His hemp-devoted head

« previous post | next post »

So I was reading about the Alien Friends Act, and in James Morton Smith, "The Enforcement of the Alien Friends Act of 1798", The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 1954, I stumbled on a quotation from "The Political Green-House, for the year 1798", which with a bit of extra context runs like this:

Lo! now too dismal forms* draw nigh,
And cloud the Jacobinic sky,
While awful Justice lours around,
And Law's loud thunders rock the ground.
Each factious alien shrinks with dread,
And hides his hemp-devoted head;
While Slander's foul seditious crew,
With gnashing teeth retire from view.

* The Alien, and Sedition Law.


This reminded me again of how much more polarized American politics was during that "reign of witches" — but mostly I wondered whether the Connecticut Courant's Federalist versifier was accusing the United Irishmen and French Jacobins of being potheads.

But after a moment's thought, I realized that the phrase "hemp-devoted head" was a threat of hanging rather than a reference to cannabis consumption.

Confirming this interpretation, a bit later we get

Nat Fellows, and old Thompson, eke,
Cannot redeem thy forfeit neck ;

And then

From these dread scenes of wild affright,
Bache and Tom Greenleaf took their flight,
The Yellow Fever clos'd their date,
And sav'd two halters to the State.

(A reference to the fact that Benjamin Franklin Bache, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, and Tom Greenleaf, editor of the New York Argus, died of yellow fever while under indictment for violating the Alien and Sedition Act.)


  1. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    Have the meanings of "dismal" and "awful" changed since 1798, or is the author intentionally trying to make the Acts sound scary for those who oppose them?

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 3:18 am

    @Anschel: “Awful” has changed. It used to mean “that strikes with awe; that fills with profound reverence” (Webster's 1828 Dictionary). I remember singing as a child, “Before Jehovah's awful throne”; most hymnbooks now have "awesome”.

    I don't think “dismal” has changed so much. Webster's 1828 Dictionary has “dark, gloomy; sorrowful, dire, horrid, melancholy, calamitous, unfortunate; frightful, horrible”. The meaning “pitifully or disgracefully bad” is more recent.

  3. Bloix said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 9:20 am

    Johnson (1756) defines dismal as "sorrowful; dire; horrid; uncomfortable; unhappy."

    Too is a typo for two, I think.

    [(myl) I also wondered about "too", but in the end I decided that it means "also" — the previous pages present page after page of purple prosody threatening the author's political enemies, with the Alien and Sedition laws merely another skirmish in the epic struggle:

    Long had the Jeffersonian band,
    Determin'd here to take their stand,
    To us, their vile intrigues impart,
    And old Connecticut subvert.
    Firm on her rock, sublime she stood,
    And all their arts indignant view'd;
    All honest men from small, to great,
    Combin'd their force to save the state,
    Tumbled each caitiff from his station,
    And purg'd the chequer'd Nomination.
    While joy each Federal feature crown'd,
    And triumph glow'd the Hall around;
    Each Jacobin began to stir,
    and sate, as tho' on chesnut burr.
    Their moon-eye'd leaders stood like beacons,
    Or as a drove of Satan's Deacons,
    When from the burning lake, in ire,
    They sat their feet on solid fire,
    To find if war, or sly pollution,
    Could raise in Heaven a revolution.
    At length, from lethargy profound,
    Congress awoke, and star'd around.
    Next from the press the tidings ran,
    From state to state, from man to man,
    In Freedom's cause they all combine
    And Georgia, and New-Hampshire join.
    The warlike spirit fills the presses,
    And teems the nation with Addresses,
    Answers, Resolves, and Toasts in throngs,
    Orations, Sermons, Prayers, and Songs.
    The spirit freed of righteous hate,
    Like wild-fire spreads from state to state,
    Rais'd by the sound of war's alarms,
    Our ardent youth all fly to arms,
    And from the workshop, and the field,
    The active labourers seize the shield,
    While on the silver'd brow of age,
    Relumes the fire of martial rage.
    And lo! From Vernon's sacred hill,
    The HERO comes! — whose Laurels green,
    In bloom eternal shall be seen!
    […] — collect from far
    The shield, the sword and plume of war;
    Indignant earth rejoicing hears,
    Fell insult bristling up your spears,
    And joins her hosts to crush the foes
    Of virtue, and her own repose.
    Now see each Jacobinic face,
    Redden'd with guilt, with fear, disgrace,
    While thro' the land, with keenest ire,
    Kindles the patriotic fire!
    See Jefferson with deep dismay,
    Shrink from the piercing eye of day,
    Lest from the tottering chair of state,
    The storm should hurl him to his fate!
    Lo! now too dismal forms draw nigh,
    And cloud the Jacobinic sky,

    etc. etc. etc.

  4. Robert Coren said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 9:57 am

    Another example of the older meaning of "awful" comes from one of Purcell's cantatas, in which, after an aria sung by a bass representing some god (Poseidon, I think), the tenor responds "I hear your awful voice". There have probably been too many modern performances in which these word seem painfully appropriate.

  5. languagehat said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 10:29 am

    It's the term "Alien Friends Act" I find odd. Does anyone know why that became the unofficial name of An Act Concerning Aliens?

  6. Charles Newman said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 12:08 pm


    I too wondered at "Alien Friends Act," having never encountered it before. Wikipedia (of course not authoritative, but still…) report that there were four Alien and Sedition acts–the second of which was the Alien Friends Act. The Alien Enemies Act came after. Perhaps "Friends" is an early example of spin.

  7. Guy said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 12:11 pm


    It seems a reasonable name in contradistinction with the Alien Enemies Act, which was enacted alongside it. The Alien Enemies Act related to aliens from "enemy" nations whereas the Alien Friends Act related to aliens from "friendly" nations.

  8. languagehat said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    Ah, "friendly" nations, that's the connection, of course! Thanks, I was focusing on "why would you want to expel your friends?"

  9. Charles Newman said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

    Along with "awful," "wonderful" seems to have undergone a similar transformation. I just came across a poster for the film of The Jungle, which touted it as "Sinclair's wonderful story of the beef packing industry."

  10. Rubrick said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    I thought the Alien Friends Act was a vaudeville crossover sketch starring David Schwimmer and Sigourney Weaver.

  11. Bloix said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 6:44 pm

    "Wonderful" meant "causing wonder." So a wonderful story might be a made-up story. A nice double-entendre usage is L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
    Fantastic was similar – it meant pertaining to a fantasy. If something was fantastic, it might be the product of a deluded mind, or it might just be a lie. And unbelievable, of course, meant something that was obviously not true. We can see the same process underway in real time with "ridiculous."

  12. Bloix said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

    And if there were four Alien and Sedition Acts (I've always assumed that there was one each), then it must be "too." It's not needed but it helps the scansion. One amusing thing about old bad verse is that it almost always scans and rhymes – unlike modern bad verse, which never does either.

    [(myl) There seem to have been four separate acts passed in June and July of 1798:

    June 18: An act supplementary to and to amend the act, intituled "An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization, and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject" [popular name "Naturalization Act"]
    June 25: An Act concerning Aliens [popular name "Alien Friends Act"]
    July 6: An Act respecting Alien Enemies [Popular name "Alien Enemies Act"]
    July 14: An Act in addition to the act, entitled "An act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States" [popular name "Sedition Act"]


  13. Tom Vinson said,

    September 2, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

    The rhyme impart/subvert in the first stanza struck my eye.
    Did these actually rhyme in 18th-century America, or is this just a fossilized rhyme like those found in a multitude of 19th-century hymns?

RSS feed for comments on this post