Trial of the Century (18th): John Adams on Trial – Alien & Sedition
Description: President John Adams, the second president, was never on trial. For purposes of revisiting the Bill of Rights (constitutional rights), as well as discussing the XYZ Affair, French Revolution, and the Alien and Sedition Acts, President Adams is charged with violating the First Amendment rights by encouraging the passing and enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. This could be thought of as an impeachment trial (charged by the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate), but that was not going to happen since the Federalists controlled Congress.
President John Adams – The president had some concerns about the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts, but he feels his ultimate responsibility is defending the United States from attack from without and without. Adams genuinely fears French and Democratic-Republican plots and a possible French Revolution style event in America.
Vice President Thomas Jefferson –He ran for president and narrowly lost to John Adams. Jefferson leads the Democratic-Republican party which has a completely different view of government. His party favors weak central government, states’ rights, and supports the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. At one point, he even drafts something suggesting Kentucky could secede. The Alien and Sedition Acts prove his worst fears about Federalists abusing the powers (legislative and executive) provided by the new Constitution. In 1800 he is elected president and leads the Democratic-Republicans in Congress in repealing the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Prosecutors – Attorney charged with proving the charges against the president by providing specific evidience and asking tough questions of witnesses, including the president.
Defense Attorneys – This attorney is defending the President, showing that he took necessary actions to protect the United States at a critical time given the threat of war with France and possible plots inside the country. He or she will also ask tough questions to show that the Alien and Sedition Acts were necessary.
XYZ Affair Expert Witness Charles Pinckney –American diplomat sent by President John Adams to negotiate with the French over their harassment of American shipping.
Alien and Sedition Acts expert witness – This person is a Federalist Congressman who helped write these acts and can explain their necessity at this time.
First Amendment attorney – This attorney is expert in the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and can explain how they relate to the Alien and Sedition Acts.
French Revolution expert witness -This person has recently returned from revolutionary France and can explain the French Revolution and the current situation in France.
Military expert for the Secretary of War – Britain and France are at war and Britain is our largest trading partner. The French have seized and harassed more than 300 American ships. France has declared war on Britain, Holland, Spain, and later other nations. There is concern on the part of Federalists and military officials that the French have secret agents in the United States working with Democratic-Republican sympathisizers. These individuals may be planning spying or sabotage. Many Federalists demand that the United States go to war to protect its honor and trade. Others, including John Adams, fear the United States is not prepared for war.
Editor – Benjamin Franklin Bache was editor of the Aurora, a Democratic-Republican newspaper. Bache had accused George Washington of incompetence and financial irregularities, and "the blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous ADAMS" of nepotism and monarchical ambition. He was arrested for his activities
Vermont Congressman Lyon - arrested for saying president should be “sent to a madhouse”, re-elected while in jail. Born in Ireland, was a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont. He was indicted under the Sedition Act for an essay he had written in the Vermont Journal accusing the administration of "ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice". While awaiting trial, Lyon commenced publication of Lyon's Republican Magazine, subtitled "The Scourge of Aristocracy". At trial, he was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in prison. After his release, he returned to Congress
Opening statement by prosecution, charges are read… President John Adams is accused of …
Opening statement by defense… President John Adams will be proven innocent of the charges
Closing statements: prosecution, followed by defense
Class vote jury decision
Alien and Sedition Acts
A series of four laws championed by the Federalists in the U.S. Congress and President John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts made it more difficult for immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship, enacted stricter laws against immigrants that increased the risk of deportation, and limited the rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of the press for U.S. citizens under the guise of preparing the United States for its entry into the Napoleonic Wars against France. Democratic-Republicans maintained that the acts were a weapon to suppress political dissent, and the acts themselves proved wildly unpopular.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the 5th United States Congress in the aftermath of the French Revolution and during an undeclared naval war with France, later known as the Quasi-War. They were signed into law by President John Adams. Opposition to Federalists among Democratic-Republicans reached new heights at this time since the Democratic-Republicans had supported France. Some appeared to desire an event similar to the French Revolution to come to the United States to overthrow the government. When Democratic-Republicans in some states refused to enforce federal laws, such as the Whiskey tax, and threatened to rebel, Federalists threatened to send the army to force them to capitulate. As the unrest sweeping Europe was bleeding over into the United States, calls for secession reached unparalleled heights, and the fledgling nation seemed ready to rip itself apart. Some of this was seen by Federalists as having been caused by French and French-sympathizing immigrants. The acts were thus meant to guard against this perceived threat of anarchy.
