Madison in 1803). The four acts were: the Naturalization Act of 1798, which made it more difficult for an immigrant to become a citizen; the Alien Friends Act of 1798, which allowed the president to imprison and deport noncitizens who were deemed dangerous regardless of their country of origin; and then, to exact the same treatment to individuals from countries that America was hostile to there was the Alien Enemy Act of 1798; and finally there was the Sedition Act of 1798, which prohibited the press as well as the citizenry from being critical of the president, vice president or Congress.
One of the acts remains on the books today and has been used in times of national crisis. This is the Alien Enemies Act, known today as Sections 21-24 of Title 50 of the US Code. It was then, and is now, largely used to incarcerate immigrants from countries that America is at war with, as well as members of the American population whose ancestry is from countries America is at war with. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the Alien Enemies Act to put Japanese Americans into detention camps during World War II.
The worst of the acts was perhaps the Sedition Act as it violated First Amendment protections of freedom of speech. The press justifiably went wild on this even though the reporting was at times the worst of “fake news.”
In the end, a newspaper man and representative in Congress for Vermont, Lyon, would bring down the Adams presidency.
Lyon was elected to the US House of Representatives while serving a jail sentence for violating the Sedition Act. Only in Vermont could you be elected from a jail cell.
When Lyon was placed in jail and fined for being critical of President Adams, he became a freedom-of-speech martyr among America’s political elite and it boosted his reputation greatly. The Sedition Act and the Aliens Friends Act were allowed to expire in 1800 and 1801 respectively. The Naturalization Act, which increased the wait time for aliens to become full citizens remains today, although altered, and the Enemy Aliens Act, somewhat refined, remains in force, bolstered by presidential proclamations when necessary.
Lyon’s greatest achievement is perhaps the fact that he helped to make sacred the promises made in the Bill of Rights in such a way that Congress and the electorate each would take great offense at anyone tinkering for changes.
The 1800 presidential election was a tie between the incumbent, John Adams, and his old friend, Thomas Jefferson. The vote went to the House of Representatives to break the tie, but after several votes the tie remained in place, and then, straight from a Vermont jail cell, arrived Mathew Lyon who, on the next ballot, broke the tie in favor of Thomas Jefferson.
So, in fact, Jefferson owed his presidency to a jailbird from Vermont.