The Sedition Act

Word Count: 2107 of 1798 For the first few years of
Constitutional government, under the leadership of George
Washington, there was a unity, commonly called Federalism
that even James Madison (the future architect of the
Republican Party) acknowledged in describing the
Republican form of government– And according to the
degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans,
ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting
the character of Federalists. Although legislators had
serious differences of opinions, political unity was considered
absolutely essential for the stability of the nation. Political
parties or factions were considered evil as Complaints are
everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous
citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of
public and personal liberty, that our governments are too
unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts
of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not
according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor
party, but by the superior force of an interested and
overbearing majority Public perception of factions were
related to British excesses and thought to be the mortal
diseases under which popular governments have everywhere
perished. James Madison wrote in Federalist Papers #10,
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether
amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are
united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or
of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the
permanent and aggregate interests of the community. He
went on to explain that faction is part of human nature; that
the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is
only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.

The significant point Madison was to make in this essay was
that the Union was a safeguard against factions in that even if
the influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within
their particular States, they will be unable to spread a
general conflagration through the other States. What caused
men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to defy
tradition and public perceptions against factions and build an
opposition party? Did they finally agree with Edmund
Burkes famous aphorism: When bad men combine, the
good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an
unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle? Did the answer
lie in their opposition with the agenda of Alexander Hamilton
and the increases of power both to the executive branch as
well as the legislative branch of government? Hamilton
pushed for The Bank of the United States, a large standing
Army raised by the President (Congress was to raise and
support armies,) a Department of Navy, funding and excise
taxes, and, in foreign policy, a neutrality that was
sympathetic to British interest to the detriment of France.

Many legislators, especially those in the south, were alarmed
to the point that a separation of the Union was suggested as
the only way to deal with Hamiltons successes. Many were
afraid that the army would be used against them as it had
during the Whiskey Rebellion. Southerners saw the taxes to
support a new treasury loan favoring pro-British merchants
in the commercial cities, and unfairly paid by landowners in
the South. These issues as well as neutrality issues between
France, England, and the United States were the catalyst for
the forming of the Republican Party. The French and English
conflict caused many problems with Americas political
system. The English Order of Council and the French
Milan Decree wreaked havoc with Americas shipping and
led to Jays Treaty of 1794. Jays Treaty was advantageous
to America and helped to head off a war with Britain, but it
also alienated the French. The French reacted by seizing
American ships causing the threat of war to loom large in
American minds. President Adams sent three commissioners
to France to work out a solution and to modify the
Franco-American alliance of 1778, but the Paris government
asked for bribes and a loan from the United States before
negotiations could even begin. The American commissioners
refused to pay the bribes and they were denied an audience
with accredited authorities and even treated with contempt.

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Two of the commissioners returned to the United States with
Elbridge Gerry staying behind to see if he could work
something out. This became known as the XYZ affair and
was the beginning of an undeclared naval war between
France and the United States. The XYZ affair played right
into the hands of the Federalist Party. They immediately
renounced all treaties of 1788 with France and began their
agenda of creating a large standing army and a Navy
Department to deal with the threat of an American-French
war. Fear and patriotism were fanned and a strong
anti-French sentiment swept the land. Then a gem of a
caveat was thrown into the Federalist hands when Monsieur
Y boasted that the Diplomatic skill of France and the means
she possess in your country, are sufficient to enable her, with
the French party in America, to throw the blame which will
attend the rupture of the negotiations on the Federalist, as
you term yourselves, but on the British party, as France
terms you. This boast was to cause suspicion and wide
spread denunciation of the Republican Party and its leaders.

Senator Sedgwick, majority whip in the Senate, after hearing
of the XYZ Affair, said, It will afford a glorious opportunity
to destroy faction. Improve it. Hamilton equated the
publics perception of the Republicans opposition to the
Federalists agenda like that of the Tories in the Revolution.

All in all, this boast began the process that became the Alien
and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Republicans debated against
the bills for about a month, but the Federalist had the votes.

A background of fear helped keep the public silent and
perhaps somewhat approving to the loss of some personal
freedoms, as nobody wanted to be accused as a Jacobean.

In May of 1778, President Adams declared a day of prayer
and fasting. Many thought that the Jacobeans were going to
use that day to rise up in insurrection and cut the throats of
honest citizens. They even thought they were going to
attack President Adams and citizens of Philadelphia came
out by the hundreds to protect him. Federalist saw this as a
demonstration of support for the government. Those who
spoke against the Sedition bill were accused of being in
league with the Jacobeans. Edward Livingston, in opposing
the bill said, If we are ready to violate the Constitution, will
the people submit to our unauthorized acts? Sir, they ought
not to submit; they would deserve the chains that our
measures are forging for them, if they did not resist. The
Federalist accused Livingston of sedition because of his
implied threat of popular rebellion; a practice seen in future
debates when unlawful power was to be enforced.

Republican newspapers were railing against the Federalist
and especially against the Sedition bill. The Aoura was the
leading Republican publication and Benjamin Bache was its
editor. Baches ability to get the story out caused much
consternation among Federalist. Harrison Gray Otis said that
Baches writing influenced even intelligent people, What can
you expect from the gaping and promiscuous crowd who
delight to swallow calumny..? The Federalist needed the
Sedition bill to shut down the Republican presses and Bache
played right into their hands with his publication of
Tallyrands conciliatory letter to the American envoys before
the President had even seen it. Republicans insisted that this
was a journalistic scoop that would lead to peace because
France was willing to negotiate with Edmund Gerry. The
Federalist wanted Bache to explain how he had received a
letter that the President hadnt even seen yet. They began to
accuse him of being in league with France, an agent of
Tallyrand and an enemy of the people of the United States.

