Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Happy Sedition Act Day!

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”—Rahm Emanuel

Following Rahm’s rule for expanding government power, 216 years ago today, the US Congress, controlled by the Federalist party, and on the ninth anniversary of the start of the French Revolution, passed An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United Statesalso known as the “Sedition Act.” The law made it unlawful to “combine or conspire together to oppose any measure of the government of the United States.” It also restricted speech that was critical of the federal government in the name of protecting national security. While the Federalists were concerned about the threat of revolution in the United States following the example in France and the possibility of war with France following the diplomatic snafu of the XYZ affair, most historians agree that a driving force behind the act was to suppress Democratic-Republican party opposition to the Federalist-controlled government. Such an act would have been unthinkable ten years earlier but on the backdrop of political turmoil and dubious national security claims, Federalists were able to expand central authority to neuter opposition.

Many Democratic-Republicans supported France during the revolution and some sympathized with the sentiments of the revolutionaries. They also opposed the Federalist policies that led to high levels of national debt, a standing national army, government-subsidized monopolies, and the recent levying of the first national tax in the form of the whiskey tax of 1791. In 1791 the national debt stood at $1.84 billion in 2009 dollars and accounted for 38% of GDP at the time—the highest relative debt level the country would see until the Great Depression. Frustration at economic policies was exacerbated by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s central planning ideas for the subsidization of the manufacturing industry. Opposition to federal power only increased at the thought of a federal force of 12,950 troops raised by President Washington to quell the Whisky Rebellion. It was on this backdrop that political opposition to the Federalists was at a fever pitch.

The Sedition Act was used to imprison writers, newspaper editors, and even a congressman. One Revolutionary War veteran and liberty champion, David Brown of Massachusetts, was jailed for nearly two years for erecting 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 (John Adams); Long Live the Vice President (Thomas Jefferson).” While the Supreme Court never directly ruled on the Act before it expired, it is widely agreed that it would be considered unconstitutional today. Perhaps its greatest legacy was the countermeasures it sparked. In response to the blatant overreach of federal power, Jefferson and Madison secretly drafted resolutions for the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures asserting state nullification for unconstitutional laws. The Alien and Sedition Acts were a central campaign issue in the 1800 elections in which Thomas Jefferson and a Republican majority was elected and the Acts were allowed to expire.

On this day let us remember and honor the rights protected under the first and tenth amendments that form the central bulwark of liberty established in our nation. Certainly the grievances of the Democratic-Republicans in the 1790s have modern corollaries; their complaints have unfortunate relevance to our day. The central planning policies of Hamilton are only more powerful and sweeping in the post-progressive era of centralization and nationalism. The usurpation of powers “reserved to the States or the people” under the Tenth Amendment grow with each session of Congress and the attempts of states to follow the outline of nullification envisioned by Jefferson are few and far between. We’re eager to see Utah lead other states in opposition to this usurpation.