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Sedition Act of 1798

Sedition Act of 1798

Legislation

By: United States Congress

Date: July 14, 1798

Source: Sedition Act of 1798. Available at: University of Oklahoma College of Law. "A Chronology of U.S, Historical Documents: The Sedition Act of 1798." <http://www.law.ou.edu/ushistory/sedact.shtml> (accessed June 3, 2006).

About the Author: At the time this act was passed into law, President John Adams (1735–1826) and the Federalist Party led the U.S. government. This political party's main focus was on creating and maintaining a sense of nationalism in the newly formed United States of America.

INTRODUCTION

The Sedition Act of 1798 was written to prevent conspiracies in opposition to the American government both at home and abroad. Signed into law by Federalist John Adams during a time when relations between America and France were strained and many Americans believed war was imminent, the act was denounced by his opponents in the Virginia House of Delegates as being unconstitutional. In particular, the protest document, drawn by James Madison, accused that the Sedition Act was absolutely forbidden by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

PRIMARY SOURCE

An Act in addition to the act, entitled "An act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States."

SEC. 1. Be it enacted…, That if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States, or to intimidate or prevent any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States, from undertaking, performing or executing his trust or duty; and if any person or persons, with intent as aforesaid, shall counsel, advise or attempt to procure any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination, whether such conspiracy, threatening, counsel, advice, or attempt shall have the proposed effect or not, he or they shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and on conviction, before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and by imprisonment during a term not less than six months nor exceeding five years; and further, at the discretion of the court may be holden to find sureties for his good behaviour in such sum, and for such time, as the said court may direct.

SEC. 2. That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

SEC. 3. That if any person shall be prosecuted under this act, for the writing or publishing any libel aforesaid, it shall be lawful for the defendant, upon the trial of the cause, to give in evidence in his defence, the truth of the matter contained in the publication charged as a libel. And the jury who shall try the cause, shall have a right to determine the law and the fact, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.

SEC. 4. That this act shall continue to be in force until March 3, 1801, and no longer…

SIGNIFICANCE

Tensions developed between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) for many reasons, and these tensions led to the events surrounding the Sedition Act of 1798. First, Jefferson and Adams were opponents in the election of 1796. As a result of that election, Adams was elected president, and Jefferson, through a flaw in the Electoral College system, was elected vice president instead of Adams' running mate. Jefferson supported the revolution underway in France, while Adams opposed the French conflict and did not want America to be drawn into the fray.

The Sedition Act would not only keep the French from inciting fervor for their cause in America, but it would also keep Jefferson and his supporters from stirring up wider sympathy for the French. Opponents of the Sedition Act considered the act a mechanism for silencing opposition to Federalist ideals. The Sedition Act is divided into four sections, with the first of these defining what actions could be construed as conspiracy to oppose the government. Offenses included instigating insurrections, causing riots, or opposing a government measure. It was also deemed unlawful to hinder a government official from performing his obligations in any way. The second section established as criminal any malicious words used against the United States government or its officials. This was particularly aimed at those who might defame the character of the president or Congress or injure the reputation of those offices in any way. It also made it unlawful to oppose federal laws or to conspire with foreign nations against the United States.

Thirdly, the Sedition Act provided that any person charged with a crime under the act would be entitled to defend himself. The jury by which he would be tried would be given the right to determine the law and punishment as it might apply. The fourth section of the Act pronounced the expiration date as March 3, 1801.

The protests of eminent anti-federalists such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson could not prevent the Sedition Act from becoming law, and the U.S. Supreme Court never ruled on the constitutionality of the act. Over the next two years, several newspaper publishers were convicted and/or fined under the act. However, only two years after Adams approved the Sedition Act, Thomas Jefferson was elected president and promptly pardoned those who had been convicted and repaid those who had been fined.

Although the Sedition Act of 1798 expired in 1801, and the U.S. Supreme Court never tried its constitutionality, the act set a precedent for two similar laws enacted in subsequent centuries. In 1918, another Sedition Act was made law in reaction to World War I. Again, in 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act became law in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. In both of these subsequent cases, the constitutionality of such a controversial act of Congress has been questioned by opponents, who maintain that such laws violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

Web sites

National Archives and Records Administration. "The Formation of Political Parties: The Alien and Sedition Acts." <http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/treasures_of_congress/page_5.html#> (accessed June 1, 2006).

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