It may not have been entirely co-incidental that the United States Congress chose July 14, 1798 to pass the Sedition Act, one of a bundle of laws known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. It was, after all, also the 10th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille by the Paris Mob, a symbolic beginning to the French Revolution.
That Revolution had terrified the dominant Federalist Party, staunch defenders of order, authority, and absolute property rights. In the ten years since the Bastille event, the French Revolution had spun out of control—not only was the ancient monarchy deposed and the Royal Family mostly separated from their heads, but a series of new governments unleashed a broader Reign of Terror and an ever more radical agenda.
The fledgling political parties—the Federalists of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams and the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had come into existence largely by opposition to the French on one side and general approval and support on the other.
As Washington left office tensions rose. John Adams was elected President as a Federalist, but his former friend and collaborator Jefferson, the acknowledged leader of the Republicans, was elected Vice-President under the original Constitutional provision that gave those posts to the winner of the majority of votes in the Electoral College and the next highest vote getter respectively. Federalists also controlled both houses of Congress and comprised virtually the entire federal Judiciary.
Despite calls by the Republicans for even handed neutrality in the war between Revolutionary France and the British and other European powers, Anglophile Federalists tilted heavily toward their old colonial Mother Country and against former ally France. They also refused to pay the American Revolutionary War debt to France on the grounds that the commitment was to the former monarchy, not the revolutionary Republic.
This enraged French revolutionary authorities. By 1796 France refused to accept a new American Minister and began raiding American shipping suspected of being in communication with the British. Tensions mounted further with the XYZ Affair in which French agemts demanded a large bribe to restore diplomatic relations with the U.S.This Federalist Cartoon depicts the contempt that party felt for Revolutionary France and their Democratic Republican friends. France is depicted as a hydra-headed monster extorting three American agents. On the right every possible anti-French cliché was crowded in--a headless body on a guillotine, a slatternly revolutionary spirit holding a Liberty Poll topped with a cap. At the table Republican agent in France Elderbridge Gerry is shown dining at a table on--yes--frog legs with Negroes while a member of the Directorate whispers instructions in his ear.
As commercial shipping losses mounted, Congress authorized the construction or purchase of a new Navy of up to 12 ships, including modern frigates mounting up to 22 guns. The so-called Quasi War broke out in earnest when Congress rescinded all of its treaty obligations to France on July 7, 1798 followed a few days later with an authorization for the infant Navy to attack French warships.
To all of this the Republicans vigorously objected. The highly partisan press on both sides were scathing in their denunciations of each other. The always thin skinned Adams was wounded and outraged by attacks on him as a British agent, monarchist, aristocrat, and personal insults to his appearance and demeanor. Members of Congress were hardly less abusive. Adams called on Congress to act against his tormentors citing them as traitors in the war with France.The official text of the Sedition Act's opening paragraphs as published by Congress.
The Federalist Congress, over the voracious objection of the Republican minority, was glad to oblige. The Alien and Sedition Acts were actually four separate measures:
The Naturalization Act extended the duration of residence required for aliens to become citizens of the United States from five years to fourteen years.
The Alien Act authorized the President to personally order the deportation of any alien he determined was “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” This provision was set to expire two years after being enacted.
The Enemy Alien Act authorized the President to order the arrest and deportation of any aliens from a nation at war with the United States. This is the only one of the Alien and Sedition Acts still in full force today and was cited in the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian nationals during World War II. Right wing commentators have argued that it could and should be used against Arab and other Islamic minorities as part of the War on Terrorism and Donald Trump cited it as justification for his anti-immigrant and Islamic policies.
The Sedition Act made it a Federal crime to “publish false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government or individual officials. By extension it was expected to bar similar verbal speech. It had a sunset provision, set to expire on Adams’s last day in office in March of 1801. This was obviously so that if Adam’s lost re-election a Republican president could not turn the law’s provisions against Federalists.
Adams was so distraught by criticism that he did not wait for the Sedition Act to pass Congress before ordering the arrest of Republican editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of his superior in the Mission to France during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin. Bache, in his newspaper The Aurora had criticized George Washington’s administration and attacked Adams as “blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous,” and a nepotistic aristocrat. Bache was arrested on common law libel two weeks before the new law was enacted and then recharged when it came into effect. The unfortunate journalist died of Yellow Fever later that year while awaiting trial. Before a partisan Federalist judiciary he faced certain conviction, a hefty fine and long sentence.
Editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, first victim of the Sedition Act.
In all twenty-five men were arrested under the Sedition Act and 11 came to trial. All who faced Federalist judges were convicted. Among the more noteworthy victims of the law were:
James Thomson Callender, a Scottish citizen exiled from home for his radical writings. He was charged for his book The Prospect Before Us. Tried before Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, the most voraciously partisan of Federalist judges, presiding in Circuit Court and as was then the custom. Callender was not allowed to argue that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional. He was convicted, fined $200, and sentenced to nine months in prison. Like the others convicted, he was pardoned by Jefferson when he assumed the Presidency after the Revolution of 1800
Congressman Mathew Lyon of Vermont was arrested for an article published in the Vermont Journal insulting Adams. After his arrest the defiant Irish born Congressman began his own publication, Lyon’s Republican Magazine. He was convicted, fined $1,000, and sentenced to four months in prison. While in jail he was re-elected to Congress in 1800. He cast the deciding vote for Thomas Jefferson in the House of Representatives when the presidential election resulted in an Electoral College tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his Republican running mate.
