No protesting the government? No freedom of the press? Lawmakers jailed? Is this the story of the Soviet Union during the Cold War?
No. It describes the United States in 1798 after the passage of the Sedition Act, one of a series of four laws signed in June and July that year and known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The History Channel describes it as one of the “most egregious breaches of the U.S. Constitution in history”
On this day in 1798, one of the most egregious breaches of the U.S. Constitution in history becomes federal law when Congress passes the Sedition Act, endangering liberty in the fragile new nation. While the United States engaged in naval hostilities with Revolutionary France, known as the Quasi-War, Alexander Hamilton and congressional Federalists took advantage of the public’s wartime fears and drafted and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, without first consulting President John Adams.
Dave Benner writes that “the event seemed timed to chastise the Jeffersonian Republicans, who celebrated Bastille Day as a partisan holiday. The incendiary law criminalized bringing the president and members of Congress into ill-repute.”
“Any common criticism that was levied was unlawful, and the Federalists prosecuted and sentenced many individuals with up to a two-year jail term and a payment of $2,000. This law negated the possibility of normal political discourse and prevented a republican election from ever taking place. By many accounts, it was a malevolent infringement of the Tenth and First Amendments,” he continued.
History.com notes that the act was anything but a paper tiger:
Matthew Lyon, a Republican congressman from Vermont, became the first person tried under the new law in October 1798. A grand jury indicted Lyon for publishing letters in Republican newspapers during his reelection campaign that showed “intent and design” to defame the government and President Adams, among other charges. Lyon acted as his own attorney, and defended himself by claiming the Sedition Act was unconstitutional, and that he had not intended to damage the government.
He was convicted, and the judge sentenced him to four months in prison and a fine of $1,000. Lyon won reelection while sitting in jail, and would later defeat a Federalist attempt to kick him out of the House.
Another individual famously prosecuted under the Sedition Act was the Republican-friendly journalist James Callender. Sentenced to nine months in prison for his “false, scandalous, and malicious writing, against the said President of the United States,” Callender wrote articles from jail supporting Jefferson’s campaign for president in 1800.
Recognizing the grave danger this act posed to the basic constitutional structure, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drafted resolutions that were passed by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 formalized the principles of nullification as the rightful remedy when the federal government oversteps its authority.
Asserting that “the several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government,” in his original draft Jefferson proclaimed that nullification was the proper response to deal with unconstitutional acts.
Where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact, (casus non fœderis) to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right, they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them.
As Mike Maharrey wrote in this featured article, passage of the resolutions was considered by both Jefferson and Madison as a starting point.
Correspondence between Jefferson and Madison indicate they didn’t plan to stop with the resolutions. They hoped to use them as a springboard for state action against the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts.
In another article, Maharrey outlines the behind-the-scenes action on a local level in Kentucky that created a groundswell of support of state passage of the resolution in November of 1798:
Several counties in the Commonwealth adopted resolutions condemning the acts, including Fayette, Clark, Bourbon, Madison and Woodford. A Madison County Kentucky militia regiment issued an ominous resolution of its own, stating, “The Alien and Sedition Bills are an infringement of the Constitution and of natural rights, and that we cannot approve or submit to them.” Several thousand people gathered at an outdoor meeting protesting the acts in Lexington on August 13.
By reading these two articles, you can learn how two of the most prominent founding fathers planned on dealing with dangerous federal acts. And, in doing so, you can apply that same strategy for today’s most egregious acts.