The Revolutionary Era

Article excerpt

Humphrey, Carol Sue. The Revolutionary Era. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. 359 pp. $65.

Connecticut Courant proprietors Barzillai Hudson and George Goodwin believed that unrestrained criticism of government could destroy the infant United States from within. The defamatory attacks came from "mischief-making foreigners" who should have been expelled from the nation once they started "filling the country with falsehoods, slanders, and factions." Hudson and Goodwin were lauding the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalized the defamation of government and its officers, resulted in fourteen indictments (mostly against Republican editors), and catalyzed the first national debate over free expression in United States history.

The Sedition Act is one of the twenty-six topics addressed in chapter form in Humphrey's book of primary sources. Other chapters include the Constitutional Convention, Jay's Treaty, Benedict Arnold, and the XYZ Affair. The book presents several selected newspaper passages for each topic, all of which are preceded by her crisp introduction to each historical episode.

Many of the selections are excellent and reflect the flavor of the times. Commenting disparagingly on Shays's Rebellion, Federalist editor and lexicographer Noah Webster asserted, "I would infinitely prefer a limited monarchy, for I would sooner be subject to the caprice of one man, than to the ignorance and passions of a multitude." Republican editor William Duane lamented the prosecution of ship captain Luther Baldwin under the Sedition Act "for wishing the wadding of a cannon fired on a day of rejoicing were lodged in the president's posterior." Some primary-source offerings are just a few sentences-some too short to even hint at the context of the essay from which the snippet is drawn-while others drag on for many pages. A reading from "Helvidius" on "The Power to Make Treaties" consumes eight pages of text in the book.

This book is part of a multi-volume series presenting primary-source readings from different historical eras. While the concept is noble and useful, there are three substantial drawbacks to this book which limit its usefulness.

First, the book's title does not accurately reflect its content. …

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