Sedition Act of 1798: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:02 What Was the Act?
  • 0:33 Historical Background
  • 2:37 The Act, the…
  • 5:13 Consequences and Implications
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

In this lesson, define the Sedition Act of 1798, learn about the historical events that led to its passage, and understand the important consequences it had on the First Amendment.

What Was the Act?

The Sedition Act was passed by Congress in 1798, which made it illegal to 'write, print, utter or publish…any false, scandalous and malicious writing' against the Federal government, including the Congress and the president. Individuals could be tried under this law if they had the intent to either defame the government or incite hatred amongst the people against the government. If convicted, the guilty could receive a fine up to $2,000 and/or up to two years in prison.

Historical Background

Sedition laws can be traced to English common law, which made insulting the king a crime. Americans resented such restrictions on free speech, especially during the Revolutionary era. The First Amendment was added to the United States Constitution in 1791, which guaranteed the freedom of speech or of the press. The founding fathers of the Constitution believed that this was one of the most important rights that had to be protected. Since this new government was a republic where citizens elected members to Congress to represent their interests, people needed the right to criticize that government when they felt their best interests were not being represented.

Most Americans today are accustomed to the fighting and criticism that occurs between political parties in our democratic system. However, Americans in the late 1790s, were completely unfamiliar with two distinct organized parties that were often times directly opposed to one another. Many founding fathers, including George Washington and James Madison, were against the formation of political parties, fearing they would undermine the new republic and create a situation where individuals showed greater loyalty to their party rather than the nation.

Despite these fears, individuals tended to gravitate toward those who shared the same values and beliefs. By the late 1790s, two distinct parties formed over differing interpretations of the new Constitution: the Federalists and the Republicans. The Federalists, led by the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, favored the commercial interests of the country and envisioned a United States that developed along the lines of the British model. They also favored a loose interpretation of the Constitution, which would allow policy makers to stretch the Constitution from its literal meaning and expand the powers of the Federal government.

The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, favored the common and farming interests in the nation and preferred a strict interpretation of the Constitution that would limit the powers of the Federal government to those powers specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

The Act, the Revolution, and John Adams

These domestic political divisions were further flamed with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, and the larger European war which began when Great Britain declared war on the new French Republic in 1793. While the United States, under the leadership of George Washington, remained officially neutral during this war, Americans were still divided in their loyalties. The Federalists abhorred the violence of the French Revolution and supported the British. The Republicans, especially Thomas Jefferson, saw the French Revolution as a natural extension of the American Revolution and supported the French against the British.

These political divisions were further sharpened with the election of 1796, which saw John Adams, a Federalist, ascend to the presidency with a narrow victory (71 to 68 electoral votes) over rival Thomas Jefferson, a Republican. During the early political history of the United States, the runner-up in the election assumed the vice presidency. Therefore, you had a Federalist president with a Republican vice president. Adams' presidency was immediately challenged by further conflicts with the French, who were outraged by the United States' insistence on remaining neutral.

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