In Part 2 of my series on the Sedition Act, I profile William Durrell...
William Durrell had the distinction of being the first editor arrested after the enactment of the Sedition Act and was the only Democratic-Republican pardoned for his offensive remarks.
As publisher and editor of the Mount Pleasant Register, an obscure upstate New York weekly, Durrell reprinted a paragraph from a June 5, 1798, article originally published in the New Windsor (Conn.) Gazette that was critical of President John Adams. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering marked the offending passage and instructed the government prosecutor to determine whether the paragraph was libelous.
Although these instructions were written more than two weeks before the Sedition Act became law, Durrell was not arrested until July 17, three days after Adams signed the act. Durrell was taken into custody and then released on $4,000 bail.
On Sept. 5, 1798, Durrell pleaded not guilty before the United States Circuit Court, but it was not until fall 1799 that he was formally indicted for publishing the “false scandalous malicious and defamotry [sic] Libel of and concerning John Adams.”
Because his critical remarks appeared in print before passage of the Sedition Act, Durrell was charged under the common-law doctrine of seditious libels rather than under the 1798 act. Under common-law practice, the truth of the critical remarks could not be offered as a defense. Therefore, the jury simply had to decide whether Durrell had published critical opinions.
For nearly two years the looming threat of a trial led Durrell to discontinue the publication of his weekly journal and reduced him to poverty even before his indictment. In an attempt to avoid jail time Durrell argued for clemency, stating that because he had been out of business a jail sentence would deprive his family of their sole source of support – the labor of his hands. A judge sentenced him to four months in jail and a $50 fine.
He was to remain in prison until the fine was paid and was ordered to post $2,000 in security for his good behavior for two years. A day after he began his sentence, New York District Attorney Richard Harison wrote to Pickering that Durrell “appears to be very poor at present, has a large family to maintain, and has a considerable Time since (he) discontinued his news paper.” Harison urged Pickering to consider a pardon for Durrell and having been sufficiently impressed with Harison’s argument, President Adams granted a partial pardon on April 22, 1800, directing Pickering to release Durrell from “all the Sentence, except what relates to the Security for future good Behaviour.”
After serving less than two weeks of his four-month sentence, Durrell became the only person convicted of sedition to be released from fine and imprisonment by a presidential pardon.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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