Exceptional: Slave, Felon, Congressman.


In America today, it is easy to focus on all that divides us. In doing so, we lose track of those peculiarly American traits and stories that bind us together, and truly make us exceptional among the nations. This series will examine a few of those most interesting and inspiring tales.

In 1749, Matthew Lyon was born the son of a pauper in Dublin, Ireland. During his adolescence, Lyon’s father was executed by the British crown for treason. Left alone in the world, Lyon learned a skilled trade, and worked to support his widowed mother. Still, he dreamt of a better life, and in 1764 he quite literally sold himself into slavery to gain passage to The New World. For years Lyon toiled, for one master and then another, until he had somehow scrounged enough money to purchase his own freedom.

1768 found Lyon a free man, but like many British subjects in the colonies, he did not feel that even the Atlantic Ocean was enough to separate him from the oppression of the British crown. In 1774, he began to organize a revolutionary militia in what would later come to be known as Vermont. Lyon rose to the rank of colonel by the end of the Revolutionary war.

After the war, Lyon began careers in farming and politics, founding the city of Fair Haven, Vermont, and successfully being elected to the Vermont State House of Representatives. Just as every chapter of life had thus far, this one too held its share of tragedy for Lyon. In 1782, he lost his wife to an unknown illness. He was twice defeated in elections to U.S. Congress. He did not let this deter him, running a third time and winning in 1796.

Congressman Lyon was a free thinker and leader in the fledgling Democratic-Republican Party. He earned the nickname, “the spitting Lyon”, when he spat his tobacco juice in the face of a fellow congressman who impugned his character, mocking his self asserted status as champion of the common man. Theirs was the first of many physical altercations to take place in that hallowed chamber.

At that time, John Adams and the Federalist party had a vice grip on both the executive and legislative branches of government, and in 1798 the indomitable Lyon had a rendezvous with destiny. Adams and the Federalists passed one of the most detestable and illegal pieces of legislation in our history, the Sedition Act of 1798.

The Sedition Acts effectively criminalized criticism of the United States Government. The laws themselves were constitutional, and the federalists were trying to hold a nation on the brink of war with France together, but the executive branch exploited the law, expanding it beyond the scope of power allotted in the constitution. Lyon was disgusted. The son of the executed alleged British traitor, and revolutionary colonel would hold his tongue for no man. Lyon owned a very liberal newspaper, The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository for Political Truth. After remarking in said paper that President Adams had an, “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice,” and stating that he could not support the President, “When I shall see the sacred name of religion employed as an engine to make mankind hate,” Lyon was sentenced to four months in jail, and a $1,000 fine.

Were the story to end here, there would be nothing exceptional about it at all. Every day around the world, people are imprisoned for criticizing their governments, for speaking their minds. What makes this story special is what happened next.

On October 10, 1798 Lyon was sentenced to four months in a sixteen by twelve foot cell. The Green Mountain Boys, Lyon’s former militia mates, threatened to destroy the jail and free Lyon. Lyon demanded that they protest civilly. In November of the same year, on a cold cot in a damp cell, the former slave was reelected to Congress. He received almost double the total votes of his closest competitor. Two years later, Lyon cast the deciding vote in the tie breaker House of Representatives election for President Thomas Jefferson, defeating the President who had incarcerated him so unjustly.

Only in America can a man be elected to congress from inside a jail cell. Our people have always refused the bridle of the elites, and disregarded the warnings of the intellectuals. Americans make foolish the wise. Our heritage is a refusal to cower, and an insistence to speak truth to power. If we can learn from these stories, and remember those who passed on to us the Torch of Liberty, we can overcome every obstacle.

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