Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: George Washington on the Sedition Act

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

George Washington.

George Washington.

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?

Guiding Questions

  • What arguments were offered in support of the Sedition Act?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • List the concerns that led to the Sedition Act
  • Discuss the consequences of the Sedition Act

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Arguments for the Sedition Act

Former President George Washington was an enormously well respected figure in 1798, widely regarded then and now as a reasonable man. He sympathized with the Federalist administration of his former vice president, John Adams. Washington's favorable attitude toward the Sedition Act illustrates that reasonable men in 1798 could support what most modern Americans would regard as an unjust law.

Students will now read Washington's own words to determine his position on the Sedition Act. Distribute one of the following Washington letters to each of five student groups. The full text of each letter is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory by clicking on the links below. Or, you can use the excerpts provided on the handout "George Washington on the Sedition Act" on pages 13–14 of the Master PDF. If desired, distribute the Written Document Analysis Worksheet from the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom to aid students as they read the letters.

The following questions will help guide students' review of these documents:

  • What arguments in favor of the Sedition Act does Washington cite?
  • What principles does Washington cite in relation to the Sedition Act and the controversy that resulted?
  • Which of Washington's remarks refer to partisan politics?
  • What role, if any, does he indicate partisan politics played in either the creation of the Sedition Act or the controversy that followed?

If desired, as an extension of the lesson, students can read other material in favor of the Sedition Act, including:

  • Selections from the arguments against the repeal of the Sedition Act (start reading the Beginning of Argument at the second-to-last paragraph on the page through Argument Concluded), written in 1799 by a committee of the House of Representatives in response to petitions from citizens and published in the American State Papers (House of Representatives, 5th Congress, 3rd Session), are available online from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory.
  • Alexander Addison Defends the Sedition Act, on the website of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a link from the EDSITEment resource History Matters, describes the document in this way:

    In this charge to the grand juries in Pennsylvania's fifth district, Alexander Addison (1759–1807), president of Pennsylvania's county courts, defends the Sedition Act, arguing that it was necessary to restrain demagoguery.

What arguments are put forth? Keeping in mind that those in favor of the act considered the country in a virtual state of war with France, which points are particularly telling? What complaints against the Sedition Act are these arguments answering?

Assessment

Lead students in a discussion of what they learned through this lesson. They should be able to respond effectively to the following questions:

  • What arguments were used in support of the Sedition Act?
  • What specific complaints about the Sedition Act do those who support it cite? What counter-arguments do they use?
  • What speech do students believe should be considered illegal?
  • Do students believe laws about freedom of speech should be different for times of war and times of peace?
  • In what ways did the Sedition Act protect security?
  • In what ways did the Sedition Act abuse powers or take away fundamental rights granted in the Constitution and/or Bill of Rights?
  • Did the Sedition Act tend, as written, to do more to protect security or to endanger freedom?

If desired, use the last bulleted question as the basis of a classroom debate.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

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 > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • 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
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • 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
Authors
  • MMS (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media