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The Sedition Act Attempted to Censor the American Press

In 1798, Congress approved the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” about the president, Congress, or the government in general.

American newspapers had been used as a political weapon almost as long as there had been American newspapers. But the rise of the two-party system in the 1790s greatly increased their use and their sting. Pro-Jefferson editors, such as Phillip Freneau and Benjamin Bache, squared off against pro-Hamilton scribes, such as John Fenno and William Cobbett.

These were nasty fellows with a quill in their hands. Bache once wrote that “if ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington,” and Cobbett opined that America would be truly free only “when Jefferson’s head will be rotting cheek-to-jowl with that of some toil-killed Negro slave.”

By 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress had had enough. It narrowly approved the Alien and Sedition Acts. The acts extended the naturalization period from 5 to 14 years, to keep out the foreign riff-raff. And Congress also made it a crime to publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” about the president, Congress, or the government in general.

Hundreds were indicted under the Sedition Act, but only ten — all of them Republicans — were convicted. Among them was Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who had already gained a reputation of sorts by spitting in the face of Federalist Congressman Roger Griswold on the floor of Congress.

[Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS]
Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

Lyon was sentenced to four months in jail for writing about President Adams’s “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.” Lyon was reelected to Congress while in jail.

Partly because its application was so one-sided, the Sedition Act’s popularity quickly waned and in the end probably hurt the Federalist cause much more than it helped.

The act expired on March 3, 1801, a day before Republican Jefferson assumed the presidency. It wasn’t renewed, and American politicians generally learned it was better to develop a thick hide when it came to the press than to try to slap a muzzle on the First Amendment.

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