Section 3: Federalist Era
Shays' Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion
The National Debt
The Alien and Sedition Acts
A List of Cases
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
The Election of 1800

Shays' Rebellion
Shays' Rebellion was an uprising in 1786-1787 in Massachusetts caused by what farmers considered to be too high taxes on land and by the hard money policy of the national government.

The country, especially New England, had an economic depression after the Revolutionary War. People who had debts were unable to pay. Foreclosure was common.

To head off the foreclosures, Daniel Shays, 39 at the time, led a group of 800 farmers in a march on the state capital in Springfield. Among other things, they seized the federal arsenal there.

The national government was unable to come up with an army to put down the rebellion. A state militia under General William Shepard stopped it.

It was in this context that Jefferson made his famous quote about "a little rebellion, now and then" being a good thing.

He wrote this in a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787. In the letter he said, referring to Shays' Rebellion:

I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical ... It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."

Daniel Shays was a captain in the Revolutionary War. He had been given a sword by Lafayette to signify his service. But, dire economic situation had caused Shays to sell the sword for a great deal less than it should have been worth.

After the rebellion, Shays lived in exile in Vermont and New York.

When it was all over, by the way, Shays wrote to the General Court of Massachusetts asking for forgiveness. He admitted he was wrong and asked to be allowed to return to Massachusetts. He did return.

Massachusetts now has a highway named after him. The road leads to Pelham. A sign outside the town says: "The home of Shays' Rebellion."

Shays' Rebellion and the government's response showed the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and was one of the events that led to the gathering in Philadelphia to draw up a new constitution.

Return To Top

The Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion was an uprising in 1794 by 3,000 settlers in Pennsylvania west of the Alleghenies who opposed the tax on distilled whiskey. Alexander Hamilton had gotten the tax passed in 1791.

The tax was about 25 percent of the price of a gallon of whiskey. The purpose of the tax was to help decrease the national debt.

But the western settlers thought the tax was discriminatory. They objected to it. For many of them, whiskey was the only medium of exchange.

Since the Mississippi was closed (it was not yet part of America), whiskey was the only way to get corn to market -- that is, to make it a consumer product that could be transported and bartered.

President George Washington called out the militia in four states to suppress the rebellion -- 15,000 troops in all. Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, marched at the head of the troops.

The uprising ended without bloodshed. Eighteen rebels were captured, but only two convicted and they were soon pardoned by the president. This incident turned the frontier people into Jeffersonian Republicans or Anti-Federalists.

Return To Top

The National Debt
National policies were being formulated for the first time with the start of a new government under the presidency of George Washington.

In spite of the popularity of Washington, Alexander Hamilton was perhaps the most important politician in the country. As secretary of the treasury, he assumed the leadership on economic issues. He established national fiscal policy.

The new government had millions of dollars in debts left over from the Revolutionary War that the Congress of the Articles of Confederation had been unable to pay. Also, the states had debts that they expected the national government to repay.

Hamilton drew up a series of plans to straighten out the finances. His plan intensified the division between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Since the Federalists controlled Congress, they were able to pass the first part of the plan in July 1790.

Under the Plan
Hamilton managed to get the Congress to assume the public debt, foreign and domestic, of both the national government and the states.

The United States would also borrow $12 million from other countries to pay interest on the debts.

Then came the most controversial of Hamilton's plans: he wanted the federal government to pay off the face value of all securities being held by creditors. These securities had been used to pay for goods and supplies during the war.

By this means he hoped to put the nation's credit on a sound footing and to ensure the continuing loyalty of "the rich and well-born" (Hamilton's phrase) to the new government.

Since wealthy merchants and financiers had acquired these securities at depreciated values, the Hamilton plan served to enrich them still further and to bind them to the emerging Federalist party.

Farmers, petty shopkeepers, former soldiers, and others had supported the war by buying these securities. But they had been forced during hard times to sell the securities at discounts.

This intensified their move toward the opposition party, the Anti-Federalists.

The Deal
In the House of Representatives, James Madison had emerged as the major opponent of Hamilton's plans. Thomas Jefferson didn't immediately express his opposition. Hamilton turned to Jefferson for help.

Jefferson arranged for a dinner with Hamilton and Madison at his house on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan. What emerged was the first great political deal of the new government.

In return for the support of Hamilton's plans by Madison and Jefferson, Hamilton agreed to work with them to relocate the United States capital in a new district on the Potomac in eastern Virginia.

So, after a 10-year sojourn in Philadelphia, a new capitol building was built and the government began moving to the District of Columbia in 1800. As things worked out, Jefferson was the first president inaugurated there.

