Sedition Act's bicentennial year Repeal: The controversial measure criminalized the publication of comments critical of the president and other elected officials, and tested the new Constitution.


October 15, 1998|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two hundred years ago, on a summer's day in 1798, the second president of the United States, John Adams, passed through Newark, N.J., on his way home from the political strife of the temporary capital in Philadelphia to the homely comforts of Braintree, Mass.

Federal Party followers of Adams' assembled to greet the chief executive's entourage with waving flags, ringing church bells and sounding cannon. Then, to the astonishment and mortification of the citizenry, the president pushed his horses to full speed and rushed by, carriage curtains down, without even a nod.

Here's how the Philadelphia Aurora, a pro-Jefferson paper that delighted in tormenting Adams, reported what then ensued: "Luther Baldwin happening to be coming toward John Burnet's dram shop, a person that was there says to Luther, 'There goes the President and they are firing at his a--.' Luther, a little merry, replies that he did not care if they fired through his a--.' Then exclaims the dram seller, 'That is sedition' -- a considerable collection gathered -- and the pretended federalists, being much disappointed that the president had not stopped that they might have the honor kissing his hand, bent their malice on poor Luther, and the cry was that he must be punished."

Such was the temper of those times that poor Luther indeed was punished. He was tried, found guilty and fined $400 (a considerable sum) for violating the brand-new Sedition Act, one of the most detested laws in the nation's history.

It criminalized the writing, printing, uttering or publishing of "any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States, or either House of Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States."

Together with equally notorious Alien Acts that gave the president authority to deport without trial any alien in peace or war, the sedition statute reflected hysteria over threatened war with France and the vulnerability of a shaky republic operating under a Constitution not yet a decade old.

If such a measure were on the books today, would President Clinton be spared the humiliation of being called a liar and a womanizer or of having a body part more intimate than his posterior discussed in the public media?

Not a chance. For although the Sedition Act has been pilloried as an egregious violation of the First Amendment, which it was, its actual effect was quite the opposite. Americans discovered for the first time how much they treasured their new Constitution's protection of intellectual freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts turned out to be almost unenforceable.

As Justice William J. Brennan Jr. noted in 1970, the Supreme Court never ruled on the Sedition Act, but "the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history."

Only a score of citizens -- editors of anti-Federalist newspapers, one congressman, the unfortunate Luther Baldwin and a few others -- were arrested. The number of newspapers critical of Adams more than doubled. Federalists split over policy toward France, then their enemy of choice. Ultras among them turned on Adams as he sought peace, excoriating him in their newspapers with as much venom as the most outspoken of Republican-Democrat sheets. The Sedition Act became a dead letter with the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1801.

In this bicentennial year of the Alien and Sedition Acts, it is worth noting that the First Amendment, with its protections of free speech, press and religion, is always at risk. Just as Adams railed against the "licentiousness" of newspapers that vilified him, so did Jefferson once he was in office.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln trampled on individual rights to preserve the Union. After communism came to power in Russia, Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, ordered raids on the homes and meeting halls of suspected Bolsheviks. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration sent thousands of Japanese-American citizens to concentration camps, a shameful episode far more drastic than anything contemplated two centuries ago.

Closer to our time, as the country was seized by McCarthyism, the government blacklisted supposed security threats with a zeal reminiscent of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

In his two-volume work on the second president, historian Page Smith defended Adams and the Federalists by noting that the republic was less than 10 years old, that it was torn by political parties determined to destroy their opponents, that Napoleonic France was harassing U.S. ships and ports, that 30,000 French nationals and even greater numbers of Irish immigrants posed an internal threat and that a "violent and vituperative press" was assaulting the nation's leaders and institutions.

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