Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
by Wendell Bird
No one likes to be criticized, especially thin-skinned government officials. But the freedom to question, even to rebuke, an elected official or otherwise to speak one’s mind is protected by the First Amendment, which seems fairly sturdy. That wasn’t always the case: not long after the US Constitution was ratified and the Bill of Rights adopted, Congress passed the four infamous laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. They explicitly muzzled criticism of government policies and officials, and sadly demonstrate that not a few founding Americans could be petty, shortsighted, and more than willing to prosecute speech they didn’t much like.
American Demagogue: The Great Awakening and the Rise and Fall of Populism
by J.D. Dickey
“The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote in The American Democrat, an 1838 political pamphlet long dismissed as a screed. But it’s relevant today for pretty obvious reasons. The word …
In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self-proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”—Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, “I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties. Here was a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”
I met Sybille Bedford many years ago. She was forthright, funny, and scrupulously frank. I remember thinking and then later writing, and considering even now, how remarkable it was that one of the finest stylists of the twentieth century, bar none, with a prose of incomparable precision and grace, would candidly acknowledge her daily battle against discouragement, distraction, and doubt.