At various times in American history, we have traded away liberty for security.
At Eastern Washington University I am teaching about one of those times right now.
In 1798 in the midst of a crisis with France, the administration of President John Adams passed something called the "Alien and Sedition Acts." The sedition part imposed fines and jail sentences on those who criticized the government.
Soon several newspaper editors were incarcerated for publishing anti-administration remarks. And an Irish-American congressman named Matthew Lyon went to jail for claiming - among other things - that President Adams was "swallowed up in a continual grasp for power."
The judge scolded Congressman Lyon."You must be well acquainted with the mischiefs which flow from an unlicensed abuse of government," he said.
Lyon had plenty of time to think about the judge's remark.He spent the winter of 1798-99 in prison in Vermont: a single window barely lighted his dark cell; the privy consisted of a stinking pot in the corner of the chamber; and the room had no fire.
Matthew Lyon was cold and uncomfortable - but defiant.
He knew that he was not so much abusing the government as the government was abusing him - abusing him and other Americans whose only crime was to disagree with the president.
Lyon wrote a blistering letter to his constituents, declaring, "It is quite a new kind of jargon to call a Representative of the people an opposer of government because he does not, as a legislator, advocate and acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the executive."
Just think about that for a moment.
Congressman Matthew Lyon in jail showed more courage in challenging misguided political authority than any of our current legislators have shown from the comfort of the Capitol.
They voted away their constitutional responsibilities with the War Powers Act.They adopted the ill-considered and wrongly-named "Patriot Act." And they accepted unquestioningly false information from the administration on Iraq's so-called weapons of mass destruction.
At this moment no less a person than a man responsible for analyzing for Colin Powell the evidence of such weapons, Greg Thielmann, has revealed that he and others told the secretary of state that the evidence was bogus.
But when it counted, after his famous United Nations testimony claiming the existence of such weapons, no one in congress asked anything approaching a hard question of Colin Powell.
On the matter of foreign policy, this congress - this pigmy congress - cravenly abandoned its constitutional and historic responsibilities.
It was not always this way.
Take Matthew Lyon, who stood up for truth, and his Vermont constituents, who admired his courage.
Lyons' supporters could not spring their Congressman from that cold jail cell, but they did reelect him to congress while he was still in prison. And on the day in February 1799, when he was finally released, Matthew Lyons' well-wishers crowded around him. Waving American flags in the free air of Vermont, they walked with Congressman Lyon the twelve miles back to his home in Middlebury.
That was 205 years ago - now we should ask this question:
"What congressman today deserves such a welcome?"
Bill Youngs (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a history professor at Eastern Washington University. He has published five books including a new edition of a reader called American Realities, with an essay on Colin Powell. He does a weekly radio commentary for KEWU.