The Alien & Sedition Acts
Digital History ID 245
The Alien and Sedition acts were so broadly written that hundreds of foreign refugees fled to Europe fearing detention. It was the Sedition Act, which sought to suppress criticism of the government, that produced the greatest fear within the Republican opposition. Federalist prosecutors secured indictments against 25 people, mainly Republican editors and printers. Ten people were convicted, one a Republican Representative from Vermont.
The most notorious use of the law took place in July 1798. Luther Baldwin, the pilot of a garbage scow, was arrested in a Newark, New Jersey tavern, on charges of criminal sedition. While cannons roared to celebrate a presidential visit to the city, Baldwin said "that he did not care if they fired through [the president's] arse." For his drunken remark, Baldwin was locked up for two months and fined.
Republicans accused the Federalists of conspiring to subvert fundamental liberties. In Virginia, the state legislature adopted a resolution written by James Madison declaring that states had the right to determine the constitutionality of federal laws, and that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. Kentucky's state legislature went further, adopting a resolution written by Thomas Jefferson that held that the acts were "void and of no force." The Kentucky resolution raised an issue that would grow increasingly important in the years before the Civil War: Did states have the right to declare acts of Congress null and void?
In this charge to the grand juries in Pennsylvania's fifth district, Alexander Addison (1759-1807), president of Pennsylvania's county courts, defends the Sedition Act, arguing that it was necessary to restrain demagoguery.
It is of the utmost importance to a free people that the full limits of their rights be well ascertained and preserved; for liberty without limit is licentiousness, it is the worst kind of tyranny....
Reputation, character, good name or opinion is a kind of property or possession, which every man who has honestly acquired it, has a right to enjoy. Like any other possession or property, it cannot be taken away from us but by our own act. And not only individuals but especially men in public [offices]...have a right, for the sake of the benefits we receive from them, to reputation, good name and opinion....
The exercise of those faculties of opinion...[must] be limited, so that it never...represent[s] a solemn truth or exercise of religion as false or ridiculous, an established and useful principle or form of government for as odious and detestable; a regular or salutary act or motive of the authorities as unlawful [or] pernicious...; or an upright man as corrupt.
The principles of liberty, therefore, the rights of Men, require, that our right of communicating information, as to facts and opinions, be so restrained, as not to infringe the right of reputation.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Alexander Addison to the Grand Jurors of Pennsylvania's 5th District
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