Origins of the Sedition Act of 1798

Its 1798 and a very difficult time in the United States. In Europe, France was at war with almost every major power who wanted to restore the Bourbons to their throne.

In the Caribbean, the U.S was at war with the French which had authorized its Navy and holders of French government letters of marque to seize American ships. Known as the Quasi-War, (See June 20, 2022 post – The Undeclared War Against the French –, this wasn’t the first nor the last undeclared or “limited” war in which the United States would become involved. Unfortunately, for those being shot at, there is no such thing as a “limited” war.

Back home, the Democratic-Republicans were at “war” with the Federalists over pretty much every major issue. The Federalists controlled both houses and the presidency. What we would call hot button issues today were immigration, taxation, size of the military, size and shape of Congressional districts, and the list goes on.

The war in Europe was already causing thousands to emigrate to the U.S. The population was growing by leaps and bounds (see December 12th post – Origins of the U.S. Census – and both sides of the aisle were concerned for different reasons.

The Federalists wanted to create a process that provided an orderly path to citizenship. They did not want to limit the number or where the immigrants came from. Already, the Naturalization Act of 1790 supported by both parties established a two-year residency requirement that was extended in 1795 to five years. Both acts required vetting to ensure the potential citizen was “of good character.” If this could be verified in the eyes of a “court,” the person was allowed to swear allegiance to the United States and become a citizen.

The Democratic Republicans saw the flood of immigrants as potential voters and Federalists saw them as potential agents of a foreign government. Note that the Federalists were not trying to stop immigration, but, as we would say today, “get a handle on it.” They wanted to know who was coming into the country.

By 1798, the country suffered through two major foreign policy scandals – “L’Affaire Genet” (see 11/28/21 blog post – Le Affaire Genêt and Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation – ) in 1783 and L’Affaire de XYZ (see 7/26/20 blog post L’Affaire de XYZ – ) in 1787.

Jefferson was involved up to his neck in both these scandals that raised very real fears that the France was actively attempting to get the United States to join their side (they were!).

Understand that leaders of both sides had lived through the American Revolution and before that, censorship and other controls on society imposed by the British Parliament. Hence, the First Amendment reads Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridge the freedom of speech; or the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble; or petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Jefferson, Madison, and the other leaders of the Democratic-Republicans encouraged their contacts in the media to write articles critical of the Adams administration. This was then, and is now, the right of any individual. These two men saw a path to the presidency by taking advantage of the first amendment.

However, what transpired blurred the line between journalism – factual reporting the who, what, where and when – became blurred with editorial opinion. Suddenly Adams and Federalists were faced with an onslaught of articles critical of the administration that were posited by newspapers to be true. For the most part, they were not and the Adams administration felt that the republic and the authority of the Federal government was threatened.

Predictably, the Federalists reacted and John Adams, with majorities in the House and Senate, pushed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Among other things, the laws increased the time required for citizenship to 14 years. The sedition laws empowered the Federal government to sue anyone writing articles critical of the government. Ultimately, the unpopularity of these laws led to Adams defeat by Jefferson in the hotly contested election in 1800.

The legacy of these laws began the debate on about what was protected by the First Amendment and what was not. More on these acts in coming posts.

Image is the headline on a Boston paper, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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