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The Sedition Act: An Early Challenge to Free Speech

President John Adams

President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law
(image courtesy of Library of Congress).

By 1798, those who a decade before had collaborated in the Founding were staking rival claims for the national future. Federalists saw America’s prosperity and security best ensured with an imitation of the fiscal policies of Britain, the former colonial master, while Republicans favored the alliance with France that had helped secure independence. With Britain now at war with a revolutionary France, either alliance had consequences. Meanwhile, the majority Federalist faction in Congress, viewing French and Irish immigrants as threats, passed acts extending the period of residence needed before naturalization and giving the president power to deport aliens he deemed dangerous. These Acts were followed by a Sedition Act aimed at American citizens who criticized federal officials and policies.

Jefferson and Madison, rallying Republican opposition to acts they saw as unconstitutional, secretly drafted resolutions they offered to the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures that would call for the acts’ repeal. Jefferson’s draft cited in detail those portions of the Constitution and Bill of rights that the acts violated, while Madison’s more succinct and respectfully worded resolution deplored acts contrary to “the general principles of free government.” Kentucky and Virginia sent modified versions of these resolutions to Congress, but did not win support for repeal of the acts, which at any rate were set to expire at the end of President Adams’ term.

Read documents related to the Sedition Act:

The Sedition Act

The Kentucky Resolutions

The Virginia Resolutions

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