The greatest blunder of the John Adams administration was the Sedition Act. It inflamed his adversaries and gave color to their accusations that Adams was a tyrant. It is stunning that the same men who had fought in the Revolution and helped to found a new government could have implemented legislation in 1798 which was so blatantly unconstitutional and antithetical to the liberties that they had so bravely fought for. The Act helped destroy the Federalists and assure the success of Jefferson’s Republicans. The text of the Act is as follows:
SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled. That if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States, or to intimidate or prevent any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States, from undertaking, performing, or executing his trust or duty: and if any person or persons, with intent as aforesaid, shall counsel, advise, or attempt to procure any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination, whether such conspiracy, threatening, counsel, advice, or attempt shall have the proposed effect or not, he or they shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanour, and on conviction before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and by imprisonment during a term of not less than six months, nor exceeding five years; and further, at the discretion of the court, may be holden to find sureties for his good behaviour, in such sum, and for such time, as the said court may direct.
SECT. 2. And be it further 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 the 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.
SECT. 3. And be it further enacted and declared, That if any person shall be prosecuted under this act for the writing or publishing any libel aforesaid, it shall be lawful for the defendant, upon the trial of the cause, to give in evidence in his defence, the truth of the matter contained in the publication charged as a libel. And the jury who shall try the cause shall have a right to determine the law and the fact, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.
SECT. 4. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force until the third day of March, one thousand eight hundred and one, and no longer: Provided, That the expiration of the act shall not prevent or defeat a prosecution and punishment of any offence against the law, during the time it shall be in force. Continue reading
John Adams, second President of these United States, was a man of very firm convictions. Once he decided to support a cause, most notably American independence, nothing on this Earth could convince him to change his mind. In regard to religion he was raised a Congregationalist. Although described as a Unitarian, I find the evidence ambiguous in his writings and I suspect he remained at heart a fairly conventional Protestant. As such he was unsympathetic to the Catholic faith by heredity, creed and conviction. However, he did attend Mass on occasion, and his writings about these visits show attraction mixed with repulsion.
On October 9, 1774 Adams and George Washington attended a Catholic chapel in Philadelphia during the First Continental Congress. He reported his thoughts about the visit to his wife and constant correspondent Abigail:
“This afternoon, led by Curiosity and good Company I strolled away to Mother Church, or rather Grandmother Church, I mean the Romish Chapel. Heard a good, short, moral Essay upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in justice and Charity, to take care of their Interests temporal and spiritual.
This afternoon’s entertainment was to me most awful (Adams here means awe-inspiring and not the more colloquial use of the term common in our time.) and affecting. The poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. Their holy water– their crossing themselves perpetually– their bowing to the name of Jesus wherever they hear it– their bowings, and kneelings, and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich with lace– his pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich– little images and crucifixes about– wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Saviour in a frame of marble over the altar, at full length, upon the cross in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds.
The music consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted– most sweetly and exquisitely.
Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”