2.6 Revolutions in conflict

Why did the US pass the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798?

In France, before the 1789 revolution, official censors worked hard to contain the circulation of forbidden books and the anti-monarchist booklets and the innumerable pamphlets (called “libeles’) that floated around Paris and the provinces in the decades before the French Revolution.

Montesque had to work in secret on his Spirit of the Laws; Denis Diderot was hounded as he worked on his Encyclopédie; and Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to flee the country at various times in their careers. The idea that these writers were being oppressed by small minded censors seemed, to some, like “a flock of eagles submitted to the governance of turkeys.”

Not all were against them. Diderot was publicly accused of unpatriotic writing, and his apartments were searched by an official who had secretly hidden Diderot’s notes in his own apartment.

Camille Desmoulins (1760 – 1794), a lawyer and journalist, wrote Better to Die Than Not Live Free in 1788: “In a democracy, tho the people may be deceived, yet they at least love virtue. It is merit which they believe they put in power as substitutes for the rascals who are the very essence of monarchies. The vices, concealments, and crimes which are the diseases of republics are the very health and existence of monarchies…”

Desmoulins is remembered as the journalist who sparked the French Revolution when he stood on a table and urged angry mobs to “take up arms” on July 12, 1789, Two days later he helped organize the group that stormed the Bastille, an event commemorated every year as French independence day.

In August of 1789, only a few weeks after the overthrow of the Bastille, a committee of French Revolutionaries consulted with then-American ambassador Thomas Jefferson in Paris about the new constitution. Soon afterward they wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Article 11 is remarkably similar to the free speech guarantees in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776:

The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of man’s most precious rights. Every citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except that he shall be responsible for the abuse of that freedom in cases determined by law. Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen — France- August 26, 1789

( That the freedoms of speech and of the press are among the great bulwarks of liberty… any citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right…” — Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776 )

The Terror 

The French Revolution spiraled into The Terror in 1793 -94. Tens of thousands of innocent people were sacrificed on the guillotine or killed en masse in other ways. This naturally concerned  Americans, whose revolution was an inspiration to the French.  But relations with the new United States deteriorated when the French seized nearly 300 American ships in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. Diplomatic negotiations broke off following the XYZ affair, and a firestorm of anti-French sentiment took place around 1798.

Jefferson’s political supporters, then called the Democratic-Republicans, who were allied with the French and against British interests, tried to stem the tide of negative public opinion.  But the Federalists, who were in power with Washington and Adams, mistrusted the French and insisted on taking measures. The Federalists believed that “national security and party supremacy might benefit if the nation could be first frightened and then panicked,” according to historian Leonard Levy. “The certain fact is that they exploited a crisis in foreign relations for the sake of partisan advantage.”

The Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798

As a result of the anti-French sentiment, Congress, dominated by Federalists, passed The Sedition Act which prohibited writing, printing, uttering “any false, scandalous and malicious writing … against the government of the United States, or president of the United States, with intent to defame said government (or Congress, or President) … to bring them into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against them the hatred of the good people of the United States.” A stiff fine and prison term of two years were the punishments. Overall, 25 people were arrested.

At one point in the spring of 1798, President John Adams called up a 5,000 member volunteer militia and stated plainly that America needed a monarchy. Some believe he was preparing to seize power. However, fate intervened, and the capitol city of Philadelphia was virtually abandoned in the summer of 1798 following a yellow fever epidemic.

Bitter partisanship continued up to the 1800 elections. Federalists wrote” “If Jefferson had his way, the country would see the Bible cast into a bonfire … our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution, our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat.” Those who discounted the possibility of a French invasion were denounced by Federalists.

Jefferson privately called the period “a reign of witches” and defended himself by saying: “It suffices for a man to be a philosopher and to believe that human affairs are susceptible of improvement, and to look forward, rather than backward to the Gothic ages, for perfection, to mark him as an anarchist, disorganizer, atheist, and enemy of the government.”

Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

A more formal reaction, passed by the legislatures of the Virginia and Kentucky, was written by Jefferson and Madison as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.

The resolutions claimed a need to guarantee freedoms that a federal government could not. However, they also claimed the power to “nullify” federal acts, raising a divisive states rights question that would come back to haunt the country.

In the end, Jeffersonian democrats were moved to embrace a broad concept of the First Amendment, and, by 1801, the Alien & Sedition Acts expired. Jefferson, by then president, pardoned all who were convicted.  Still, the problem of state versus federal sovereignty remained and would not be settled until the US Civil War.

State censorship in the 19th century

Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826 came at the dawn of a new era in the American South  in which the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment were discarded in favor of a desperate repression designed to hold on to slavery.

Following the1822 Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston, SC and the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia, new laws forbid possession or distribution of abolitionist literature. In Virginia, anyone who “by speaking or writing maintains that owners have no right of property in slaves” could be sentenced to a year in prison.

Tensions kept rising despite efforts of some editors, such as Baltimore editor Hezekiah Niles,  to avert Civil War.  The idea of finding common ground would later be repeated after the war by editors like Henry Grady, whose “New South” was basically a revision of Niles ideas.

But the tensions could not be stemmed.  Southerners often professed hatred of Niles and other opponents of slavery.

in 1837,  a pro-slavery mob killed abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy of the Alton, Illinois, Observer.

As war broke out, criticism of Lincoln and the war effort was widespread but censorship was rare. Sometimes reporters bore the brunt of a general’s wrath. For example, Thomas Knox, a New York Herald reporter, was nearly hung after a notorious court martial by Gen. William Sherman. Knox’s life was spared by a timely telegram from President Lincoln.

Another exception involved the burning of newspapers containing articles that condemned peace terms in 1865.