Lessons from 1798, and beyond – dsm2240

Gun rights proponents often say we need a well-armed citizenry to prevent a tyrannical government. An episode in American history casts serious doubt on this claim. In 1798, Congress passed four bills which President Adams signed into law. These measures are known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws allegedly prepared the United States for war against France, including a possible invasion.

The most notorious of this set was the Sedition Act. This law outlawed any “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president, and made it illegal to conspire “to oppose any measure or measures of the government.” Essentially, the law punished anyone who criticized the federal government, its laws, or its elected leaders. It was set to expire on March 3, 1801, the last day of his term in office. Opposition Republicans strongly opposed the Sedition Act, arguing it violated the First Amendment.

Between 1798 and 1801, federal courts prosecuted at least 26 individuals under the Sedition Act. Many of those charged were editors of Republican newspapers, and all opposed the Adams administration. Many others were scared of criticizing the government.

The Supreme Court did not strike it down. This was before the Marbury v. Madison decision in 1803, in which the court gave itself the right to overturn laws it considered unconstitutional.

There was no doubt public anger over these laws, and that anger helped Vice President Jefferson defeat Adams in 1800. With Jefferson’s inauguration, the Sedition Act was no longer in force.

What did NOT happen? No group of citizens, invoking the Second Amendment, formed an army and forced an early repeal of the Sedition Act. This was at a time when many people had memories of the Revolutionary War and the difficulties with stabilizing the new country.

In 1917 a new Sedition Act became law. In the Second World War Japanese American were interred. The Second Amendment did nothing about these later abuses.

We do not need to tolerate more domestic violence because of a distorted reading of American history.

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