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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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30-60 minutes
  • Constitution
  • National Security
  • Politics
  • 9-12
  • College/University

Can the government of a young nation limit criticism of its leaders and policies to protect its stability?

Just 10 years after the ratification of the Constitution, the United States faces its first major threat from a foreign nation. By signing an economic treaty with Britain, the United States has angered France, which is locked in a constant battle with Britain to be the most powerful nation in the world.

Anti-French sentiment in the U.S. grows, and the Federalist Party sees an opportunity to take advantage of the public’s anger. They warn of sparking war with France and attack the opposing Democratic-Republican Party (the Republican Party, for short) for being French sympathizers. The Republican Party’s power shrinks.

Then, the Federalist Party pushes a controversial law through Congress. The Sedition Act gives the federal government the ability to prosecute any person who “shall write, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States … with intent to defame the said government … or to bring them … into contempt or disrepute.” In other words, it makes public criticism of the government a potential crime. Those found guilty can be fined up to $2,000 and imprisoned for up to two years.

As anti-Federalist newspaper editors become targets of the law, prominent Republicans denounce the Sedition Act as a violation of First Amendment freedom of speech and of the press. The fragile new nation is drawn into a tense debate.

Take the role of a historical figure below and find evidence to argue your case.

  1. Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont

    This is a modern portrait of Matthew Lyon from 1946. Lyon would later represent Kentucky in Congress from 1803-1811.

    Courtesy Office of Vermont State Curator

    Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont

    President Adams is power hungry and has gone too far in limiting our freedoms. The Federalists are using this law as a tool to expand their control over our government. The real danger to our new nation is not France, but our own overreaching president.

    "Whenever I shall, on the part of the Executive, see every consideration of public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, or selfish avarice … I shall not be their humble advocate."

    — Rep. Lyon, in the letter that led to his prosecution for violating the Sedition Act
  2. President John Adams

    Pendleton Lithography created this print of Adams around 1825-28 based on a painting by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart painted portraits of many early presidents.

    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

    President John Adams

    The Sedition Act is unfortunately necessary to protect our young nation from falling apart. We are facing a powerful enemy and must not let critics of the Federalist Party and its policies undermine the stability of our leadership.

    "I knew there was need enough of [the Alien and Sedition Acts] and therefore I consented to them. … [T]hey were then considered as war measures."

    — John Adams, in an account looking back on his presidency
  3. Rep. Dawson's closing salutation on a letter to his constituents on July 19, 1798, urging them to oppose the Sedition Act.

    Rep. Dawson's closing salutation on a letter to his constituents on July 19, 1798, urging them to oppose the Sedition Act.

    Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

    Congressman John Dawson of Virginia

    The Sedition Act is unconstitutional and undermines important freedoms that we hold dear. I believe the courts will strike it down, but if they do not, it is up to our nation’s citizens to use the power granted them by the Constitution to work to have this damaging law repealed.

    "It behoves [sic] you and every citizen to endeavor, in the mode prescribed by the constitution, to obtain [the Sedition Act’s] repeal, as it will have a tendency to curtail one of the first and dearest privileges that we enjoy; that of freely expressing our sentiments on all public men and measures."

    — Rep. Dawson, in a letter to his constituents, 1798
  4. Rep. Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina

    This oil painting shows Harper, circa 1810-1820. He represented South Carolina in the U.S. House from 1795-180, and served as a U.S. senator from Maryland in 1815-1816.

    Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

    Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina

    The Sedition Act will only block the press from printing speech that could harm society, and therefore it does not violate the First Amendment.

    "The true meaning of [freedom of the press] is no more than that a man shall be at liberty to print what he pleases, provided he does not offend against the laws, and not that no law shall be passed to regulated this liberty of the press. … [I]t is perfectly within the Constitution to say, that man shall not do this, or the other, which shall be injurious to the well being of society."

    — From an account of Rep. Harper’s speech defending the Sedition Act on the floor of Congress

  • Does the potential threat of war justify a government limiting civil liberties? Why or why not?
  • Does criticizing the government weaken it? Why or why not?
  • Why were newspapers publishers and editors the primary target Sedition Act prosecutions? What about made them a potential threat to the government?
  • Does a young nation require extra measures to protect its stability and limit dissent? If no, why not? If so, when does it outgrow the need for these extra protections?

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