And the new capital was named after a man they all respected:
George Washington

Return To Top

The Alien and Sedition Acts
As feelings on both sides intensified, newspapers were in the forefront of the fight. With newfound freedom, newspapers became more vitriolic in their attacks - even toward leaders such as Washington and Jefferson.

The country wasn't used to such attacks. This introduced a new element in American society. Some call this the Dark Ages of American Journalism.

Many new newspapers had been started after the Revolutionary War. Also, a great many editor/printers were not native born. In all there were about 200 newspapers of various descriptions in the country as of 1798, and only 20 to 30 supported the administration under John Adams.

At the same time the Federalists became obsessed about France. The matter of France's support after the war had not been fully settled. Also, the XYZ Affair heightened tensions.

In the midst of all this came the French Revolution. Many people were fearful that the revolution could spread to America - and that France might even invade America.

The Federalists were pro-British and anti-French. Led by Jefferson, the Anti-Federalists were pro-French.

In this context Congress in 1798 passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

This was only seven years after the Bill of Rights had been approved. The Bill of Rights seemed to preclude Congress passing laws that restricted the freedom of speech or the press. The Bill of Rights begin, "Congress shall make no law..."

The Acts
The sections of the acts with which we are most concerned are:

1. An Alien Enemies Act gave the president in the event of war or threatened invasion the authority to remove all alien citizens of the enemy nation. This, of course, would have applied to France.

Another part of the law gave the president power to deport all aliens suspected of being engaged in subversive activities.

Estimates vary so greatly that coming up with the number of aliens in the United States at that time is mostly conjecture. Let's say that between 25,000 and 50,000 aliens were here.

The total population of the United States in 1800 was 5,308,483.

Most of the aliens had left countries where there wasn't a great deal of individual freedom. More importantly, they tended to side with Jefferson and were Anti-Federalists

2. The Federalists came to the conclusion that every government that depended upon the support of public opinion must take measures to ensure that it enjoyed a favorable press. This is not an unusual position. Many parties since then have felt the same way.

But, the Federalists went further. They passed a sedition law making it a federal crime to criticize the government.

The Sedition Act provided for imprisonment for up to two years and a fine of not more than $2,000 for any person convicted of uttering, writing or printing any "false, scandalous and malicious" statement "against the Government of the United States; or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame... or to bring them... into contempt or disrepute."

Results of the Act
How many people were convicted under the Sedition Act? Records are sketchy, but one of the cases serves as an example.

Matthew Lyon, a member of Congress from Vermont, wrote a letter that was published in a newspaper that accusing President Adams of "ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice."

For those remarks he was sentenced to four months in jail and fined a thousand dollars. This is an indication of the strong feelings that had developed.

The situation was so volatile that the 1800 election turned, in large part, on these laws. Jefferson was adamantly against the laws. Adams continued to support them.

The election was decided in the House of Representatives. The date: February 17, 1801. Jefferson won on the 36th ballot.

All parts of the Alien and Sedition Acts expired on March 3, 1801, the day before Jefferson became president.

After he was elected, Jefferson offered pardons to all persons still imprisoned under the sedition law; all pending trials were canceled.

The XYZ Affair
In 1797-1798, John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry joined Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in France to try to establish harmonious relations. They were not able to see Talleyrand, but met instead with three emissaries. In dispatches to the United States, the three Americans referred to the three emissaries as X, Y and Z. The three Frenchmen proposed that the United States lend a large sum of money to France as a condition of France renouncing the Treaty of Alliances of 1778. This affair soured the American people against France. It led to the saying, "... not one cent for tribute."

Why were the Alien and Sedition Acts not ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, or by the United States Supreme Court?

The reason: Chief Justice John Marshall had not yet enunciated the concept of judicial review. That came in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison. No provision for judicial review had been put in the Constitution by the founding fathers.

Return To Top

A List of Cases
Counting the cases under the Sedition Act is difficult and various sources use different numbers. The best indications are that:

In all, 24 or 25 editors, writers and others were arrested under the two acts. 14 or 15 were indicted. 11 trials were held and 10 people were convicted. Eight newspapers were involved. Five additional convictions came under the common law.

Everyone involved had been critical of the Adams administration. The prosecutions were begun in 1798 and 1799, most of the cases came to trial in April, May and June of 1800.

Common Law Cases
To start with, common law cases: The accusations under the common law came before the passage of the Sedition Act. The question is why the national government and state government would try citizens for seditious libel, a criminal charge, under the common law. Of course, this demonstrates the depth of the concern about criticism by people in power.

To take just two examples:

1. Benjamin Franklin Bache
Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was editor of the General Advertiser in Philadelphia. The paper was better known as the Aurora. It was the most famous paper of its time.

Bache was the most outspoken opponents of the Federalists. And although his grandfather should have been revered, the Federalists didn't approve of Benjamin Franklin's lifestyle. Even Franklin's accomplishments were questioned by the Federalists. This was all the more reason for Benjamin Franklin Bache to lash out at them.

