Today we’ll tackle part two of the Alien and Sedition Acts by focusing just on the Sedition Act and its efforts to undermine free press in the Early Republic.
The Sedition Act made it a crime to make false statements that were critical of the Federal government. The law stated that it was a crime to “write, print, utter or publish… false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States… with intent to defame the said government… or to bring them into contempt or disrepute.” Judges and prosecutors around the country targeted Democratic-Republican politicians and writers. Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont, stood trial for publishing letters attacking President Adams. Lyon had written that under Adams “every consideration of public welfare [was] swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, or selfish avarice.” Lyon spent four months in jail before resuming his seat in the House of Representatives.
Thomas Cooper, an Englishman who had fled his homeland because of his support for the French Revolution, stood trial in April 1800. Cooper had edited a central Pennsylvania newspaper that was critical of the Adams administration. He also published a handbill that attacked Adams’ character and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Cooper served as his own attorney and claimed that there could be no representative government in America “if perfect freedom of discussion of public characters be not allowed.” He even attempted to call President Adams as a witness, but the Federalist judge overseeing the case refused to issue a subpoena. After deliberating for less than hour at a nearby tavern, the jury found Cooper and the judge sentenced him to six months in jail and a fine of $400.
The Adams administration even attacked the seat of Republican power—Virginia. James Callender, a Scottish immigrant who like Cooper had fled his homeland because of his radical politics, had first established himself in Philadelphia as a leading Democratic-Republican newspaper writer. He exposed the sexual relationship between Alexander Hamilton and his mistress, Maria Reynolds. As anyone who listened to Hamilton knows, Callender accused Hamilton of engaging in land speculation with Reynolds’ husband, James. Even though Hamilton admitted to the affair, Callender insisted that it was merely a cover for the financial dealings between the two men. He then moved to the Richmond Examiner where he enjoyed financial support of Democratic-Republican leaders, including Thomas Jefferson. Callender, like Cooper and Lyon, was convicted of violating the Sedition Act and was sentenced to nine months imprisonment and a $400 fine.
After his release from jail, Callender sought a political appointment from the newly elected president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Callender believed that Jefferson owed him compensation for his time in jail and threatened retribution if the president did not grant him his wish. When Jefferson refused, Callender switched sides, becoming an editor for a Federalist newspaper in Richmond. He revealed that Jefferson had funded his early political writings and in a series of newspaper articles accused Jefferson of engaging in a sexual liaison with his slave, Sally Hemings. Callender even claimed that Jefferson had fathered several children by Hemings—an accusation that was eventually proven true in the late 20th century.
The Federalists’ zeal in attacking and jailing their enemies in the press cost them the presidency. In 1800, Jefferson defeated Adams. In one of his first acts as president, he pardoned those convicted of crimes under the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Prior to his election, Jefferson and Madison had drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions arguing that states could challenge the constitutionality of Federal laws and even nullify them. An examination of these Resolutions will conclude our series on the Alien and Sedition Acts and their legacy.
The Federal Judicial Center has an excellent summary of the Acts and their legacy, complete with primary sources: http://www.fjc.gov/history/docs/seditionacts.pdf