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?
For this activity, students will read brief excerpts from actual debates in the House of Representatives as the legislators attempted to work with the version of the bill "Punishment of Crime" (later known as the Sedition Act) already passed by the Senate.
Those who opposed the Sedition Act were convinced it was unconstitutional, but the question of its constitutionality was never tested in court, although a number of newspaper editors were accused of and tried for sedition (see Lesson Five). There was great disagreement as to whether the Sedition Act had violated the First Amendment, yet similar acts were passed into law again during World War I. In times of war or imminent danger, it is difficult to balance security needs with personal freedom.
Review with the class the relevant sections of the Constitution and Bill of Rights available on the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project:
Assign to each student or to pairs of students one excerpt from the handout "Excerpts from the Debate in the House of Representatives" on pages 7-10 of the Master PDF. Give students a few minutes to understand their assigned excerpts and to practice reading them with meaning. Then have the students read their assigned quotes aloud in numerical order. Take time between each reading to discuss what the speaker is saying. Is he for or against the Sedition Act? What is the thrust of his argument? If desired, students can use the chart(s) "The Thrust of the Arguments," on pages 11-12 of the Master PDF — or have them use the Interactive Version to organize the various positions; consider reviewing the various arguments with the class before you start. Pair students to track the pro and con arguments respectively. Supporters of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed the Sedition Act was designed to repress political opposition. Does anything in the debates in the House support that accusation?
Share with students the results of the vote in the House from the page in the Annals of Congress in which The Debate Concludes and a Vote Is Taken, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory. The Sedition Act passed by a vote of 44 to 41. Students can use the Search the Biographical Dictionary function of the EDSITEment resource Congress Link to find the party affiliation and a brief biography of anyone who voted that day. If desired, as an extension to the lesson, students can follow the progress of the bill in the Senate, using these documents from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory:
Students should be able to respond thoughtfully to the following questions:
There was a genuine threat to the U.S. in 1798. The young Republic was very likely to be drawn into the conflict in Europe. There was a genuine concern that agents of foreign powers were active in the U.S. In a free society, such threats force us to strike a balance between security and freedom. Discuss this balance and why it is difficult to achieve. Have students summarize the essence of the pro and con arguments in the Sedition Act debate in one paragraph each.
1-2 class periods