Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The Sedition Act: Certain Crimes Against the United States (5 Lessons)

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The Unit

Overview

It is impossible to conceal from ourselves or the world what has been before observed, that endeavors have been employed to foster and establish a division between the Government and people of the United States. To investigate the causes which have encouraged this attempt is not necessary; but to repel, by decided and united councils, insinuations so derogatory to the honor and aggressions so dangerous to the Constitution, union, and even independence of the nation is an indispensable duty.
—From John Adams—Special Message to the Senate and the House, May 16, 1797 on the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project

As the end of the 18th century drew near, relations between the United States and France were deteriorating. President John Adams wanted to preserve American neutrality in conflicts between Britain and France. He sent a minister to France who was not received. President Adams then addressed a joint session of Congress on May 16, 1797, expressing his concern about the possibility of war with France and dissension at home caused by France and its supporters. In October, three commissioners appointed by Adams arrived in Paris in hopes of "restoring mutual confidence" between the countries. French Prime Minister Talleyrand's agents—known only as X, Y, and Z, and assumed to be acting on Talleyrand's orders—refused to receive the diplomats. They demanded a bribe, presumably for Talleyrand himself, and a large loan for France. The American people were incensed. War with France seemed inevitable; in fact, the U.S. is often described as being in an undeclared war with France following the XYZ affair.

At the same time, two opposing political parties were developing in the U.S. Tending to sympathize with France in foreign policy were the Thomas Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans. Their loyalty was called into question by the Federalists, who dominated Congress during Adams's administration. It was a dangerous time both for the security of the young Republic and the freedoms its citizens enjoyed.

The Federalists clashed frequently with Democratic-Republicans who disagreed sharply with what they regarded as a philosophy of "huge public debt, a standing army, high taxes, and government-subsidized monopolies" (The Birth of Political Parties, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters). Could the Federalists, the party in control, wield the power necessary to protect America against those who opposed it without wielding that power against those who opposed them?

The Sedition Act touched off a lively debate about the right of free speech. It also presented an early test case to the citizens and government of the United States. In times of war or imminent danger, how do you balance the need for security with the rights of individuals? How can partisan politics affect the process of shaping security policies?

Guiding Questions

  • What conditions provided the impetus for the Sedition Act?
  • What were some applications and consequences of the Act?

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize briefly the international situation during John Adams's presidency.
  • List the concerns that led to the Sedition Act.
  • Describe the Sedition Act.
  • List some objections to the Sedition Act.
  • Discuss the consequences of the Sedition Act.
  • Illustrate the difficulty of balancing security needs and personal freedom using an example from Adams's presidency.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Conflicts with France—largely over maritime rights for the neutral United States—and the contemporaneous development of the first political parties in the U.S. provided the impetus for the Alien and Sedition Acts. The essay John Adams: A Life in Brief, on the EDSITEment resource The American President, provides background for students. Here are some excerpts:

    The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported a strong central government that favored industry, landowners, banking interests, merchants, and close ties with England. Opposed to them were the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, who advocated limited powers for the federal government. Adams's Federalist leanings and high visibility as vice president positioned him as the leading contender for President in 1796…

    The Adams presidency was characterized by continuing crises in foreign policy, which dramatically affected affairs at home. Suspicious of the French Revolution and its potential for terror and anarchy, Adams opposed close ties with France. Relations between America and France deteriorated to the brink of war, allowing Adams to justify his signing of the extremely controversial Alien and Sedition Acts. Drafted by Federalist lawmakers, these four laws were largely aimed at immigrants, who tended to become Republicans. Furious over Adams's foreign policy and his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Republicans responded with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which challenged the legitimacy of federal authority over the states.

    Republicans were equally incensed by the heavy taxation necessary for Adams's military buildup; farmers in Pennsylvania staged Fries's Rebellion in protest. At the same time, Adams faced disunity in his own party due to conflict with Hamilton over the undeclared naval war with France. This rivalry with Hamilton and the Federalist Party cost Adams the 1800 election. He lost to Thomas Jefferson, who was backed by the united and far more organized Republicans.

  • Though the Alien and Sedition Acts are often discussed together, they are only two of four distinct, complementary acts passed in the summer of 1798. To enable a sharper focus, this lesson concentrates on the Sedition Act. Remember that these acts were passed at the same time that political parties were developing in the U.S. According to the seventh edition of The Encyclopedia of American History, pages 146-147 (Morris and Morris, Harper Collins, 1996):

    Several of the leading Republican publicists were European refugees. The threat of war with France sharpened hostility to aliens and gave Federalists an opportunity to impose severe restrictions…

    25 June (1798) The Alien Act authorized the president to order out of the U.S. all aliens regarded as dangerous to the public peace and safety, or suspected of "treasonable or secret" inclinations. It expired in 1800…

    14 July. Sedition Act made it a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment, for citizens or aliens to enter into unlawful combinations opposing execution of the national laws; to prevent a federal officer from performing his duties; and to aid or attempt "any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination." A fine of not more than $2,000 and imprisonment not exceeding 2 years were provided for persons convicted of publishing "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" bringing into disrepute the U.S. government, Congress, or the president; in force until 3 March 1801.

    The Sedition Act was aimed at repressing political opposition…

    Republicans attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts as unnecessary, despotic, and unconstitutional.

  • Any discussion of the Sedition Act must include a discussion of the First Amendment. How that amendment was understood in 1798 differs from our current understanding after 200 years of interpretation. For some early history of the amendment, read the first page of the essay Freedom of Expression—Speech and Press Adoption and the Common Law Background on Findlaw, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Oyez.
  • EDSITEment offers Jefferson, Hamilton, and the Development of the Party System, a lesson plan that complements Certain Crimes Against the United States: The Sedition Act by providing background on the partisan politics central to the enactment of the Sedition Act.
  • In Annals of Congress, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, to each student or to pairs of students. The excerpts are taken directly from the text of the debates but have been converted back to first person and present tense, as they would have been in the debate. Some spelling has been standardized. A few words have been inserted in parentheses to be read as part of the excerpt. Separate the excerpts from one another before the lesson begins. All of the excerpts are brief, but some are as short as one sentence. Assign them accordingly. The name of the speaker precedes each quote.
  • Lesson Five offers the teacher the option to use the lesson United States v. Thomas Cooper—A Violation of the Sedition Law (on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom), which draws on many authentic documents. Click on the title to find everything you need to prepare for the lesson. It should be noted that documents used in the lesson are originals and not transcriptions, though they are high-quality digitized versions. Some students may find it difficult to read the material. Lesson Five offers other options—excerpts from a modern essay on the trial that contain brief quotes from the trial transcript; an "Historical Minute" from the U.S. Senate about a trial in the Senate; examples of other original documents from the prosecutions of newspaper editors under the Sedition Act.
  • In this unit, students read and analyze a variety of primary documents. The following materials from EDSITEment resources may be useful to teachers seeking expert advice on the use of primary documents:

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources