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?
What conditions provided the impetus for the Sedition Act?
Review the selected passages from the Sedition Act (July 14, 1798) in the annotated handout "Excerpts from the Sedition Act (with Annotations)," on pages 5-6 of the Master PDF, or the full text of the Sedition Act on the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project. The following questions will help guide students' reading of the document:
By a show of hands, determine which students believe the Sedition Act was/was not designed to respond to the President's concerns.
Share with the class the handout "Excerpts from John Adams's Special Message," on pages 3-4 of the Master PDF, or the full text of John Adams—Special Message to the Senate and the House, May 16, 1797 on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Avalon Project. Adams's speech, delivered about one year before the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, concentrates on the genuine problems in foreign relations that were used later to justify the passage of the acts. The following questions will help guide students' reading of the document:
Ask students to list Adams's concerns, principles, and solutions.
Partisan animosity was strong during Adams's presidency. The first two political parties in the U.S. were in their infancy—the Federalists, to which the majority of members of Congress belonged, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by former vice-president Thomas Jefferson and four-term Congressman James Madison, who had left the House in 1796.
Share the cartoon Congressional Pugilists (large image) or Congressional Pugilists (medium image) from the EDSITEment resource Harp Week. Use the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom to guide a whole-class or small-group analysis. Though the immediate cause of the fight between Representatives Matthew Lyon, a Republican from Vermont, and Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut, was a personal insult, "this unseemly congressional scandal thus manifested and exacerbated the ideological rift between the Federalists and the Republicans and was a national awakening to the virulence of America's increasingly partisan political process" (from Fracas in Congress: The Battle of Honor between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold by Brian T. Neff, on the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library). If desired, as an extension to this activity, interested students can read more about this incident in "Excerpt from Fracas in Congress" on pages 1-2 of the Master PDF. For a complete description and analysis of the fracas, click on the title of the essay above.
Read with the class a brief overview of John Adams and his presidency from the class text or a source such as John Adams: A Life in Brief on the EDSITEment resource The American President. What were the international conditions that led to President Adams's Special Message to the Senate and the House, May 16, 1797 (available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Avalon Project)? What was the political situation at home?
If desired, read the background on the Alien and Sedition Acts from the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom. Go back to the annotated handout "Excerpts from the Sedition Act" or the full text of the Sedition Act. What specific parts of the Sedition Act had the most potential for abuse?
Lead students in a discussion of the following questions:
Keep in mind that there was a yearlong gap between President Adams's speech and passage of the Sedition Act. In addition, think about the expiration date set for the Sedition Act—March 3, 1803—one day before the next president's (or John Adams's second) term in office would officially begin. The Federalists who passed the act did not want to take a chance that their freedom of expression would be limited should a Democratic-Republican be elected. Ask each student to write a summary of the concerns/factors that led Congress to pass the Sedition Act when it did.
2 class periods