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Essay/Term paper: The sedition act

Essay, term paper, research paper:  American History

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The Sedition Act of 1798 For the first few years of

Constitutional government, under the leadership of George

Washington, there was a unity, commonly called Federalism

that even James Madison (the future architect of the

Republican Party) acknowledged in describing the

Republican form of government-- " And according to the

degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans,

ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting

the character of Federalists." Although legislators had

serious differences of opinions, political unity was considered

absolutely essential for the stability of the nation. Political

parties or factions were considered evil as "Complaints are

everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous

citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of

public and personal liberty, that our governments are too

unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts

of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not

according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor

party, but by the superior force of an interested and

overbearing majority…" Public perception of factions were

related to British excesses and thought to be "the mortal

diseases under which popular governments have everywhere

perished." James Madison wrote in Federalist Papers #10,

"By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether

amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are

united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or

of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the

permanent and aggregate interests of the community." He

went on to explain that faction is part of human nature; "that

the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is

only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS."

The significant point Madison was to make in this essay was

that the Union was a safeguard against factions in that even if

"the influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within

their particular States, [they will be] unable to spread a

general conflagration through the other States." What caused

men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to defy

tradition and public perceptions against factions and build an

opposition party? Did they finally agree with Edmund

Burkes" famous aphorism: "When bad men combine, the

good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an

unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle?" Did the answer

lie in their opposition with the agenda of Alexander Hamilton

and the increases of power both to the executive branch as

well as the legislative branch of government? Hamilton

pushed for The Bank of the United States, a large standing

Army raised by the President (Congress was to raise and

support armies,) a Department of Navy, funding and excise

taxes, and, in foreign policy, a neutrality that was

sympathetic to British interest to the detriment of France.

Many legislators, especially those in the south, were alarmed

to the point that a separation of the Union was suggested as

the only way to deal with Hamilton"s successes. Many were

afraid that the army would be used against them as it had

during the Whiskey Rebellion. Southerners saw the taxes to

support a new treasury loan favoring "pro-British merchants

in the commercial cities," and unfairly paid by landowners in

the South. These issues as well as neutrality issues between

France, England, and the United States were the catalyst for

the forming of the Republican Party. The French and English

conflict caused many problems with America"s political

system. The English "Order of Council" and the French

"Milan Decree" wreaked havoc with America"s shipping and

led to Jay"s Treaty of 1794. Jay"s Treaty was advantageous

to America and helped to head off a war with Britain, but it

also alienated the French. The French reacted by seizing

American ships causing the threat of war to loom large in

American minds. President Adams sent three commissioners

to France to work out a solution and to modify the

Franco-American alliance of 1778, but the Paris government

asked for bribes and a loan from the United States before

negotiations could even begin. The American commissioners

refused to pay the bribes and they were denied an audience

with accredited authorities and even treated with contempt.

Two of the commissioners returned to the United States with

Elbridge Gerry staying behind to see if he could work

something out. This became known as the XYZ affair and

was the beginning of an undeclared naval war between

France and the United States. The XYZ affair played right

into the hands of the Federalist Party. They immediately

renounced all treaties of 1788 with France and began their

agenda of creating a large standing army and a Navy

Department to deal with the threat of an American-French

war. Fear and patriotism were fanned and a strong

anti-French sentiment swept the land. Then a gem of a

caveat was thrown into the Federalist hands when Monsieur

Y boasted that "the Diplomatic skill of France and the means

she possess in your country, are sufficient to enable her, with

the French party in America, to throw the blame which will

attend the rupture of the negotiations on the Federalist, as

you term yourselves, but on the British party, as France

terms you." This boast was to cause suspicion and wide

spread denunciation of the Republican Party and its leaders.

Senator Sedgwick, majority whip in the Senate, after hearing

of the XYZ Affair, said, "It will afford a glorious opportunity

to destroy faction. Improve it." Hamilton equated the

public"s perception of the Republican"s opposition to the

Federalist"s agenda like that of the Tories in the Revolution.

All in all, this boast began the process that became the Alien

and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Republicans debated against

the bills for about a month, but the Federalist had the votes.

A background of fear helped keep the public silent and

perhaps somewhat approving to the loss of some personal

freedoms, as nobody wanted to be accused as a Jacobean.

In May of 1778, President Adams declared a day of prayer

and fasting. Many thought that the Jacobeans were going to

use that day to rise up in insurrection and "cut the throats of

honest citizens." They even thought they were going to

attack President Adams and citizens of Philadelphia came

out by the hundreds to protect him. Federalist saw this as a

demonstration of support for the government. Those who

spoke against the Sedition bill were accused of being in

league with the Jacobeans. Edward Livingston, in opposing

the bill said, "If we are ready to violate the Constitution, will

the people submit to our unauthorized acts? Sir, they ought

not to submit; they would deserve the chains that our

measures are forging for them, if they did not resist." The

Federalist accused Livingston of sedition because of his

implied threat of popular rebellion; a practice seen in future

debates when unlawful power was to be enforced.

Republican newspapers were railing against the Federalist

and especially against the Sedition bill. The Aoura was the

leading Republican publication and Benjamin Bache was its

editor. Baches ability to get the story out caused much

consternation among Federalist. Harrison Gray Otis said that

Baches" writing influenced even intelligent people, "What can

you expect from the gaping and promiscuous crowd who

delight to swallow calumny..?" The Federalist needed the

Sedition bill to shut down the Republican presses and Bache

played right into their hands with his publication of

Tallyrand"s conciliatory letter to the American envoys before

the President had even seen it. Republicans insisted that this

was a journalistic scoop that would lead to peace because

France was willing to negotiate with Edmund Gerry. The

Federalist wanted Bache to explain how he had received a

letter that the President hadn"t even seen yet. They began to

accuse him of being in league with France, an agent of

Tallyrand and an enemy of the people of the United States.

