Dr. Alan Taylor Pulitzer Prize winner, Professor at U.C. Davis
Bill of Rights Ratified December 15, 1791
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Bill of Rights only pertains to what Congress can and cannot do, and does not limit what private entities can do. Free speech is never completely free.
In 1790 the population of the United States was 5 million, and the western boundary was Mississippi River. Slaves were a fifth of the population, but 90% of those were in the south. The north wasn’t free of slavery. For example, in New York it wasn’t until 1826 until all slaves were freed. There were differences between east and west and north and south. There were no railroads most goods moved by water, and the mountains created obstacles. The United States wasn’t very united.
The Federal Government in 1790
The United States was set up as a republic and not a democracy so that there was a barrier between the people and the government. At that time powerful insecurities dominated national thought. This was the only Republic this size that had ever been tried. Switzerland was a republic, Venice was a republic – smaller places that were homogeneous we’re republics, but the US was large and not homogeneous. It was so risky that politicians at that time thought that the experiment in governing as a republic was likely to fail. No one was sure that the unity was going to last when the enemy (Britain) was gone. The forms of state government varied radically between the states.
The founding fathers fought like cars and dogs. There were two parties as the country began its political life, the Federalists and the Republicans, which were different from Republicans now. They tended to polarize between the Federalists George Washington and Alexander Hamilton while Thomas Jefferson joined by James Madison and Aaron Burr started the opposition party called the Republicans. The Federalists were fearful about common people taking part in government. Alexander Hamilton once said, “The people sir are a great beast,” and Federalists felt the strong need to ride herd on the people. The Jeffersonian view of government was much more robust. Jeffersonian Republicans believed that people will stay stupid stuff, but it will sort itself out without the government having to squelch them using the military. Most people were Jeffersonian Republicans and thought that the government was better off not governing. Over time we evolved in a more democratic government where the common people have more of a say in government than what they had when the government was new. It is in the ambiance of anxiety that is the context for the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Federalist leaders received a powerful dose of fear when they saw what was happening during the French Revolution. At first they thought the French were just like the Americans, but when the French executed their king, Federalists felt that the French world view which would culminate in violent tyranny and despotism. Dr. Taylor conjectured that Matt Groening, writer of the Simpsons, most likely is a Federalist. To support this statement, nothing good happens in Springfield during the times that the mob rules.
Whiskey Rebellion was another example of the fear that Federalists felt when the common people got out of hand. Those that took part in the Whiskey Rebellion felt they were doing just what the Boston Tea party participants had done. George Washington felt the need to bring the Whiskey Rebellion under control. The Federalists wanted to outlaw self-governing areas.
The first contested election was between John Adams v Thomas Jefferson in 1796. John Adams received 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68. By the rules of the government then, Jefferson became the Vice President instead of another Federalist. John Adams was accused of trying to set up a monarchy. There is a war undeclared between France and the US. The French were preparing to invade US. So first effort to limit free speech was in 1798 with Alien and Sedition acts.
A question was asked about electoral college which was to prevent the two-party system. Each party said they represented the public view. About this time, the Irish began coming in large numbers to the United States. The Irish were radicalized and they voted republican, and this influx of new immigrants leads to the first instance of Nativism. According to the Federalists, the Irish were not prepared to vote.
Alien and Sedition Acts
Most of four acts of the Alien and Sedition Acts were lumped together. One of the components of the Acts was that it took 14 years for someone to be naturalized, and be a citizen. The Federalists did this to help prevent a rebellion. The Sedition Act pertains to free speech, and it concerned any false, scandalous and malicious speech toward federal government should be curtailed especially regarding the President. The key question at that time was who would decide whether the speech matched the criteria for being false, scandalous, and malicious? Juries determined the fate of the one accused of false speech. Then the question arose, ” Who gets to pick the juries?” A lot was drawn to decide who was chosen as a juror.
Licentious is a favorite word of the Federalist that comes from the word of license. The Federalists want to prohibit people from publishing something. They weren’t plying for censorship, which is limiting free speech before it happens, but they wanted to control what was done after the speech was already out. Under the terms of this law over 20 Republican newspaper editors were arrested and some were imprisoned. The most dramatic victim of the law was REPRESENTATIVE MATTHEW LYON of Vermont. His letter that criticized President Adams‘ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice” caused him to be imprisoned.
This is what the floor of Congress looked like in 1798. Matthew Lyon was prosecuted under Sedition Acts who was not well-educated and came from Ireland, but was elected to Congress,and the Federalists hated him. He had been court marshaled, and was forced to carry a wooden sword. He was re-elected to Congress while he was in prison.
These acts were opposed by states, in particular Virginia and Kentucky, and they passed a law declaring that federal law was invalid within their states. This set the precedent that the Southern states used to justify their right to secede.