.. nfluenced 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.