The Sedition Act, 1798

The Sedition Act of 1798, "Columbian Centinel," August 8, 1798. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC08693)On August 14, 1798, the Columbian Centinel, a Boston newspaper aligned with the Federalist Party, printed this copy of the Sedition Act. It was the last in a series of legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President John Adams in July. These acts were written to silence Democratic-Republicans’ criticism of Federalist policies during the Quasi-War with France.

The Sedition Act, which was the only one in the series that applied to citizens of the United States, made it illegal to “write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” Although Democratic-Republicans complained that the law violated the First Amendment, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Sedition Act by a vote of 44 to 41.

Federalists believed that the Sedition Act was necessary for the security of the United States during the undeclared Quasi-War with France. They feared that criticism from Democratic-Republicans and in newspapers such as the Aurora would undermine the government. In the three years that the act was in effect, there were twenty-five arrests, fifteen indictments, and ten convictions.[1]

There are four sections to the Sedition Act. The first two define acts that would be considered seditious and the penalties for violating the law. The third section establishes the truth as a defense against accusations of libel. The final section provides that the act would expire on March 3, 1801—the day before the next presidential inauguration.


Sec. 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 the 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 combination 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.

A full transcript is available here.

[1] Peter Macnamara, “The Sedition Act of 1798,” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, originally published 2009.