Democratic-Republicans denounced them, though they did use them after the 1800 election against Federalists. They became a major political issue in the elections of 1798 and 1800. They were very controversial in their own day, as they remain to the present day. Opposition to them resulted in the highly controversial Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, authored by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
Twenty-five people were arrested, eleven were tried, and ten were convicted.
James Thomson Callender, a Scottish citizen, had been expelled from Great Britain for his political writings. Living first in Philadelphia, then seeking refuge close in Virginia, he wrote a book entitled The Prospect Before Us (read and approved by Vice President Jefferson before publication) in which he called the Adams administration a "continual tempest of malignant passions" and the President a "repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor". Callender, already residing in Virginia and writing for the Richmond Examiner, was indicted under the Sedition Act. Callender was convicted, fined $200 and sentenced to nine months in jail.
Matthew Lyon, born in Ireland, was a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont. He was indicted under the Sedition Act for an essay he had written in the Vermont Journal accusing the administration of "ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice". While awaiting trial, Lyon commenced publication of Lyon's Republican Magazine, subtitled "The Scourge of Aristocracy". At trial, he was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in prison. After his release, he returned to Congress.
Benjamin Franklin Bache was editor of the Aurora, a Republican newspaper. Bache had accused George Washington of incompetence and financial irregularities, and "the blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous ADAMS" of nepotism and monarchical ambition. He was arrested for his activities.
Anthony Haswell was an English immigrant and a printer in Vermont. Among other activities, Haswell reprinted parts of the Aurora, including Bache's claim that the federal government had employed Tories. well was found guilty of seditious libel by judge William Paterson, and sentenced to a two-month imprisonment and a $200 fine. Luther Baldwin was indicted, convicted, and fined $100 for an incident that occurred during a visit by President Adams to Newark, New Jersey.
In November 1798, David Brown led a group in Dedham, Massachusetts in setting up a liberty pole with the words, "No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long Live the Vice President". Brown was arrested in Andover, Massachusetts, but because he could not afford the $4,000 bail, he was taken to Salem for trial. Brown was tried in June 1799. Brown pled guilty but Justice Samuel Chase asked him to name others who had assisted him. Brown refused, was fined $480, and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, the most severe sentence ever imposed under the Sedition Act.
The Alien Act and the Sedition Act were different acts.
Effect of the acts
The Democratic-Republicans used the Alien and Sedition Acts as an important issue in the 1800 election. Thomas Jefferson, upon assuming the Presidency, pardoned those still serving sentences under the Sedition Act, though he also used the acts to prosecute several of his own critics before the acts expired. It has been said that the Alien Acts were aimed at Albert Gallatin; and the Sedition Act aimed at Benjamin Bache's Aurora. While government authorities prepared lists of aliens for deportation, many aliens fled the country during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams never signed a deportation order.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were, however, never appealed to the Supreme Court, whose right of judicial review was not established until Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Subsequent mentions in Supreme Court opinions beginning in the mid-20th century have assumed that the Sedition Act would today be found unconstitutional.
Jefferson and James Madison also secretly drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions denouncing the federal legislation, though state legislatures rejected these resolutions. Though the resolutions followed the "interposition" approach of James Madison, Jefferson advocated nullification and at one point drafted a threat for Kentucky to secede. Jefferson's biographer Dumas Malone argued that this might have gotten Jefferson impeached for treason, had his actions become known at the time. In writing the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson warned that, "unless arrested at the threshold," the Alien and Sedition Acts would "necessarily drive these states into revolution and blood." Historian Ron Chernow says of this "he wasn't calling for peaceful protests or civil disobedience: he was calling for outright rebellion, if needed, against the federal government of which he was vice president." Jefferson "thus set forth a radical doctrine of states' rights that effectively undermined the constitution." Chernow argues that neither Jefferson nor Madison sensed that they had sponsored measures as inimical as the Alien and Sedition Acts themselves. Historian Garry Wills argued "Their nullification effort, if others had picked it up, would have been a greater threat to freedom than the misguided [alien and sedition] laws, which were soon rendered feckless by ridicule and electoral pressure" The theoretical damage of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions was "deep and lasting, and was a recipe for disunion". George Washington was so appalled by them that he told Patrick Henry that if "systematically and pertinaciously pursued", they would "dissolve the union or produce coercion".The influence of Jefferson's doctrine of states' rights reverberated right up to the Civil War and beyond. Future president James Garfield, at the close of the Civil War, said that Jefferson's Kentucky Resolution "contained the germ of nullification and secession, and we are today reaping the fruits".