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President John Adams

On This Day: Sedition Act of 1798 Becomes Law

July 14, 2011 05:00 AM
by Erin Harris
On July 14, 1798, President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, making it a crime to publicly criticize the U.S. government, president or federal officials.

Federalists Pass Alien and Sedition Acts

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In 1798 a conflict with France challenged the strength of America’s new government. The Federalists, the party of President John Adams, feared that resident aliens would support France, and believed that dissent from the Democratic-Republicans was subversive.

Under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists sought to expel disloyal aliens and suppress dissent through the passage of four acts known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.

The Naturalization Act, enacted June 18, raised the numbers of years in residence required for citizenship from five to 14 years. The Alien Friends Act, enacted June 25, allowed the president to deport any alien deemed to be “dangerous to the peace and safety” of the U.S., and the Alien Enemies Act, enacted July 6, allowed the president to deport any alien from a country at war with the U.S.

The Sedition Act, the final of the four acts, outlawed conspiracies “to oppose any measure or measures of the government.” It made “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president punishable by fine or imprisonment.

The Sedition Act was set to expire on March 3, 1801, the last day of Adams’ presidency. Federalists contended that it was necessary to ensure that Adams could fulfill his obligations as president without interference. However, it served to incite criticism of Adams and his party, contributing to election losses in 1800.

The Debate Over the Alien and Sedition Acts

Vice President Thomas Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans who opposed the Sedition Act claimed that it granted too much power to an already authoritative government.

In the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which he wrote anonymously, Jefferson called for the annulment of the Sedition Act. He asserted that it was unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution. James Madison included similar arguments in his draft of the Virginia Resolutions in 1799, also written anonymously.

In response to the Virginia Resolutions, state legislators in New England, New York and Delaware passed counter-resolutions defending the Sedition Act. The resolution of Massachusetts—Adams’ home state—argued that it was “wise and necessary” because public criticism of authority served only “the purpose of perverting public opinion, and threatened to undermine and destroy the whole fabric of the government.”

They added that the president would not be able to fulfill his duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed … if there could be no legal restraint of those scandalous misrepresentations of his measures and motives, which directly tend to rob him of the public confidence.”

Jefferson stressed that the American people must use peaceful protest, not force, to eradicate the Alien and Sedition Acts. In a letter to Virginia statesman Edmund Pendleton in 1799, he wrote, “In this State, we fear that the ill designing may produce insurrection. Nothing could be so fatal. Anything like force would check the progress of the public opinion & rally them round the government. … But keep away all show of force, and they will bear down the evil propensities of the government, by the constitutional means of election & petition.”

The Sedition Act Trials

At least 26 critics of the Adams administration, ranging “from the editor of the most influential opposition newspaper in the nation to a New Jersey resident who drunkenly jeered” Adams, would be tried under the Sedition Act between 1798 and 1801, writes Bruce A. Ragsdale, director of thr Federal Judicial History Office..

The first to be tried was Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont, famous for spitting on Federalist Roger Griswold in January 1798. He was tried and convicted in October 1798 for publishing letters critical of Adams, and given a four-month prison sentence. That November, while sitting in jail, he was re-elected to Congress.

The Defeat of Adams

The “Sedition Act trials, along with the Senate’s use of its contempt powers to suppress dissent, set off a firestorm of criticism against the Federalists and contributed to their defeat in the election of 1800,” explains the National Archives.

Jefferson opposed Adams in the election of 1800 and won with 61 percent of the vote. He would repeal the Naturalization Act, and allow the Alien Friends Act and Sedition Act to expire, pardoning all those who had been prosecuted under the Sedition Act. Only the Alien Enemies remains as law.

Historical Context: Quasi-War With France

During the Adams administration, relations with France deteriorated over disputes centering on the 1778 Treaty of Alliance and the Jay Treaty, a 1794 agreement between the U.S. and Britain. Adams sent a team of diplomats to France to discuss the issues, but three of French Foreign Minister Charles Talleyrand’s agents demanded a $250,000 bribe and a $10 million loan to meet with Talleygrand.

Adams published a letter demanding the bribe, changing the names of the three to “X,” “Y” and “Z.” The XYZ Affair nearly sparked war between the two nations, and encouraged the Federalists to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Related: The Sedition Act of 1918

During World War I, libel laws surfaced again. The Sedition Act of 1918 was part of an amendment to the Espionage Act, created in 1917 to prohibit “false statements” that might “impede military success.”

The revisions prohibited not only public criticism of the government, but also forbade “any abusive language about … the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy.”

It extended further to target any person who displayed the flag of an enemy country, or attempted to curb the production of goods needed for war. Both the Espionage Act and Sedition Act were repealed in 1921.

Because the Sedition Acts of 1798 and 1918 were each in effect only for three years, neither was ever challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment prevented a public official from charging a fine for libel, “unless ‘actual malice’—knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth—is alleged and proved.”

The Court took this opportunity to officially declare the Sedition Act of 1798, which had expired over 150 years earlier, unconstitutional: “the Act, because of the restraint it imposed upon criticism of government and public officials, was inconsistent with the First Amendment.”

Justice William Brennan quoted James Madison, stating, “The censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.”
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