The Sedition Acts of 1798 & 1918

Exhibit Photos: 
John Adams, President of the United States, about the time the Sedition Act was passed. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
America’s Free Speech Experiments

Since the country was founded, Americans have struggled with the right of free speech. Should there be limits? At what point does one person’s right impinge on the right of another? Should people be able to freely criticize the government, even in times of national crisis? In the late 1790s, President John Adams and Congress decided the answer to the last question was a resounding NO. 

In July 1798, Congress passed and the President signed, the Sedition Act- a bill that made it a crime to speak or write anything against the government. A person charged under the Sedition Act was subject to a maximum of two years in prison and a $2,000 fine. Federalists claimed the law was needed to protect the country from terrorism, French terrorism in particular, as a result of the French Revolution. Federalist Party members, the President’s party, feared ideals from the French revolution would spread to the United States and cause uprisings against the young government. Many feared there would be a war.

On the opposite side, the Republican Party, led by Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, saw the law as a means to silence them and their opposition to Federalist ideals. Their assumptions were correct. The law was passed just as the candidates began to think about the presidential election of 1801, which the Federalists knew Jefferson stood a genuine chance of winning. The Act protected the President and Congress from seditious libel, but not the vice-president, and expired on March 3, 1801-the day before the next presidential inauguration. Republicans believed the law trampled on the Constitution and the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press.

One early indication of Federalist intentions was the arrest of Congressman Matthew Lyon, a Representative from Vermont, and the first arrest made under the act. Lyon was arrested by U.S. Marshal Jabez G. Fitch and charged with publishing letters that defamed and slandered the President and Congress. He was found guilty and sentenced to four months in prison and a $1,000 fine, and ordered to pay $60.96 in court costs. During his four month prison stay, Lyon campaigned for and won reelection to his seat in Congress. Republicans from around the country donated money and paid Lyon’s fine at the end of his prison term.

U.S. Marshals and their deputies continued to arrest and hold those convicted under the Sedition Act until it was repealed in 1801, after Thomas Jefferson became president. Jefferson also pardoned anyone that had been convicted under the act.

The Sedition Act of 1798 was not America’s only experiment with restricting free speech. In 1918, 120 years after the first sedition act was passed, the country was at war, and the government was again determined to control free speech. In 1918, Montana passed a sedition law, which made it a crime to speak against the government, the Constitution, or the war. After the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed into federal law the Sedition Act of 1918. The law made it illegal to speak out against the government or the war, or to discourage anyone from enlisting in the military. The postmaster general banned any publication considered unfavorable to the war effort from the mails. The government was determined to have a united home front, no matter what the cost to personal liberties.

Once again, U.S. Marshals were charged with the enforcement of sedition cases. By the time the law was repealed in 1920, more than 2,000 people had been prosecuted under the Sedition Act and its precursor, the Espionage Act of 1917.

Clarence Waldron, a minister from Vermont, was arrested under the Sedition Act and sentenced to fifteen years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the prosecution, Waldron, in both sermons and in pamphlets he distributed, protested the war and discouraged his followers from playing any role in the war effort. What started out as a religious dispute within the Windsor Baptist Church developed into a nationwide discussion over religious freedom and freedom of speech. After the war he was released from prison, along with all other prisoners convicted under the Sedition Act.

Both the Sedition Act of 1798 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were enacted during periods of great national fear-times of war or threat of war. Would Americans have tolerated such a restriction on what is considered one of our most basic rights if the atmosphere had been different? Would the citizens of the United States tolerate such restrictions today?