Cooper Convicted of Libel (well, he published in 1799, but was prosecuted and convicted in 1800…)

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Cooper Convicted of Libel

(well, he published in 1799, but was prosecuted and convicted in 1800…)

Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798 as tension between Federalists and Republicans peaked. Federalists, led by President John Adams, sought a strong, orderly central government. Republicans accused Federalists of instituting a tyranny similar to the one they had struggled against in the American Revolution. The party in power in 1798, Federalists framed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The most significant of the four, the Sedition Act, forbade opposition to laws of the federal government and made it illegal to publish criticism of the government. Because opposition had not yet gained legitimacy in American politics, the Federalist-controlled presidency and congress pursued Republican dissenters vigorously. At least fourteen prominent Republican newspaper editors were indicted for publishing criticism of President Adams’s administration, and ten were convicted.

Thomas Cooper was one of these editors. After emigrating from England in 1794 to find greater freedom of thought and speech in America, Cooper settled in Pennsylvania and became a U.S. citizen. He edited the Republican Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette from April 20-June 29, 1799, during which time he attacked Federalist policy and specifically the Sedition Act, accusing Adams of bring the evils of European government to America. His final and most passionate editorial was reprinted in the Philadelphia Aurora, the leading Republican paper printed in the nation’s temporary capital. President Adams anonymously published a critique of Cooper’s article, and invited him to respond. Cooper’s November response incensed Federalists and with Adams’s support they began proceedings against Cooper. Arrested in April 1800 for seditious libel, Cooper was sentenced by the arch-Federalist federal judge Samuel Chase to six months in jail and a $400 fine, after the court found his writings encouraged insurrection against the government.

Cooper kept up a written tirade against Federalist policies while in jail, and after his release in October 1800 became a symbol for both Federalists and Republicans in their acrimonious campaign debates. For Federalists Cooper represented the anarchy that would result if Republicans won the presidential and congressional elections, while Republicans presented Cooper as a martyr to Federalist tyranny. No more ready to accept the idea of a loyal opposition than the Federalists had been, upon coming to power in 1801 Republicans, led by Cooper, attempted to prosecute several Federalists under the same Sedition Act that had led to Cooper’s conviction.

Sources/Further Reading:

Reginald Horsman. The New Republic: The United States 1789-1815, pp. 73-77. London: Longman, 2000.
James Morton Smith. “President John Adams, Thomas Cooper, and Sedition: A Cast Study in Suppression,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 42, no. 3 (1955): 438-465.

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