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?
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:
If desired, as an extension of the lesson, students can read other material in favor of the Sedition Act, including:
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?
Lead students in a discussion of what they learned through this lesson. They should be able to respond effectively to the following questions:
If desired, use the last bulleted question as the basis of a classroom debate.
1 class periods