Today in American History: How We Almost Lost Our 1st Amendment Rights in 1798

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July 14, 2017Jul 14, 2017

America was in her infancy— the Founding Fathers still governed—when one of the most egregious breaches of the Constitution happened. Nine years after the original states ratified the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton and the other Federalists in Congress took advantage of the “Quasi-War” with France and started stripping away public liberties.

Without getting permission from the second U.S. President, John Adams, Hamilton passed four acts. The fourth one, the Sedition Act, passed on July 14th, 1798, and he put it into practice aggressively. They used the act to target their political opponents, the Democratic Republican Party started by Thomas Jefferson.

The Sedition Act directly violated the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech, and it permitted the government to prosecute individuals who printed or even voiced thoughts that the government “deemed to be malicious remarks about the president or government of the United States.”

Under the Act, the administration prosecuted fourteen Republicans, mainly journalists. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the author of the Bill of Rights, weren’t about to stand back and let the rights they’d work so hard to gain slip away. They responded drafting the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves. These resolves strongly declared the acts to be a violation of the First and Tenth Amendments rights.

When President Adams realized what Hamilton and the other Federalists were doing to American liberties, he responded by ceasing the war with France and threatening to resign from the presidency. If he had resigned, that would mean Thomas Jefferson, the elected Vice President, would become the president. Hamilton couldn’t let that happen, so they backed down, but in the process, Adams ruined all chances of his own election. Two years later, Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States, and he served for two terms.

The Sedition Act would have a long-reaching impact on American History. In the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, Jefferson and Madison argued that each state had the power to declare a federal law unconstitutional and void. The correct response to an unconstitutional federal law, they said, was for the states to stand together to nullify it. This States’ Rights argument could dangerously undermine the federal government. When George Washington heard about the acts, he said that if that reasoning was pursued, it would dissolve the union. Just that happened; when the Southern States seceded from the Union, they used Jefferson and Madison’s reasoning to justify their move.