E pluribus unum: Out of many, one

The Boyertown Area Times - - OPINION - John C. Mor­gan Colum­nist John C. Mor­gan teaches ethics at Al­bright Col­lege’s School of Pro­fes­sional Stud­ies in Read­ing and is the au­thor of eight books, the lat­est just out with his brother Richard: Re­sist Tyranny. Matthew Lyon: De­fender of Lib­erty, avail

“E pluribus unum.” The Latin words in English are “out of many one,” and re­fer to the union formed by sep­a­rate states, adopted as a na­tional motto in 1776.

The words meant some­thing in the early days of our repub­lic, this com­ing to­gether as a na­tion com­mit­ted to form­ing a repub­lic where peo­ple could be free to choose their own rep­re­sen­ta­tives, speak, gather, and wor­ship with­out wor­ry­ing that some of­fi­cial might throw them into jail.

The founders were not per­fect. Most were white male landown­ers. Some held slaves.

But they came to­gether with a bold, new vi­sion that peo­ple had cer­tain ba­sic rights: Life, lib­erty, and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness.

And they en­shrined these core val­ues in a ba­sic bill of rights, the first one be­ing the right to speak freely.

Seven years after the Bill of Rights was passed, another law was passed un­der Pres­i­dent John Adams, called the Alien and Sedi­tion Act of 1798.

The words of this Act were quite clear, threat­en­ing to jail any­one who “write, print, ut­ter, or pub­lish … any false, scan­dalous … writ­ing or writ­ings against the gov­ern­ment of the United States.”

Of course, one per­son’s scan­dalous writ­ing might be another’s truth, so the act was clearly di­rected to­ward those who crit­i­cized Pres­i­dent Adams.

This was the first, but not last, at­tempt to si­lence free­dom of speech.

The first Amer­i­can tried, con­victed and thrown into a cold, damp Ver­mont jail cell was Matthew Lyon, then a Ver­mont rep­re­sen­ta­tive but also a Repub­li­can and a news­pa­per pub­lisher and founder of two towns.

An Ir­ish im­mi­grant to this coun­try and an in­den­tured ser­vant for ten years, Lyon knew tyrants when he found them, and he felt Adams was such.

He wrote that Adams only wanted power, and had an “un­bounded thirst for ridicu­lous power, fool­ish adu­la­tion, and self­ish avarice ... When I see the sa­cred name of re­li­gion em­ployed as a state en­gine to make mankind hate and per­se­cute one another, I shall not be their hum­ble ad­vo­cate.”

Lyon be­lieved that free­dom of the press was the key to a democ­racy.

Any at­tempt to quiet free­dom of the press vi­o­lated the coun­try for which he fought in the Revo­lu­tion­ary War.

His friend, Thomas Jef­fer­son, for whom he cast the de­cid­ing vote as pres­i­dent, wrote about any­one oc­cu­py­ing the pres­i­dency: “When the speech con­demns a free press, you are lis­ten­ing to a tyrant.”

With my brother, Richard, I have just fin­ished and pub­lished a new book about Matthew Lyon called “Re­sist Tyranny.”

In less than a hun­dred pages, the book tells Lyon’s story from ar­riv­ing here as young Ir­ish im­mi­grant, ris­ing to start a busi­ness and new town in Ver­mont, pub­lish­ing a news­pa­per, and rep­re­sent­ing both Ver­mont and Ken­tucky in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

As I fin­ished the book, I won­dered what Lyon might say to us to­day, and of­fered what I imag­ined he would write to us, which in­cluded a few sug­ges­tions for keep­ing our union un­bro­ken:

“Take be­ing a cit­i­zen se­ri­ously. “Or­ga­nize for good causes. “Work for lead­ers who sup­port all the peo­ple, not just a few of them.

““Vote as if your life de­pended on it, be­cause it does. Speak out against op­pres­sion of all kinds.

“Keep lead­ers un­der watch; the best form of democ­racy is that of cit­i­zen pa­tri­ots, not per­ma­nent of­fice hold­ers. “Seek truth; chal­lenge lies. “And when the gov­ern­ment seems to be cor­rupt, it is your pa­tri­otic duty to change those who lead it.”

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