The first test to American constitutional liberties occurred on July 14, 1798, with the passage of the Sedition Act, a law that forbade citizens to “write, print, utter or publish ... scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.”
Beginning under George Washington's presidency and continuing through the John Adams administration, the United States saw a significant deterioration in its relations with France. The French Revolution had begun in 1789, and by 1792 the nation was at war with many other European states, including Great Britain. Many in France had expected help from the United States, which had won its war of independence against Great Britain in 1783.
In 1793 the French minister to the United States, Edmond-Charles Genêt, had tried to stir up popular American feeling against the British, reminding Americans of France's indispensable help to their nation only a few years before. Genêt offered privateer papers to American ship owners and made passionate speeches calling for unity between the two republics.
Washington declared that the United States would remain neutral, and many in France felt betrayed. Indeed, Washington's government had proclaimed the 1778 treaty of alliance between American and France was still in effect, despite the execution of Louis XVI and the reign of the republican regime.
After the United States and Great Britain concluded the Jay Treaty in February 1796, which allowed for greater trade between the two nations, the French began an undeclared naval war against United States shipping. This conflict was later named the “Quasi-War.”
In 1796, Washington's vice president, John Adams, was elected president. Like Washington, Adams was committed to peace. To that end, he sent a delegation to Paris to try to defuse the situation on the high seas. Led by John Marshall, the peace commission was told by three French officials that the foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, would not meet with them unless they offered an enormous bribe. The event later came to be known simply as the “XYZ Affair.”
After the incident, anger toward the French became palpable, with many Americans, including the leader of the Federalist Party, Alexander Hamilton, calling for a declaration of war.
In his book “John Adams,” historian David McCullough noted the intense feelings of the time: “There was a rampant fear of the enemy within. French emigrés in America, according to the French consul in Philadelphia, by now numbered 25,000 or more. ... In Philadelphia a number of French newspapers had been established. There were French booksellers, French schools, French boardinghouses and French restaurants. The French, it seemed, were everywhere, and who was to measure the threat they posed in the event of war with France?”
In June and July 1798, Congress passed acts dealing with aliens. The acts increased the amount of time it took a foreign resident of the United States to become a citizen from seven years to 14. They also gave Adams the power to deport any alien he found dangerous.
It was the Sedition Act, however, that proved the most controversial. The Sedition Act essentially negated the guarantee of free speech granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Should anyone criticize the government's actions, he could be sentenced to a term in jail.
After years of watching her husband attacked in the press, Abigail Adams, the president's wife, became one of the Sedition Act's staunchest supporters. She wrote: “Bearing neither malice or ill will towards anyone, not even the most deluded ... I wish the laws of our country were competent to punish the stirrer-up of sedition, the writer and printer of base and unfounded calumny.”
Though the acts passed the Federalist-controlled Congress, many in the party disapproved, including John Marshall, who would later be appointed chief justice of the United States. Another man who was vehemently opposed to the new laws was the vice president, Thomas Jefferson.
The leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, Thomas Jefferson had vocally sympathized with the French Revolutionaries in their war against Great Britain. After the “XYZ Affair,” he wisely remained silent on the issue of France. Elected vice president under the Constitution's early electoral mechanism, his party was in direct conflict with the Federalists, the party from which Adams drew his support. When the new laws were passed, a disgusted Jefferson left Washington, D.C., and returned to his home, Monticello, in Virginia.
The vice president, however, did not remain idle. Even as prominent Democratic-Republican politicians and journalists were being arrested under the Sedition Act, Jefferson set to work to challenge the new legislation. Today, one challenges such laws in the federal courts and before the Supreme Court, but the principle of judicial review, the courts' power to overturn laws deemed unconstitutional, had not yet been established. Another mechanism for defeating it had to be created.
Writing in secret with his friend and political collaborator James Madison, Jefferson wrote a series of resolutions that would later be put forward by the state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia. The resolutions declared that a state had the right to ignore federal laws it found unconstitutional, within state borders.
The resolutions presented several dangerous questions dealing with the states' relationship to the federal government, and the idea of “nullification,” as the doctrine came to be known, would persist for decades. Indeed, the questions of states' rights versus federal power would not be solved until the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.
In his book “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” historian Sean Wilentz wrote about the attempts to have other states pass similar resolutions:
“Several states followed Maryland's House of Delegates in rejecting the idea that any state government could, by legislative action, even claim that a federal law was unconstitutional, and suggested that any effort to do so was treasonous. A few Northern states.
denied the powers claimed by Kentucky and Virginia and insisted that the Sedition Law was perfectly constitutional, as it banned not truth but 'licentiousness, in speaking and writing, that is only employed in propagating falsehood and slander.'”
And yet, Federalist action in support of the Sedition Act often worked against the party's popular image as people began to be arrested over legitimate criticism and highly subjective slights. In all, 25 Americans were arrested under the act, though fewer than half were convicted.
Though the acts were initially supported by most Americans, they quickly grew unpopular and Federalists found it harder and harder to defend them. Fortunately, the acts all expired after a set time, most within three years. Rather than repealing the acts and admitting defeat, the Federalists in Congress quietly agreed not to renew them once they expired.
They didn't have to worry on that score. The Alien and Sedition Acts became major issues in the 1800 elections and proved one of the reasons the Federalists lost the White House and Congress to the Democratic-Republicans. In 1801, a satisfied President Jefferson allowed the hated laws to die a natural death.
McCullough wrote: “Adams later spoke of the Alien and Sedition Acts as war measures. It was how he saw them then and how he chose to remember them. 'I knew there was need enough of both, and therefore I consented to them,' he would write in explanation long afterward, and at the time, the majority of Congress and most of the country were in agreement.”
comments on this story
Sadly, 1798 was not the last time such an act was passed. In 1918, at the height of World War I, Congress passed another Sedition Act, which again saw Americans going to jail for criticizing the government. Perhaps the most notable violator of the law was Socialist politician Eugene V. Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a speech he made in Canton, Ohio. His sentence was later commuted by President Warren G. Harding.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: email@example.com