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Charles F. Bryan Jr. column: Beware of sedition laws
The Road to Tyranny

Charles F. Bryan Jr. column: Beware of sedition laws

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John Adams undoubtedly belongs among the pantheon of the Founding Fathers, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin.

Yet as the nation’s second president, Adams was not successful. He was obstinate, opinionated, vain, impatient and he lacked good judgment. He was a poor administrator. Furthermore, he was thin-skinned and intolerant even of mild criticism directed at him and his Federalist Party, especially when it came from his political opponents under the influence of Republican Thomas Jefferson.

The struggle between the two factions revolved around monetary policy, state versus federal authority and foreign affairs. Adams and his fellow Federalists favored Great Britain in its seemingly endless conflict with France, while Jefferson’s followers were Francophiles.

The clamor against Adams was relentless, with much of it coming from recent immigrants. Included among them were French aristocrats who had fled their country’s bloody revolution, anti-Royalist English radicals and Irish nationalists. Most of these newcomers were Anglophobic and staunch backers of the Jeffersonian Republicans.

While we tend to think that the rhetoric invoked by politicians and their respective media today such as Fox News and MSNBC are partisan and sharp-edged, it almost seems tame compared to the invective used at the turn of the 19th century.

Both factions engaged in a bitter war of words, pulling no punches. Each side outright owned newspapers that trumpeted their respective party lines, and regularly peddled dubious stories of corruption and scandal about its opponents.

Federalists in Congress decided that it was time to muzzle the critics of Adams. In the summer of 1798, Congress passed four highly restrictive measures collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The first, a new Naturalization Act, increased the length of residence in the U.S. necessary to attain citizenship from five to 14 years. It also required all aliens to register and to give five years’ notice of their intention to become citizens.

Next came the Alien Act, which permitted the president to expel any immigrant whom he deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of United States.” If the alien refused to obey, the president could have him jailed for up to three years.

The third, the Alien Enemies Act, empowered the president to imprison or banish any alien who was a subject of an enemy nation.

Last came the most controversial measure — the Sedition Act. Clearly aimed at rival Republicans, it imposed large monetary fines and imprisonment of up to two years for anyone who should “write, print, or utter any false, scandalous and malicious writing ... against the government of the United States.”

The act also included punishment for anyone who criticized or defamed members of Congress or the president. If that wasn’t enough, the accused person could be fined for as much as $5,000 (more than $100,000 today) and given a jail sentence of up to five years. The entire concept of freedom of speech and the press guaranteed in the Bill of Rights seemed in jeopardy.

The Jeffersonian Republicans denounced the Sedition Act as despotic, an alarming assault on free speech and unconstitutional. On the other hand, with Adams’ approval, the Federalists argued that they were essential in light of the threat posed by civil unrest fomented by recent immigrants.

With the power to suppress almost any form of dissent, the Federalists went into action. Citing the Sedition Act, Federal authorities arrested 24 Republican newspaper editors, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. James Callender, editor of the Richmond Examiner, was sentenced to nine months in prison. Many of the sedition trials were blatant parodies of justice.

Congressman Matthew Lyon, an Irish immigrant, was convicted on three counts of libel and sent to jail in Vermont for a letter he had published questioning Adams’ sanity.

Jefferson was determined to have these laws overturned. Today, resolving the constitutionality of legislation is decided by a process known as “judicial review,” whereby the Supreme Court justices rule on a law’s legitimacy based on their interpretation of the Constitution.

The concept of the court’s role and authority as one of three equal branches of government, however, did not come until later. As a result, Jefferson and James Madison attacked the new laws by secretly going through the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written by Madison and Jefferson, declared the Alien and Sedition Acts as unconstitutional and that in such cases, “states are duty bound to interpose.”

The acts remained on the books for another decade, but they no longer were enforced, and eventually were repealed or allowed to lapse.

They, however, left a permanent stain on the reputation of John Adams. His Federalist Party was disrupted and demoralized, never to regain control of the national administration. Since then, the few times that sedition legislation has been imposed, it has created more discord than ever was intended.

Recently, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr urged federal prosecutors to consider filing sedition charges against protesters in several American cities. Although reserved for those who have posed an immediate threat to government authority, such measures usually are a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution and are rescinded by the courts.

Silencing free speech is one of the first steps on the road to tyranny. Jefferson vehemently opposed any measure that curtailed the ability of citizens to speak their minds. The threat posed by a president and government with too much power is well worth remaining vigilant against today.

Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph.D., is president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society. Contact him at:

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