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Politics Rule the Day



The period following the ratification of the Bill of Rights (1791) Thomas Jeffersonand leading up to the passage of the Alien & Sedition Act of 1798 was considered extremely partisan.

With the nation newly experiencing what it meant to have the freedom of speech, the people were still very familiar with the concept of seditious libel. It had been the practice of British rule to prosecute any who openly criticized the throne or the government, regardless of truth. It is important to understand how this concept would be applied under British rule, where the monarchy was the final authority on all matters. It was because of the monarchical rule that truth was not a defense.

However, in a representative democracy, criticism of the President or against of the government libeled while properly carrying out their duties, was able to be prosecuted under the Alien & Sedition Acts. Truth was a defense.

During the period the Federalists, who included Alexander Hamilton, former President George Washington, and President John Adams, did not oppose the Constitutionality of the Sedition Act. The only Federalist who doubted the wisdom of the statute was John Marshall.

Conversely, every Democrat-Republican (anti-Federalist) believed it to be unconstitutional. Since this time, prominent Supreme Court Justices of the 20th Century (Holmes, Brandies, Black, Douglas, Jackson, Brennan, among others have stated the statute was unconstitutional.

There were two pieces of legislation that could be said to have been demonstrating of opposition to the passing of the Sedition Act, or could be interpreted as emphasizing the state's power, over that of the federal government.

A direct result of the passing of this law, according to a correspondence by George Washington as recorded in the George Washington Papers Series 2 Letterbooks, were resolutions proposed by Kentucky in November, 1798 and Virginia in December 1798 drafted by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively. The basic matter of law, according to the Papers, was that a state had the right to "nullify an act of Congress to which it did not accede." On the surface this might be thought that the passing of these resolutions was meant to be purely objectionable to the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

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