The greatest miscarriages of justice were the prosecutions of ordinary citizens. In Newark, New Jersey Luther Baldwin was in the crowd watching President Adams being welcomed to town. When cannon salutes were fired someone joked, “There goes the President and they are firing at his ass,” to which Brown was overheard to reply “I don’t care if they fire through his ass.” For this he was arrested and charged with “seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States.” He was fined $100.
But that was mild compared to the fate of David Brown of Dedham, Massachusetts. In November 1798 he and his friends had the temerity to erect one of the symbols of the French Revolution, a Liberty Pole emblazoned with the words “No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long Live the Vice President.” Arrested and unable to stand bail of $4,000—a then astronomical sum that even the richest Americans would have had trouble raising in cash—he was taken to Salem, a Federalist stronghold. He was held until his trial the following June. When he refused to name those who assisted him in erecting the Liberty Pole, he was convicted, fined $480 and sentenced to eighteen months in prison—the longest sentence given to any victim of the law.
During the entire period in which the Sedition Act was in place, no charges were brought against Federalist journalists or speakers who attacked the Vice President and Republican law makers with every bit as much vigor and vitriol as Republicans did against the President. Enforcement was clearly political.
Republican leaders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were appalled at
the Alien and Sedition Acts but powerless to stop them in view of the
total domination of the Federalist in all three branches of government.
In desperation they authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,
which although no enacted by either state, became the ideological basis
for latter claims of state nullification and secession. Jefferson might
have approved. The more nationalist minded Madison would have been
shocked that their political maneuver would be used to destroy the
Republican leaders Jefferson and Madison struggled to find a way to counter the obvious tyranny of the law. Despite Madison’s preferences for a stronger central government than Jefferson would have preferred they jointly drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which denounced the Act as an attack on Constitutionally protected freedom of press, speech, and assembly and asserted the right of individual states to retain their natural rights which they had voluntarily ceded to the Federal Government and to nullify Federal laws which breech those rights. Although the Resolutions were never enacted, they became the philosophical foundation of subsequent Southern claims of state sovereignty and what became known as the Doctrine of Nullification.
Naturally, the Sedition Act became one of the hot button issues of the Election of 1800. Most Americans, including many moderate Federalists, were aghast at the overt attack on hard-won liberties of speech and press. The Republicans were swept to power by large majorities. Not only did Jefferson ascend to the Presidency, but Republicans took both the House of Representatives and the Senate and won several governorships and control of state legislatures. The Federalists were dealt a blow from which they never recovered. Soon they were reduced to a New England regional rump party and they disappeared entirely after the War of 1812.
In office, Jefferson pardoned those convicted under the act. He personally contributed to several of the victims who were financially ruined by persecution. But he could not repeal the Act, because it expired with the Adams’ administration.
The Sedition Act was never ruled unconstitutional. Federal courts did not assert the right to make such a ruling until Chief Justice John Marshall in the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Which is probably a good thing because the overwhelmingly Federalist Judiciary would have undoubtedly upheld the act.
Various later Supreme Court decisions have mentioned the Act and assumed that it was unconstitutional. As Justice William O. Douglas wrote in an opinion in 1964, “The Alien and Sedition Laws constituted one of our sorriest chapters; and I had thought we had done with them forever...Suppression of speech as an effective police measure is an old, old device, outlawed by our Constitution.”
The Sedition Act was used as justification for Japanese internment during World War II.
Unfortunately the ghost of the Sedition Act will not stay still. It was cited in the complete breakdown of civil liberties and wide-spread persecutions, prosecutions, jailing, and deportations by the Wilson Administration during World War I and the Red Scare that followed. It was the justification for the mass round-up and detention in concentration camps of immigrants and Japanese/American citizens alike in World War II. In the McCarthy Era Red Scare reboot Congress authorized the construction of the McCarran Act Camps for Communists, Socialists, and so called Fellow Travelers. Although the camps were never used new possible targets have been proposed to fill them from Black Panthers and Hippy anti-war protestors in the ‘60s to American Muslims after 9/11. Most recently it has been suggested that the camps could be used to hold illegal immigrants after a vast martial law type national sweep.
Neo-con intellectuals resurrected it as part of their theory of the Unitary Power of the Executive during the dismal reign of George W. Bush. They asserted that in matters of “national security” the President has virtually unlimited power in time of war or “emergency” to take whatever measures he deems necessary, including superseding “ordinary” Constitutional restraints, in the “protection of the homeland.”
Many features of the Alien and Sedition Acts, including criminalizing certain speech and associations, were incorporated into the massive and complex Patriot Act hastily adopted after the 9/11 attacks and extended by subsequent Congresses.
There is no small irony that the former President condoned the Siege of the Capitol in his name--an overt act of rebellion against the government--but will not be charged under the Sedition Act.
The besieged former Resident President with even thinner skin than old John Adams waged his verbal war with on the press over so-called fake news and openly shared is admiration for strongmen and brutal dictators. Many feared that with noose of public indignation and legal peril tightening around his neck, Trump might will the Cheeto-in-Charge turn to the Sedition Act in desperation.
Instead after loosing re-election he turned to promoting his own attempted usurpation with a violent attack on Congress and a relentless campaign of lies and distortion. Yet even he has not been charged with sedition. Instead, he will probably go to prison as a common huckster, chiseler, cheat, and criminal.