The Federalists believed that the Sedition Act was going to temper political dissent that was equal to treason, in their opinion. Before the bill was passed, they were destroying Republican newspapers in a huge bonfire. They went on the offensive against any speech denouncing President John Adams and needed a law that would make their actions legal (Roark et al. 248). The Sedition Act that was passed in the middle of 1798 prohibited conspiracy and revolt, as well as criminalized any manifestation of criticism against the Federalist Congress or the President (Roark et al. 248). The wording of the Act implied that if dissenters are not punished, there is a threat of insurrection and riot.
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Abigail Adams was the wife of President John Adams. She was vocal about her position on those who were criticizing the federal government. As Abigail’s letters to her sister show, she persistently called for a sedition law that would silence a newspaper editor Benjamin Bache. Adams’s wife complained to her sister that “the most wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse” and unfounded slander against her husband might lead to serious civil unrest (Roark et al. 248).
She believed that Bache, who on the pages of Philadelphia Aurora had referred to the President as “bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams,” must be stopped lest the country slides into a civil war (Roark et al. 248).
She wanted Congress to pass the bills that would punish any incitement to rebel. Abigail expressed her criticism of the government hesitating about enacting the laws that would allow arresting the stirrer up. She believed that any other country would not allow Benjamin Bache and his newspaper to spread the calumny against the President (Roark et al. 248).
Matthew Lyon’s criticism
Matthew Lyon’s criticism of President Adams did not rise to the level of threat feared by the Federalists. Even though he castigated the President for an unbounded desire for “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice,” his incarceration became possible after publishing his letter to the publisher of the Vermont Journal in which he called his opponent “stupid” and “bullying” (Roark et al. 249). His guilty verdict was also due to the publishing of Joel Barlow’s letters read by Lyon at political gatherings. Most importantly, Lyon was denied to use the Constitutional protection retroactive changes to the law. The congressman’s reelection became possible because of the people’s support and resistance to his conviction.
James Madison, who drafted the Virginia Resolution on December 24, 1798, vehemently opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts (Roark et al. 249). He believed that the states had the right to intervene when the actions of the federal government were unconstitutional. Madison was adamant that states should protest against the infractions of the main law of the land. He was convinced that not only do states had a right to intervene but that it was their duty to intervene to restrict the federal government to their legal limits so it will not be able to exercise its powers. The Virginia Resolution was meant to bring into motion the cancellation of the Alien and Sedition Acts (Roark et al. 249).
Madison wanted to demonstrate that the Acts were unconstitutional and had to be repealed. It was possible through the actions of the states, which were the ultimate arbiters of interpretation of the constitutionality of the passed laws. Madison believed in an exact interpretation of the First Amendment and the sovereignty of the states.
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Roark, James, Michael Johnson, Patricia Cline Cohen, Sarah Stage, and Susan Hartmann.The American Promise. Volume 1: to 1877. 6th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. Print.