R. Allison Hamraz The Era of George Washington Gilder Lehrman Lesson Plan Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and Free Speech and Press

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R. Allison Hamraz

The Era of George Washington

Gilder Lehrman Lesson Plan
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and Free Speech and Press
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 are highly controversial and were heavily debated when they were passed and the debate has continued. The essential question as to how free both speech and press should be has certainly been debated since the founding period. Under English Common Law, criticism of the government was considered seditious and therefore prohibited. The tradition of English Common Law concerning seditious speech continued to be eroded by the American clamoring for more freedom of expression. The first amendment protection of free speech and press in the U.S. Constitution conflicts with the earlier tradition of English Common Law and thus the delicate balance between an individual’s right to expression and the collective good of society to be secure begins. The protection of free speech and press as well as other individual liberties is particularly wrought with conflict during times of war. Historically, during times of war, the people and the government are more willing to suspend some of the basic liberties in exchange for the possibility of more security. This tension formally began with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and continues to be debated today with acts such as the PATRIOT Act. Although students are unlikely to solve the debate for American society, an understanding of the issues and conflicts is essential to an active and informed citizenship.


Virginia Standards for US Government and US History Addressed:

GOVT.1 The student will demonstrate mastery of the social studies skills responsible citizenship

requires, including the ability to

  1. analyze primary and secondary source documents;

  2. analyze political cartoons, political advertisements, pictures, and other graphic media;

GOVT.11 The student will demonstrate knowledge of civil liberties and civil rights by

  1. examining the Bill of Rights, with emphasis on First Amendment freedoms;

VUS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible

citizenship, including the ability to

a) identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents, records, and data,

including artifacts, diaries, letters, photographs, journals, newspapers, historical accounts,

and art, to increase understanding of events and life in the United States;
TSW: Identify the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798.

TSW: Examine the prosecution of individual under the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798.

TSW: Examine the first amendment free speech protection.

TSW: Discuss the possible limitation of individual rights during wartime.
SET: Begin class with various current headlines from newspaper articles throughout the U.S. Discuss the importance of free press and free speech in American society with selected quotes of Founding Fathers utilized.
Instructional Input: Teacher will lead a brief discussion on the conditions surrounding the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798. Teacher will lead students to a working definition for sedition.
Group Work: After discussion of the events and atmosphere leading to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, students will be assigned into five groups. Each group will work with a specific primary document and will answer questions concerning their particular document. Students will select group member to report findings to the group.

Attached are copies of primary documents and questions for each group.

Each group will work approximately 20 minutes in groups to summarize documents or political cartoons and answer questions. The reporter for the group will report findings to the rest of the class as the documents are projected. Students will discuss their group’s findings with one another. Students will be encouraged to challenge one another’s explanations and pose questions.
Instructional Input:

Teacher will lead discussion which moves class to look at the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 in terms of the modern debate surrounding the enhanced powers of the federal government during wartime with an emphasis on the current debate on the prosecution of the “War on Terror” and the subsequent debate on the limitations on individual freedoms in the effort to keep Americans safe.


Students will be asked, “When is it appropriate to limit individual rights for the collective good?” How does government balance the rights of individuals against the good of society?


Students will be assigned to two groups. One group will research the debate in support of the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the other will research the arguments opposed to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Students will be prepared to debate the issue in the next class period.

Questions on Alien and Sedition Act Document #1


SEC. 2. And be it farther enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
May use Alien and Sedition Act both document and transcript for Sedition Act Section 2.

  1. Summarize the document.

  2. How does Congress define seditious speech in Section 2?

  3. According to the Act, what conditions are necessary for the written or spoken word to be considered seditious?

  4. According to Section 2, who is specifically protected from seditious speech?

  5. According to your understanding of Section 2 of the Sedition Act, which of the following statements would you consider seditious and why?

    1. “President Obama is not a natural born U.S. citizen and therefore we should not trust his loyalty to the United States”.

    2. “Nancy Pelosi has ties to a corporation that is being investigated for violating the U.S. embargo against Cuban goods”.

    3. “President Obama pals around with terrorists.”

    4. “Congress’ economic policies are moving the country to socialism.”

    5. “The President has an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp”

    6. “Joe Biden sympathizes with Arab positions against the Israelis.”

    7. “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a Nazi sympathizer.”

    8. “The Cabinet is a group of unpatriotic elitists that have conspired with liberal media to portray the War in Iraq as a mistake and as an American foreign policy debacle.”

    9. “The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of rights for terrorists and thus should be treated as terrorists and enemies of the United States and impeached and removed.”

    10. “The President is driven by a thirst for power”.

Questions on Political Cartoon #2

  1. What appears to be happening in cartoon?

  2. What time period does this cartoon depict?

Students will read subsequent explanation of cartoon and students will answer follow-up questions:

  1. Were you surprised to know that this depiction of two members of Congress coming to blows on the House floor was inspired by actual events surrounding the debate of the Alien and Sedition Acts? What does the cartoon tell you about the atmosphere surrounding the passage of the Act?

