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Alien and Sedition Acts: 1798

Defendants: 24 people, including: James Thompson Callender, Thomas Cooper, William Duane, Anthony Haswell, and Matthew Lyon.
Crime Charged: Seditious libel
Chief Defense Lawyers: Lyon acted for himself, advised by Israel Smith; David Fay and Israel Smith (Haswell); Thomas Cooper and Alexander Dallas, (Duane); Cooper acted for, himself; and William B. Giles, George Hay and Philip Nicholas (Callender)
Chief Prosecutors: Charles Marsh (Lyon, Haswell); William Rawle (Duane, Cooper); and Thomas Nelson (Callender)
Judges: William Paterson and Samuel Hitchcock (Lyon, Haswell); Samuel Chase, and Richard Peters (Cooper); Bushrod Washington and Peters (Duane); and Samuel Chase (Callender)
Dates of Trials: October 8, 1799 (Lyon); May 5, 1800 (Haswell) April 16, 1800 (Cooper); June 3, 1800 (Callender); June 11, 1800 (Duane court appearance)
Place: Rutland, Vermont (Lyon); Windsor, Vermont (Haswell); Norristown, Pennsylvania (Duane); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Cooper); and Richmond, Virginia (Callender)
Verdict: Guilty (Lyon, Haswell, Cooper, and Callender)
Sentences: $1,000 fine, $60.96 court costs, 4 months in jail (Lyon); $200 fine, 2 months in jail (Haswell); $400 fine, 6 months in prison, a $2,000 surety bond upon leaving prison (Cooper); and $200 fine, 9 months in prison, a $1,200 bond for good behavior (Callender)

SIGNIFICANCE: On paper only, the terms of the Sedition Act were an improvement over traditional common law. But the fact that the federal government would enact a sedition law was a blow to freedom of the press.

Partisan politics contributed to the creation of the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, American perceptions and worries about European affairs, particularly realistic fears of a possible war with France, also contributed to their enactment. American attempts to maintain neutrality pleased no one at home or abroad.

The Naturalization and Alien Acts, which increased residency requirements for citizenship and gave extraordinary powers over aliens to the president, passed into oblivion unused. However, there were several prosecutions under the Sedition Act. The act's most pertinent provision allowed prosecutions against persons publishing "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" that brought the federal government, the Congress, or the president into disrepute.

Under common law, liberty of the press generally meant no prior restraint on publications. However, the publisher was responsible for what he (or she) wrote. If a court deemed the material to be libelous, the writer could be punished. Libel was a published statement that damaged a person's reputation, or in the case of seditious libel, the government or a government official. Truth was not a defense, nor did there need to be proof of malicious intent. Despite First Amendment prohibitions, most states had their own libel and sedition acts.

Satiric portrayal of the first fight in Congress—between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold. Lyon was later prosecuted under the Sedition Act. (Courtesy, Library of Congress) Satiric portrayal of the first fight in Congress—between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold. Lyon was later prosecuted under the Sedition Act. (Courtesy, Library of Congress)

The federal Sedition Act tried to strike a compromise between common law and new American freedoms. Truth was a defense under the new federal statute, proof of malicious intent was required, and the jury would decide whether a libel existed. Under common law, the judge decided if material was libelous and he was free to determine any sentence. The Sedition Act stipulated that those convicted could be fined not more than $2,000 and imprisoned for no more than two years.

In practice these changes availed nothing to those prosecuted. Federalist courts insisted on turning the truth-as-a-defense clause into a presumptive-guilt clause. The plaintiff, the government, did not have to prove that the statements made were false. The defendant had to prove they were true. And such attempts often were thwarted by the judge.

Benjamin Franklin Bache, the vitriolic publisher of the Aurora, spurred passage of the Sedition Act when he obtained and published a copy of a letter from France's foreign minister, Tallyrand. This action convinced many Federalists that connections existed between Republicans and the French government. Before the Sedition Act could be passed, Bache's intemperate remarks earned him a common law indictment for libeling President John Adams and his administration. Bache died of yellow fever before he could be tried.

The first man actually indicted under the new Sedition Act was a member of Congress, Matthew Lyon. Charges stemmed from publication of two letters.One, Lyon wrote to a newspaper in reply to an attack on him.

When I shall see the efforts of that power bent on the promotion of the comfort… of the people, that executive shall have my zealous and uniform support: but whenever I shall… see … the public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power … behold men of real merit daily turned out of office … men of meanness preferred for the ease with which they take up and advocate opinions … when I shall see the sacred name of religion employed as a state engine to make mankind hate … I shall not be their humble advocate.

The other letter, published by Lyon, was written by Joel Barlow. Commenting on a speech of Adams', Barlow wondered why Congress had not sent the president "to a mad house."

Lyon tried to defend himself on the grounds that the Sedition Law was unconstitutional. The court did not look kindly on this defense. Found guilty, Lyon wrote, published, and was re-elected from his cell.

Anthony Haswell, a supporter of Lyon's, was indicted because an advertisement to raise funds for Lyon's fine, described "the oppressive hand of usurped power" Lyon suffered and "the indignities … heaped upon him by a hard-hearted savage" [the jailer]. Also, reprinted from the Aurora was a charge Tories were holding government office. Haswell tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain testimony from the Secretary of War to prove the Tory charges. His lawyers argued just as unsuccessfully that the "oppressive hand of power" referred only to the marshal and the jailer.

The most elusive Republican was William Duane, who had married Bache's widow and taken over the Aurora. Duane charged that the British wielded great influence over administration politics and had spent a fortune in bribes. He claimed there was a secret alliance between England and America against France.

Duane appeared for trial, only to have the trial suspended for several months. A procedural reason was given, but the true reason rested with a letter Duane had obtained from Tench Coxe, one-time assistant to Alexander Hamilton in the Treasury. The letter, written years earlier to Coxe by John Adams, claimed the Pinckneys from South Carolina were enlisting help from the British to obtain federal appointments. Although this letter did not prove Duane's extravagant allegations, it showed some evidence of British influence.

While awaiting the new trial, Duane aggravated the Senate. He criticized a proposed, unpublished bill, to settle disputed presidential and vice presidential elections. Then, when summoned to answer questions, he refused to go because his lawyers refused to appear. They believed Senate rules precluded mounting an effective defense. Duane was arrested on a contempt warrant signed by Thomas Jefferson, president of the Senate.

Not until after the Congress adjourned did the administration indict Duane for libeling the Senate. When Jefferson became president, he dismissed that suit. To preserve the Senate's rights, Jefferson ordered a new suit instituted. The grand jury refused to indict.

Because he was one of Duane's lawyers, Thomas Cooper was indicted for a handbill published months prior to Duane's summons from the Senate. Prosecutor William Rawles treated the handbill as inflammatory:

Error leads to discontent, discontent to a fancied idea of oppression, and that to insurrection.

Cooper maintained that his statements were true, he held no malicious motives, and had attributed none to Adams. The judge, Samuel Chase, blocked Cooper's defense at every turn.

When James Thompson Callender faced Judge Chase after being indicted for his savage writings about Adams, like met like. Callender had no regard for truth or decency. Chase had little regard for truth or law. Chase struck down every reasonable defense request made, harassing the defense lawyers until they withdrew from the case.

Callender's sentence expired the day the Act expired. The new Jefferson administration did not seek to renew the Sedition Act, although libel actions did continue under common law.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1951.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters, The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1956.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832