He was held up as the worst element among the Anti-Federalists. Only Thomas Jefferson himself was held in lower regard.

Here's an example of what Bache had to say about Washington:

"If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington."

That was in the December 23, 1796, issue of the Aurora.

Federalists wrecked the Aurora office and beat up Bache in retaliation. John Fenno, editor of a paper that supported the Federalists, caned Bache in the street.

Bache was arrested under the English common law of seditious libel before the Sedition Act went into effect for "sundry publications and republications" of alleged libels upon the executive department of the United States. But he died before coming to trial.

2. Abijah Adams
Abijah Adams, publisher of the Boston Chronicle, was indicted for libeling the Massachusetts legislature. He went to jail for 30 days and was forced to give bond for a year of good conduct. He was prosecuted under Massachusetts common law.

The Sedition Act
The Federalists abused the Sedition Act so openly that for a time freedom of the press was seriously threatened in America. It was far from being the reign of terror charged by the opposition, but the record is not one of which Americans can be proud.

Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, spent much of his time reading Anti-Federalist papers so that he could ferret out violators of the law.

Cases under the Sedition Act
1. William Duane
Benjamin Franklin Bache's successor at the Aurora, William Duane, was arrested under the Sedition Act for his support of the Anti-Federalists and for his criticism of the Federalists in the campaign of 1800. He was one of those who had the complaint dropped when Jefferson became president.

2,3. Matthew Lyon and Anthony Haswell
Among the most interesting cases under the Sedition Act involved Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Anthony Haswell, editor of the Vermont Gazette.

Matthew Lyon was born in Ireland and had landed in America as an indentured servant. Lyon was one of the famous Green Mountain Boys in the Revolutionary War. After the war he was elected to Congress.

Lyon had a fierce temper, was unconventional in appearances, fearless and persistent in expressing his views.

He attracted attention when he asked to be excused from the custom of going with the House in procession to present a reply to the president's annual speech.

On the afternoon of January 30, 1798, in the House of Representatives, Roger Griswold, a leading Federalist from Connecticut, made insulting remarks about Lyon's war record. Lyon ignored Griswold at first, but when Griswold grasped his coat and repeated the insult, Lyon replied by spitting in Griswold's eye.

The Federalists tried to expel Lyon from the House but didn't get the necessary two-thirds vote.

On February 15, 1798, Griswold walked up to Lyon's desk in the House and began beating him with a heavy stick as the speaker was about to call to order. Lyon grabbed a pair of fire tongs from the fireplace and beat Griswold back. The Federalists in their defense of Griswold said that since the incident had occurred before the House was in session, no penalty was necessary.

The Sedition Act was used to settle scores with such persons.

The crime charged against Lyon under the act was the publication of a letter to an editor accusing President Adams of having a:

"continued grasp for power... an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice."

For such remarks, Lyon was brought before a Federalists judge, who sentenced him to four months in jail and a fine of a thousand dollars. The vindictiveness of the judge was indicated by the fact that although the trial was held in Rutland, Vermont, where there was a passable jail, Lyon was condemned to a filthy cell at Vergennes, about 40 miles away. Thousands of local citizens signed a petition requesting parole for Lyon. To no avail.

When editor Anthony Haswell printed an advertisement in his Vermont Gazette announcing a lottery to raise money to pay the $1,000 fine against Lyon, he too was jailed for abetting a "criminal."

Lyon was jailed in October 1798. In December he was reelected to the House by a two to one margin over his closest opponent.

Lyon was freed in February 1799, after money had come in to pay his fine.

4,5. Benjamin Fairbanks and David Brown
This is the famous liberty pole case. The pole was built by David Brown, assisted by Benjamin Fairbanks. Both pled guilty. Fairbanks got a light sentence. Brown was fined $400 and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

The pole was erected at Dedham, Massachusetts. It carried this inscription:

No Stamp Act, no Sedition, no Alien Bills, no Land Tax:
downfall to the Tyrants of America, peace and retirement to the President, long live the Vice-President and the Minority; may moral virtue be the basis of civil government.

6. James Callender
James Callender, editor of the Richmond Examiner, was charged and tried for criticizing President John Adams.

Like many other people in history who get on the wrong side of the law over such issues, Callender was not an admirable person. Journalism historian Edwin Emery said Callender probably deserved what he got, "for the man was an unprincipled political opportunist."

The Federalists were not attacking him on principle, however, but on technicalities, and his case is just as significant as though he were a man of high character.

Callender was defended by William Wirt, the South's leading lawyer and a man of letters. The judge was Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who had said before he arrived in Virginia that he was going to give the Anti-Federalists a lesson. Callender was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in jail.