  2. Matthew Lyons is the main with the cane and is also the first person charged and found guilty under the new law. Discuss the irony of his prosecution.

  3. Why is it important to understand that Lyon’s was provided with the opportunity of a trial? In times of war, is it always important to provide due process for those accused of crimes against the government? Why or why not?

Questions on Warrant Document #3


  1. Summarize the document.

  2. Who is warrant issued for?

  3. What is the accused being charged with?

  4. What is judge’s sentence?

  5. What is the fine?

6. Considering the charge, does the penalty fit the crime? Why or why not?

Virginia Resolution Document #4

In the Virginia House of Delegates,

Friday, December 21, 1798.

Resolved, That the General Assembly of Virginia, doth unequivocally express a firm resolution to maintain and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of this state, against every aggression, either foreign or domestic; and that they will support the government of the United States in all measures warranted by the former.

That this assembly most solemnly declares a warm attachment to the union of the states, to maintain which it pledges its powers; and that, for this end, it is their duty to watch over and oppose every infraction of those principles which constitute the only basis of that Union, because a faithful observance of them, can alone secure its existence and the public happiness.

That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government as resulting from the compact to which the states are parties, as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting that compact, as no further valid than they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that, in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states, who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose, for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining, within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties, appertaining to them.

That the General Assembly doth also express its deep regret, that a spirit has, in sundry instances, been manifested by the federal government to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter which defines them; and that implications have appeared of a design to expound certain general phrases (which, having been copied from the very limited grant of power in the former Articles of Confederation, were the less liable to be misconstrued) so as to destroy the meaning and effect of the particular enumeration which necessarily explains and limits the general phrases; and so as to consolidate the states, by degrees, into one sovereignty, the obvious tendency and inevitable consequence of which would be, to transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or, at best, a mixed monarchy.

That the General Assembly doth particularly PROTEST against the palpable and alarming infractions of the Constitution, in the two late cases of the "Alien and Sedition Acts," passed at the last session of Congress; the first of which exercises a power no where delegated to the federal government, and which by uniting legislative and judicial powers to those of executive, subverts the general principles of free government; as well as the particular organization and positive provisions of the Federal Constitution; and the other of which acts exercises, in like manner, a power not delegated by the Constitution, but, on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto,— a power which

[ 529 ]

more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm, because it is levelled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.

That this state having, by its Convention, which ratified the Federal Constitution, expressly declared that, among other essential rights, "the liberty of conscience and the press cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified, by any authority of the United States," and from its extreme anxiety to guard these rights from every possible attack of sophistry and ambition, having, with other states, recommended an amendment for that purpose, which amendment was, in due time, annexed to the Constitution,—it would mark a reproachable inconsistency, and criminal degeneracy, if an indifference were now shown to the most palpable violation of one of the rights thus declared and secured, and to the establishment of a precedent which may be fatal to the other.

That the good people of this commonwealth, having ever felt, and continuing to feel, the most sincere affection for their brethren of the other states; the truest anxiety for establishing and perpetuating the union of all; and the most scrupulous fidelity to that Constitution, which is the pledge of mutual friendship, and the instrument of mutual happiness,—the General Assembly doth solemnly appeal to the like dispositions in the other states, in confidence that they will concur with this commonwealth in declaring, as it does hereby declare, that the acts aforesaid are unconstitutional; and that the necessary and proper measures will be taken by each, for coöperating with this state, in maintaining unimpaired the authorities, rights, and liberties, reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

That the Governor be desired, to transmit a copy of the foregoing resolutions to the executive authority of each of the other states, with a request that the same may be communicated to the legislature thereof, and that a copy be furnished to each of the senators and representatives representing this state in the Congress of the United States.

Attest,      JOHN STEWART


  1. How does Madison begin argument in Paragraph #2?

  2. In paragraph #5, what does the Virginia Assembly oppose?

  3. Do you agree or disagree with Madison’s argument given our earlier discussion on seditious speech?

  4. What does Madison propose in Paragraph #7?

  5. Do you agree or disagree with the conclusion of the Virginia Assembly? Why?

  6. Summarize the main points of the resolution.

Questions on First Amendment Document and Article I: Section #5
Amendment I

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.

Section 9 - Limits on Congress

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

  1. According to the amendment, who may not abridge the freedom of speech or press?

  2. Are there any clear prohibitions to the rights of individual speech?

  3. What prohibitions may there be concerning individual free speech?

  4. Could Section 9: Limits on Congress be used to justify that during war or rebellion, certain individual rights other than habeas corpus may be suspended? Why or why not?

  5. During wartime, what type of prohibitions of free speech and press would you consider legitimate?

  6. Is it unpatriotic for citizens to criticize their government when at war? Why or why not?

  7. Should it be protected free speech for government officials or military leaders to criticize the President as Commander-in-Chief during times of war? Why or Why not?

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