The Sedition Act: An Introduction

From time to time on the Posterity Project I plan to post some original research that I've written in the past. Today, I'm posting the first article in an ongoing series about the Sedition Act. The series chronicles the history of arrests, indictments, mistreatment and abuse of individuals who ran afoul of the 1798 law. A fully sourced and footnoted version of the article can be found on the First Amendment Center website. Here's the introduction to my article which I wrote back in 2006...

The Sedition Act: An Introduction

In 1798 the Alien and Sedition Acts were signed into law by President John Adams in response to fears of an impending war with France. These acts, consisting of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress, increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to 14 years, authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" and restricted speech critical of the government. While the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and Adams, argued that these laws were passed to protect the United States from foreign invaders and propagandists, Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, saw the Alien and Sedition Acts as a direct threat to individual liberty and the First Amendment by a tyrannical government.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were fiercely debated in the press, which was overtly partisan at the time. Many editors of Democratic-Republican-sponsored newspapers vehemently opposed the new laws, in particular the Sedition Act, which made speaking openly against the government a crime of libel punishable by fine and even prison time. Federalists sought to quell dissent by prosecuting those who violated the Sedition Act to the fullest extent of the law.

Accounts vary about the number of arrests and indictments that occurred as a result of the passage of the Sedition Act of 1798. Most scholars cite 25 arrests and at least 17 verifiable indictments – 14 under the Sedition Act and three under common law. Ten indictments went to trial, all resulting in convictions. Because these laws were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party, most of the victims of the sedition prosecutions were Democratic-Republican journalists who openly criticized Adams’ presidency and the Federalists. All but one of the indicted individuals – James Callender, from Thomas Jefferson’s home state of Virginia – were from the Federalist-dominated New England and Middle Atlantic states. Symbolically enough, Callender’s sentence ended on March 3, 1801, the day the Sedition Act expired.

In future posts in this series I will provide a brief look into the challenges that each of these citizens faced during this contentious era in American history. It is important to note that these individuals were tried both in federal court and under common law. In cases tried under common law, acts of sedition were far easier to prove because truth could not be used as a defense. The prosecution simply had to prove that the offending action was libelous.



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