The administration was so incensed with Bache that they

didn"t wait for passage of the Sedition bill, but had him

arrested for treason on June 27, 1778. From the very

beginning Republican leaders recognized that the Sedition bill

was primarily directed toward the destruction of any

opposition to the Federalist Party and its agenda. Albert

Gallatin said the Sedition Act was a weapon "to perpetuate

their authority and preserve their present places." Proof that

this bill was politically motivated became obvious when the

House voted to extend the act from the original one year

proposed to the expiration of John Adams term, March 3,

1801. The States response to the passing of the Sedition Act

was mixed. Kentucky and Virginia each responded with acts

basically nullifying the Congressional act, but other states

accepted the Congress taking authority from what had been

a state function. The public response initially appeared

mixed. British common law seemed to have preconditioned

many to accept a limitation of their personal freedoms. The

victory of the Republicans, who ran on a platform of

anti-sedition, in the election of 1800 showed that Americans

were much more interested in personal freedom than the

aristocratic Federalist thought. What would happen if

Congress submitted a Sedition Bill today as they did in

1778? With our established two-party system (in marked

contrast to their conceptions of factions), the freedom of

press as a well developed principle, and freedom of speech

the cornerstone in American"s sense of liberty; it seems that

there would be a major revolt. Are there any instances in

20th century history that compares to the Sedition Act"s

flagrant disregard of the First Amendment? No government

actions seem so blatantly unconstitutional as the Sedition Act

of 1798; but, there are many actions since then that have

caused much more personal pain than the twenty-seven

persons convicted under the Sedition Act. In times of war it

is understood that many personal liberties may be curtailed,

especially for enemy aliens living in the United States. The

War Relocation Authority signed by President Roosevelt

caused thousands of enemy aliens as well as Japanese-

American citizens to lose everything as they were interned in

concentration camps throughout the West. These Americans

were told that if they were true patriotic citizens they would

go without complaining. If they were to complain then that

was prima facie evidence that they were not loyal citizens. In

June of 1940, America"s fear of German aggression led to

the enactment of the Smith Act. Much like the Alien and

Sedition Act it required all aliens to be registered and

fingerprinted. It also made it a crime to advocate or teach

the violent overthrow of the United States, or to even belong

to a group that participated in these actions. The United

States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law

in the case of eleven communist (Dennis v United States.)

This decision was later modified in 1957 (Yates v United

States.) The Court limited conviction to direct action being

taken against government, ruling that teaching communism or

the violent overthrow of government did not in itself

constitute grounds for conviction. Another instance of

governmental infringement of the liberties of American

citizens is the well known Senate Sub-committee on

un-American Activities headed by Joseph McCarthy.

Thousands of people lost their livelihood and personal

reputations were shattered by innuendo, finger pointing, and

outright lies. As in earlier instances of uncontrolled excesses

by people in government, guilt was assumed and

protestations of innocence were evidence that "something"

was being hidden. In 1993, rumblings were heard from the

Democratic controlled Congress that there needed to be

fairness in broadcasting. If one viewpoint was shared, they

felt the opposing viewpoint must be given fair time to

respond. This was facetiously called the "Rush Act" in

response to the phenomenal success of conservative radio

talk show host, Rush Limbaugh. As in the 1790"s when

Republicans formed newspapers to counteract the Federalist

control of the press; many conservatives felt that the few

conservative broadcasters and programs had a long way to

go before they balanced the liberal press. Fortunately, as in

the 1800 election, Republicans gained control of Congress in

1992 and the "Rush Act" died a natural death. Recently

many Americans have become concerned with domestic

terrorism. Waco, the Oklahoma Federal Building, and now

the Freemen in Montana have caused citizens and legislators

alike to want something done. The House of Representatives

just approved HR2768. This bill will curtail many liberties for

American citizens as well as Aliens. The following are eight

points made by the ACLU concerning this bill: 1. Broad

terrorism definition risks selective prosecution 2. More illegal

wiretaps and less judicial control will threaten privacy 3.

Expansion of counterintelligence and terrorism investigations

threatens privacy 4. The Executive would decide which

foreign organizations Americans could support 5. Secret

evidence would be used in deportation proceedings 6.

Foreign dissidents would be barred from the United States

7. Federal courts would virtually lose the power to correct

unconstitutional Incarceration 8. Aliens are equated with

terrorists This bill has many points in common with the Alien

and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Smith Act of 1950, the

McCarren Act of 1950, and the Executive Order of Feb.19,

1942 that led to War Relocation Authority. Each one of

these actions were taken when fear controlled the public and

an agenda controlled the people in authority. Thankfully, the

American people have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

to bring them back from the edge, and to force those in

positions of responsibility to accountability. The

responsibility of government lies with the governed. If the

American people react to trying situations and events in fear,

then a general malaise and sense of helplessness will

permeate the collective American consciousness. The

abdication of personal responsibility erodes liberty, creating

an atmosphere of dependency, that leads to bigger

government and its pseudo security. Edward Livingston"s

statement, "If we are ready to violate the Constitution, will

the people submit to our unauthorized acts? Sir, they ought

not to submit; they would deserve the chains that our

measures are forging for them, if they did not resist," serves

as a timely warning to Americans today. 

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