The History Game Show
Setting: the set of an early 21st-century game show, with a spotlight to train on the speaker, flashing lights, bells, buzzers, and other assorted sound effects.
Costumes: upper-class period dress
Cast of Characters:
EGREGIOUS PHILBIN, a game-show host
MATTHEW LYON, defendant
NARRATOR/GAME SHOW ANNOUNCER
(stage still dark.)
NARRATOR (in commercial-announcer voice):
The First Amendment:
Cynical campaign promise
or actual overthrowing of the English common law
on seditious libel?
You make the call.
(July 1798 comes up on a screen and a chorus of voices is heard, each separately and with little time between._
"Vile assassins of our country's peace"
We cannot allow speakers and writers
"to excite those insurrections
which had heretofore been excited by other means"
"It is Patriotism to write in favor of our government----
it is Sedition to write against it"
"It is traitorous to be doubtful
of the wisdom of the administration"
(the date on the screen moves to July 14, 1798)
NARRATOR: The Sedition Act passed by three votes
and took effect on this date.
It was now a crime to write, publish, or even speak
"any false, scandalous, and malicious writing . . .
against the government of the United States
of either house of the congress of the United States,
or the president of the United States
with intent to defame"
(Screen goes dark. Light comes up on the NARRATOR, who addresses the audience directly.)
Bonus points to those of you in the audience who noticed the absence of the Vice-President in those offices protected by the law, and further bonus points to those who also knew the Vice-President at that time could be, and indeed was, a member of a different party than the President. (lights go down.)
(the date on the screen moves to October 5, 1798.)
NARRATOR: Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont is indicted on 3 counts of violating the Sedition Act.
(the date on the screen changes to October 8, 1798, is held long enough for the audience to absorb it, and then fades out. Loud game-show music is heard, moving spotlights criss-cross the stage, the hold on the center as the ANNOUNCER'S voice is heard.)
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to tonight's episode of
WHO WANTS TO BE A MARTYR?
And here is the star of the show, your host
EGREGIOUS PHILBIN (applause as PHILBIN enters)
PHILBIN (after applause dies down): Thank you, and welcome to the show. A grand jury has selected Matthew Lyon, Republican from Vermont, to be tonight's contestant on the hot seat.
(PHILBIN has moved slightly to one side of center stage. As he does so spotlight comes up on the opposite side to show a seated LYON. As this occurs a recording of LYON is heard.)
LYON: "Whenever I shall, on the part of the Executive,
see every consideration of public welfare
swallowed up in a continual grasp for power,
in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp,
foolish adulation, and selfish avarice . . .
when I shall 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"
PHILBIN: Mr. Lyon, are those your words?
LYON: They are.
PHILBIN: Mr. Lyon, as you have admitted the utterance, how do you defend yourself against the charge of sedition?
LYON: Mr. Philbin, I defend myself on several grounds.
First, as you have dined with the president,
are not my descriptions of his pomp true?
PHILBIN: I have not found that to be so. What are the other arguments in your defense?
LYON: That the words were written
before the passage of the Act;
therefore the indictment against me
is an unconstitutional ex post facto law
PHILBIN: Such an argument cannot be entertained here. Any other defense?
LYON: I invoke the First Amendment,
which prohibits Congress from making any law
concerning freedom of speech of of the press
PHILBIN: Mr. Lyon, I will say it again: constitutional arguments cannot be entertained here. Anything else?
LYON: The defense rests.
PHILBIN: Gentlemen of the Federalist studio jury, you have heard Mr. Lyon's defense. It is now your turn to render a verdict.
(lights down. Occasional spotlight on LYON looking at his watch, enough times to indicate that one hour has passed when the jury returns with its verdict. Music of an ominous tone playing during the few minutes.)
PHILBIN: What say you, gentlemen of the jury?
JURY FOREMAN: We find Mr. Lyon guilty on all counts.
PHILBIN: Mr. Lyon, you are hereby sentenced to four months in prison and a fine of one thousand dollars.
(GUARDS place restraints on LYON and lead him offstage as lights go down.)
NARRATOR: While in his jail cell Mr. Lyon is re-elected by a margin of almost 2-to-1.
(screen shows February 9, 1799.)
Mr. Lyon makes his way to Philadelphia to take his seat in the new Congress.
(LYON comes back on stage triumphantly. Spotlight on him alone.)
NARRATOR: "Colonel Matthew Lyon,
the martyr to the cause of Liberty
and the Rights of Man;
may his sufferings bring good out of evil
by arousing the people to guard their rights
and oppose every unconstitutional measure"
(lights go down.)