This week in history: Sedition Act tested American liberties
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.”
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