The administration was so incensed with Bache that they
didnt wait for passage of the Sedition bill, but had him
arrested for treason on June 27, 1778. From the very
beginning Republican leaders recognized that the Sedition bill
was primarily directed toward the destruction of any
opposition to the Federalist Party and its agenda. Albert
Gallatin said the Sedition Act was a weapon to perpetuate
their authority and preserve their present places. Proof that
this bill was politically motivated became obvious when the
House voted to extend the act from the original one year
proposed to the expiration of John Adams term, March 3,
1801. The States response to the passing of the Sedition Act
was mixed. Kentucky and Virginia each responded with acts
basically nullifying the Congressional act, but other states
accepted the Congress taking authority from what had been
a state function. The public response initially appeared
mixed. British common law seemed to have preconditioned
many to accept a limitation of their personal freedoms. The
victory of the Republicans, who ran on a platform of
anti-sedition, in the election of 1800 showed that Americans
were much more interested in personal freedom than the
aristocratic Federalist thought. What would happen if
Congress submitted a Sedition Bill today as they did in
1778? With our established two-party system (in marked
contrast to their conceptions of factions), the freedom of
press as a well developed principle, and freedom of speech
the cornerstone in Americans sense of liberty; it seems that
there would be a major revolt. Are there any instances in
20th century history that compares to the Sedition Acts
flagrant disregard of the First Amendment? No government
actions seem so blatantly unconstitutional as the Sedition Act
of 1798; but, there are many actions since then that have
caused much more personal pain than the twenty-seven
persons convicted under the Sedition Act. In times of war it
is understood that many personal liberties may be curtailed,
especially for enemy aliens living in the United States. The
War Relocation Authority signed by President Roosevelt
caused thousands of enemy aliens as well as Japanese-
American citizens to lose everything as they were interned in
concentration camps throughout the West. These Americans
were told that if they were true patriotic citizens they would
go without complaining. If they were to complain then that
was prima facie evidence that they were not loyal citizens. In
June of 1940, Americas fear of German aggression led to
the enactment of the Smith Act. Much like the Alien and
Sedition Act it required all aliens to be registered and
fingerprinted. It also made it a crime to advocate or teach
the violent overthrow of the United States, or to even belong
to a group that participated in these actions. The United
States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law
in the case of eleven communist (Dennis v United States.)
This decision was later modified in 1957 (Yates v United
States.) The Court limited conviction to direct action being
taken against government, ruling that teaching communism or
the violent overthrow of government did not in itself
constitute grounds for conviction. Another instance of
governmental infringement of the liberties of American
citizens is the well known Senate Sub-committee on
un-American Activities headed by Joseph McCarthy.

Thousands of people lost their livelihood and personal
reputations were shattered by innuendo, finger pointing, and
outright lies. As in earlier instances of uncontrolled excesses
by people in government, guilt was assumed and
protestations of innocence were evidence that something
was being hidden. In 1993, rumblings were heard from the
Democratic controlled Congress that there needed to be
fairness in broadcasting. If one viewpoint was shared, they
felt the opposing viewpoint must be given fair time to
respond. This was facetiously called the Rush Act in
response to the phenomenal success of conservative radio
talk show host, Rush Limbaugh. As in the 1790s when
Republicans formed newspapers to counteract the Federalist
control of the press; many conservatives felt that the few
conservative broadcasters and programs had a long way to
go before they balanced the liberal press. Fortunately, as in
the 1800 election, Republicans gained control of Congress in
1992 and the Rush Act died a natural death. Recently
many Americans have become concerned with domestic
terrorism. Waco, the Oklahoma Federal Building, and now
the Freemen in Montana have caused citizens and legislators
alike to want something done. The House of Representatives
just approved HR2768. This bill will curtail many liberties for
American citizens as well as Aliens. The following are eight
points made by the ACLU concerning this bill: 1. Broad
terrorism definition risks selective prosecution 2. More illegal
wiretaps and less judicial control will threaten privacy 3.

Expansion of counterintelligence and terrorism investigations
threatens privacy 4. The Executive would decide which
foreign organizations Americans could support 5. Secret
evidence would be used in deportation proceedings 6.

Foreign dissidents would be barred from the United States
7. Federal courts would virtually lose the power to correct
unconstitutional Incarceration 8. Aliens are equated with
terrorists This bill has many points in common with the Alien
and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Smith Act of 1950, the
McCarren Act of 1950, and the Executive Order of Feb.19,
1942 that led to War Relocation Authority. Each one of
these actions were taken when fear controlled the public and
an agenda controlled the people in authority. Thankfully, the
American people have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
to bring them back from the edge, and to force those in
positions of responsibility to accountability. The
responsibility of government lies with the governed. If the
American people react to trying situations and events in fear,
then a general malaise and sense of helplessness will
permeate the collective American consciousness. The
abdication of personal responsibility erodes liberty, creating
an atmosphere of dependency, that leads to bigger
government and its pseudo security. Edward Livingstons
statement, If we are ready to violate the Constitution, will
the people submit to our unauthorized acts? Sir, they ought
not to submit; they would deserve the chains that our
measures are forging for them, if they did not resist, serves
as a timely warning to Americans today.