The Sedition Act

The greatest blunder of the John Adams administration was the Sedition Act.  It inflamed his adversaries and gave color to their accusations that Adams was a tyrant.  It is stunning that the same men who had fought in the Revolution and helped to found a new government could have implemented legislation in 1798 which was so blatantly unconstitutional and antithetical to the liberties that they had so bravely fought for.  The Act helped destroy the Federalists and assure the success of Jefferson’s Republicans.  The text of the Act is as follows:

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled. 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 misdemeanour, 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 of 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.

SECT. 2. And be it further enacted, 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 stir up sedition within 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.

SECT. 3. And be it further enacted and declared, 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.

SECT. 4. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force until the third day of March, one thousand eight hundred and one, and no longer: Provided, That the expiration of the act shall not prevent or defeat a prosecution and punishment of any offence against the law, during the time it shall be in force.

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Published in: on May 26, 2010 at 5:38 am  Comments (8)  
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8 Comments

  1. Hard to believe that Adams et al, could do this and support it having gone through the start up process of this nation. Another puzzling point is Sect.4 the legislated termination date of the law… Why?
    Would that we had done that with several federal departments and legislated venues(EPA,Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Fed Education department, about 100 more). Interesting to see their struggle and ours today.
    Thanks for your work.
    In Christ
    Dennis McCutcheon
    Vine International – Guatemala http://www.vineinternational.org

  2. Dennis, lots of acts have “sunset provisions”. I assume that the provision was inserted to help it gain passage in Congress. It was passed largely as a war measure due to the conflict with France and the sunset provision helped convince members of Congress that it was only a temporary measure in a time of crisis.

    Linked below is a good article comparing the Sedition Act favorably with traditional English Common Law in regard to sedition.

    http://www.answers.com/topic/sedition-act-of-1798

  3. Allow me point out that the lover of liberty, Jefferson, encouraged his allies to prosecute Federalists under _state_ sedition laws.

  4. TC could you link to a source on that? I believe you, but I am unfamiliar with Jefferson urging prosecution of Federalists under state sedition laws, and it would make a good follow up post if I could find some information on the subject.

  5. I’m afraid not. I read it ages ago in a history of the period then a few years ago in Wm. Safire’s novel Scandal which follows James Callender’s career.
    As with his Civil War novel, Freedom, Safire includes an “underbook” explaining which parts are historical and which fictional & giving sources.

    Btw, I would recommend both Freedom and Scandal to anyone. Freedom follows the CW up to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation & I’m sorry Safire never wrote a sequel bringing it up to Lincoln’s assassination.
    Scadal has interesting takes on Hamilton, Burr, Madison and of course, Jefferson.

  6. A little late to this discussion, but I can confirm that TC is right. Leonard Levy’s book, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Dark Side is a good account of how Jefferson’s rhetoric and his actions didn’t always match. Indeed Jefferson did encourage Republican governors to prosecute Federalist writers. I think even Jefferson’s <strikehagiographer biographer discussed this.

  7. Paul you should pick up the new book culled from Theodore Roosevelt’s writings:

    Roosevelt’s sentiments regarding Mr. Jefferson mirror your own!

  8. Thanks for the tip, Don.


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