OTD in History… July 14, 1798, Congress passes the Sedition Act an assault on the first amendment
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history July 14, 1798, President John Adams signed into law, the immensely unpopular Sedition Act. It was the fourth of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts meant to protect the fledgling nation plunged into a Quasi-War naval war with France but at the same time curtailed the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution ratified just seven years before. As the History Channel put it, the act was “one of the most egregious breaches of the U.S. Constitution in history,” “endangering liberty in the fragile new nation.” The laws furthered emphasized the divide between the newly formed political parties, President Adams’ the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans head by Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists supported closer relations with Great Britain, while the Republicans sided with old Revolutionary War ally France.
During the Quasi-War in 1798–99, France seized over 300 American ships because they were trading with Great Britain under Jay’s Treaty of 1795. France also refused “to accept the credentials of Charles Coatesworth Pinckney, the new American minister to France,” threatening to arrest him. Pickney along with John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry went to France to negotiate a deal to retrieve the “confiscated ships.” (Thackeray and Findling, 152) Three agents of French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand demanded from the American commissioners $ 250,000 and a $10 million loan. When Pickney, Marshall, and Eldridge notified Adams he sent Congress that, he was denouncing the treatment and wanted Congress to prepare for a possible War. Republicans demanded proof, Adams sent Congress the Commissioners report, the incident became known as the XYZ Affair, for the letters referenced to Tallyrand’s agents.
The moment was a great triumph for Adams as anti-French sentiment swept the new nation, Congress expanded the Army and Navy, with former President General George Washington agreeing to come out of retirement and lead the army with Alexander Hamilton as his second. Congress also cut trade with France but Adams would not agree to Hamilton’s demands for a formal declaration of war. Hamiltonian Federalists in Congress decided on the next best solution to maintaining Federalist control, the Alien and Sedition Acts. Publicly the acts were for national security protecting the country from France; privately Federalists aimed the laws at French supporting Republicans and their partisan press.
The fifth Congress passed four bills in 1798 compromising the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Nationalization Act increased the residency requirement for citizenship to fourteen from five years. The Alien Act allowed the president to deport any immigrant deemed dangerous. The Alien Enemies Act could imprison immigrants whose country declare or threaten war with America. Finally, the Sedition Act, the only one of the four acts enforced. The law punished by fine or imprisonment anyone who made “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government of the United States. The law clearly violated the First Amendment, Freedom of Speech and punished the Republican press, the Federalists greatest detractors. Ten Republican newspaper editors were prosecuted including Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon, who received a four-month prison sentence and a $1000 fine.
Republicans Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, passed in their respective state legislatures declaring the laws a violation of the First and Tenth Amendments. Their remedies called for a “states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution,” Madison called for states’ conventions to curtail federal power, while Jefferson suggested a state could nullify a law should they find it violated the Constitution. The resolutions were political, aimed at electing Jefferson president in 1800. Faced with a backlash Adams committed political suicide by breaking with Hamiltonian Federalists, resuming diplomatic negotiations with France, firing Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, and sending three new commissioners to France who negotiated a “forgive-and-forget agreement,” the Convention of 1800 with France’s new leader Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Alien Seditions Acts and breaking with Hamilton secured Jefferson ascendency to the presidency and Adams’ defeat. Three of the Acts expired right before or early in Jefferson’s term, with the Alien Enemies Act the lone holdover used during the World Wars in the 20th century. Nearly, two hundred and twenty years later Republican President Donald Trump is preaching and enacting similar anti-immigrant laws in the name of national security with his travel ban, upheld by the Supreme Court and his attacks on the press, continually referring to them as fake news. Trump’s Hamiltonian rhetoric and actions have a precedence neither the press nor the public refuse to acknowledge; throughout American history the Constitution has been threatened by those in the highest offices pledging oaths to protect it.
Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.