Headline from a broadside protesting the Sedition Act.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
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?
In 1798, Jefferson predicted the consequences of the passage of the Sedition (and Alien) Act in one of the excerpts reviewed above:
If the Alien and Sedition Acts should stand, these conclusions would flow from them: that the General Government may place any act they think proper on the list of crimes, and punish it themselves whether enumerated or not enumerated by the Constitution as cognizable by them: that they may transfer its cognizance to the President, or any other person, who may himself be the accuser, counsel, judge and jury, whose suspicion may be the evidence, his order the sentence, his officer the executioner, and his breast the sole record of the transaction: that a very numerous and valuable description of the inhabitants of these states being, by this precedent, reduced, as outlaws, to the absolute dominion of one man, and the barrier of the Constitution thus swept away from us all, no rampart now remains against the passions and the powers of a majority in Congress to protect from a like exportation, or other more grievous punishment, the minority of the same body, the legislatures, judges, governors, and counselors of the States, nor their other peaceable inhabitants, who may venture to reclaim the constitutional rights and liberties of the States and people, or who for other causes, good or bad, may be obnoxious to the views, or marked by the suspicions of the President, or be thought dangerous to his or their election, or other interests, public or personal: that the friendless alien has indeed been selected as the safest subject of a first experiment; but the citizen will soon follow, or rather, has already followed, for already has a Sedition Act marked him as its prey: that these and successive acts of the same character, unless arrested at the threshold, necessarily drive these States into revolution and blood, and will furnish new calumnies against republican government, and new pretexts for those who wish it to be believed that man cannot be governed but by a rod of iron.
In this lesson, students will look at documents reflecting some of the consequences of the Sedition Act. How close was Jefferson's prediction?
Supporters of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed the Sedition Act was designed to repress political opposition. The way the act was applied supports that contention. In all, 25 people were prosecuted under the Sedition Act. Eventually, 10 were convicted—all were newspaper editors who supported Thomas Jefferson, a rival of President John Adams. According to the seventh edition of The Encyclopedia of American History (Morris and Morris, HarperCollins, 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.
Matthew Lyon, the member of the House involved in the fracas described in Lesson One, was the first person convicted under the Sedition Act. His crime? Declaring that President Adams acted more like King John and should be sent "to a mad house." In court, Lyon would have had to defend himself by proving his remarks about President Adams to be true and therefore not libelous, false, and so damaging to President Adams that Lyons deserved punishment. Would it have been possible for him to do so? Do students consider Lyon's remarks to have been libelous? Were these trials partisan? Through EDSITEment resources, students can access a variety of documents about the trials and their aftermath.
How was the Sedition Act used to prosecute speech? Below are four options to choose from for your class:
What indications of partisanship, if any, are there in the materials the class reviewed? What indications of security concerns, if any, are there? What did students notice about the manner in which any of the trials was conducted?
When Jefferson became president, he pardoned everyone convicted under the Sedition Act. However, Congress apparently felt the need to apologize for its abuse of power for the next 50 years. Students can find examples using the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory. The act still called for Congressional action to compensate the victims (posthumously) in the 1832 Bill to refund a fine imposed on the late Mathew Lyon, under the Sedition Law and the 1850 Bill to refund the fine imposed on the late Dr. Thomas Cooper, under the Sedition Law.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were political poison for those who had endorsed them. Federalist support for the acts is often cited as a factor in the victory of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans against John Adams in the 1800 election. Even in 1828, one could still campaign against someone by saying he was supported by someone who supported the Sedition Act. Share with the class the opening lines of the broadside Jackson triumphant in the great city of Philadelphia on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. Even in 1844, the Alien and Sedition Acts were still worth mentioning in an anti-Whig party tract, The Whigs hate and persecute the naturalized citizens, also available on American Memory.
Lead students in a discussion of what they learned through this lesson. They should be able to respond effectively to the following questions:
Our modern understanding of the First Amendment is based on a series of Supreme Court decisions. Though there is no specific rule to use in determining what speech is not protected, there are some general standards. "Writing for the Court in Schenck, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes asked whether 'the words create a clear and present danger that they will bring about substantive evils Congress has a right to prevent?'" (from the Clear and Present Danger Exhibit on Famous Trials, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library).
The Famous Trials website is an excellent starting place for helping students to realize the difficulty of determining the meaning as well as the appropriate applications of the First Amendment. The opinions provided for the four cases all deal in one way or another with the "clear and present danger" rule set down by Holmes in Schenck. The last, Gitlow, addresses an issue raised earlier in the unit—i.e., the application of the First Amendment to the states.
Have the students discuss Holmes' criteria: Who decides whether a danger is "clear and present." and what do the words "clear" and "present" mean?
1-3 class periods