Media Coverage and Public Debates
The Sedition Act trials were thoroughly rooted in the newspaper culture of the new nation. Among those indicted under the act were the leading Republican newspaper editors and others who used the press to promote Republican politics. In an age before formal case reports, newspapers were the most important source of information about the trial proceedings, and these accounts themselves occasionally became the subject of sedition prosecutions. The press had been instrumental in the formation of the Federalist and Republican parties, and in many ways the debates surrounding the passage of the Sedition Act and the federal prosecutions concerned the legitimacy of newspapers as a forum for political organization and public debate.
The newspaper coverage reflected public interest in the sedition trials, many of which became public events that attracted large and often prominent audiences. Representative John Allen of Connecticut, an ardent Federalist who insisted on the need for a sedition law, attended the Matthew Lyon trial in Vermont. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering actually sat on the bench near the judges during the trial of Thomas Cooper, while a number of other government officials attended that trial, which was held in the nation’s capital of Philadelphia. John Marshall, who succeeded Pickering as secretary of state, attended James Callender’s trial in Richmond, where state government officials helped to defend the accused.
Republican opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts was so intense that it prompted debates on the nature of constitutional government itself. In the most famous statements of opposition, resolutions of the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures declared the acts unconstitutional and called on other state legislatures to follow with similar resolutions. Secretly written by James Madison and then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions created their own backlash from ten state legislatures that explicitly rejected these assertions of states’ authority to decide the constitutionality of a federal law. Madison, as a member of the Virginia legislature, wrote a report explaining the reasons for the Virginia Resolution and argued that the Sedition Act and the subsequent prosecutions violated the First Amendment protecting free speech.
As the trials progressed, Republican supporters offered a bolder assertion of the rights of free speech. One of the most widely read Republican pamphlets was a collection of letters by “Hortensius,” actually written by George Hay of Virginia. Federalists replied with their own defenses of the Sedition Act. Alexander Addison, a Federalist state judge in Pennsylvania, delivered a grand jury charge in defense of the Sedition Act, and this was subsequently published in several editions in 1798 and 1799. George Washington thought highly enough of it to forward a copy to John Marshall, then a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, and to Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, a nephew of Washington’s.
The partisan character of the prosecutions under the Sedition Act inevitably made the trials and the role of the judiciary controversial issues in the presidential election of 1800. Senator Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, in an article promoting the election of Thomas Jefferson, argued that the sedition prosecutions were a threat to the public’s right to free discussion of public affairs.
The Sedition Act Trials — Historical Background and Documents