A Quick End to Freedom of Speech —- The Sedition Act of 1798.
Today we often view the founding fathers as pioneers at the forefront of the freedom, fighting the British for independence and writing the US Constitution to establish and protect freedom from tyranny. However, this view is not exactly accurate, as the founding fathers were greatly divided as to what freedom meant. Many believed that freedom was limited to white protestant men who owned a certain amount of property. Some wanted a strong, all powerful government, such as Alexander Hamilton who believed the United States should be ruled by a monarch. Others believed freedom was a privilege afforded to the elite, while others believed freedom was a right to be held by everyone. Benjamin Franklin described himself as “a radical moderate”.
In 1798, around ten years after the signing of the Constitution, and eight years after the addition of the Bill of Rights, President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. At the time, the French Revolution was raging, the US was embroiled in an undeclared “quasi war” with France, and the world was rife with political intrigue and scandal. To protect the US and ensure that the radicalism of the French Revolution didn’t spread across the pond, the Federalist Party developed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act allowed the US government to deport any foreign nationals of a hostile nation. The Sedition Act outlawed any speech or writing that was critical the government or its officials.
Of the two, it was the Sedition Act that had the most effect on the United States. While the law had been officially created to prevent radicalism from spreading the in US, the effect of the law was to squelch opposition to the Adams administration, especially by the opposition party, the Democrat Republicans (Anti-Federalists).
As a result of the Sedition Act, hundreds of people were arrested for speech that was deemed “dangerous” or “defamatory” to the US government and President Adams. 20 major Anti-Federalist newspapers were shut down, with their operators fined and imprisoned. Uncounted scores of other minor media outlets were also closed. When Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the newspaper Aurora, wrote an editorial accusing Adams of nepotism and monarchical aspirations, he was arrested and his newspaper was shut down. He died of yellow fever before trial. When a Vermont printer named Anthony Haswell criticized the government’s treatment of Bache and claimed the Sedition Act violated the 1st Amendment, he too was arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment with a $200 fine. The most famous man convicted under the Sedition Act was Congressman Matthew Lyons, a staunch Anti-Federalist who was very critical of the Adams administration. Because of his criticisms, he was arrested and jailed for four months and fined $500. While in prison he won his re-election bid to Congress.
The Alien and Sedition Acts became a highly controversial and unpopular law among the American people. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson secretly wrote “the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions”, which denounced the acts as unconstitutional. In the Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison called for states to disobey the law, and if necessary secede or revolution against the United States. While the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were generally unpopular, the extreme unpopularity of the Sedition Act was a boon for Jefferson and a career breaker for Adams.
In the presidential election of 1800 between Adams and Jefferson, the Sedition Act was a key issue, and one that made the Adams administration look very bad. Jefferson won the election campaigning against the Alien and Sedition Acts. After his election he pardoned those convicted under the act and had the government repay their fines. While Jefferson portrayed himself as a champion of freedom due to his opposition of the Sedition Act, he himself used the Act to prosecute his own enemies and critics until the law expired in 1801. The Sedition Acts would be resurrected during World War I under the Wilson administration, causing the imprisonment of thousands of Americans who were doing nothing more than practicing their 1st Amendment rights.
Very interesting. But the “source” (at the top of the message) says nothing about Hamilton being a monarchist. Because he wasn’t.
And the Kentucky & Virginia acts written in secret by Jefferson & Hamilton were popular later—by those who voted for Secession.
(And Wilson did not “resurrect” anything. The Sedition Act enacted during his presidency was a new thing.
1. Alexander Hamilton was in a way monarchist. In fact in the Constitutional Convention he argued for the creation of an elected monarch who would have lifetime rule with extensive powers. The powers suggested by Hamilton, such as the power to appoint governors of states, go way beyond the powers of the presidency even today. He may not have been a traditional European monarchist, but man was he sympathetic to monarchy.
2. OK, but I’m not writing about the Civil War or the issues of states right’s leading up to the Civil War. I’m writing about the events of 1798, no more, no less. While the issue of state nullification became a big deal in the early to mid 19th century, I’m only referring to the unpopularity of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions as they stood in 1798, where they were denounced by all the states except Kentucky and Virginia.
3. Hmmm, the Sedition Act of 1798 made it illegal to criticize the government and its officials on the excuse of a national emergency.
The Sedition Act of 1918 (which was just an amendment to the Espionage Act) made it illegal to criticize the government and its officials on the excuse of a national emergency.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but it sure seems like the Wilson Administration and US Congress were having a throwback party if you ask me.
#Wall decals about bible verses will class up any kitchen #You should come to my Thirty-One party
I can’t stop. There are too many:
#I’m the best mom on this field trip and everyone knows it #Have you read Eat, Pray, Love? #Let’s get lattes after Zumba! #Gluten causes Autism #I will have him pulled out of your class #Oh shoot, I forgot I volunteered to bring brownies to faith group tonight #We don’t let him watch more than one hour of TV a day #Stick figure family window sticker #(whispers behind hand) you’ve got to read 50 Shades of Grey
Forgive me. I am a mother, and I walk among these women every day. I have adopted their ways as a form of camouflage.
Don’t forget #IAmNotAfraidToVerballyAssaultA12YearOldIfTheyLookAtMySonFunny