John Marshall, later to be chief justice of the United States, attended the trial.

7. Luther Baldwin
Baldwin went into a shop in Newark, New Jersey, after President and Mrs. Adams had driven down Broad Street. Cannons loaded with wadded cloth had been fired as they paraded.

A customer said to Baldwin: "There goes the President and they are firing at his arse."

Baldwin replied, "I don't care if they fired through his arse."

The shopkeeper turned both of the men over to the authorities. They were found guilty of using "seditious words tending to defame the President." They were fined $100 each and put in jail until the fines were paid.

8. Thomas Cooper
Thomas Cooper was the editor of the Northumberland Gazette in Pennsylvania. He wrote in the Gazette that President Adams was a threat to liberty, popular sovereignty and the rights of man.

His piece was reprinted in the Philadelphia Aurora and in various handbills.

Cooper was indicted and convicted. He was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $400.

9. William Durrell
William Durrell of the Register, Mount Pleasant, New York, was sentenced to four months in prison and a fine of $50 for reprinting an article from the New Windsor Gazette.

He served only a small part of his sentence. He was the only person convicted under the sedition law to be pardoned by Adams.

10. Charles Holt
Charles Holt of the Bee, New London, Connecticut, was sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of $200. His offense was the publication of an article containing a caustic comment on the moral character and influence of the Army and connecting that accusation to Adams.

Holt's Bee was the most active Jeffersonian journal in Connecticut, which was the most Federalist of all the states.

Holt was turned in by Barzillai Hudson and George Goodwin, co-editors of the Connecticut Courant.

11. David Frothingham
In 1799, David Frothingham, a relatively insignificant journeyman-printer, was arrested on the complaint of Alexander Hamilton for violation of the Sedition Law.

His paper, the New York Argus, had reprinted a letter that accused Hamilton of trying to suppress another paper, the Philadelphia Aurora, by pecuniary means. The Aurora was the Bache/Duane paper.

This was an unusual case because few printers were ever prosecuted. The Federalists were after the more powerful editors. Even more confusing, was confusing, the letter in question was not written by Frothingham, Frothingham did not own the Argus and the letter had been printed and reprinted previously in other papers.

Nevertheless, Frothingham received a sentence of four months in jail and a $100 fine.

This was the last of the cases under the Sedition Act.

12. The Croswell Case
This is a case under the common law of criminal or seditious libel. The irony is that the John Peter Zenger trial had dealt with this exact issue - seditious libel - only two generations previously.

Harry Croswell was a printer and junior editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York. Croswell also put out a paper called The Wasp on an irregular schedule. It was the kind of paper that was so far out of the mainstream that it had little support. The Federalists wouldn't even claim it.

In 1802 Croswell printed an exchange from the New York Evening Post. The article reported that Thomas Jefferson, the president at the time, had at some time in the past paid James Callender, the Richmond editor, to spread the word that George Washington had been a robber, traitor and perjurer.

The Wasp -- not the Post -- was prosecuted under state law. Why? People who put out the Post had friends in the right places.

It may have been Jefferson who set this sequence of events in motion. He had condoned "a few exemplary prosecutions" of Federalist editors under state laws. That is, he was against the Alien and Sedition Acts, but thought that states could deal with the problem.

In 1803, Jefferson wrote to Governor McKean of Pennsylvania:

The federalists having failed in destroying the freedom of the press by their gat-laws, seem to have attacked it in an opposite form, that is by pushing it's licentiousness & its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit. And the fact is that so abandoned are the tory presses in this particular that even the least informed of the people have learnt that nothing in a newspaper is to be believed. This is a dangerous state of things, and the press ought to be restored to it's creditability if possible. The restraints provided by the laws of the states are sufficient for this if applied. And I have therefore long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution; but a selected one.

The Wasp was just the kind of paper Jefferson was referring to.

In the Croswell case, the trial judge made it clear to the jury that it was to decide only the fact of publication. He said that truth and good motives were not defenses under New York law. In other words, this was the same procedure that was used in the Zenger case in 1735.

Croswell was convicted. An appeal was begun.

The Role of Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton helped with Croswell's appeal. The reason: He was one of the supporters of the New York Evening Post. He perhaps felt an obligation to defend Croswell because of the role the Post had played in the event.

Hamilton, according to Edwin Emery in The Press in America, fifth edition, won his right alongside the great fighters for press freedom.

By way of background, Hamilton had not been in favor of the Bill of Rights because he thought that it was not needed. This can be seen in No. 84 of The Federalist.

The appeal came before the New York state supreme court in 1804. Hamilton argued the case before the four judges who heard it.

As Andrew Hamilton had done in the Zenger case, Alexander Hamilton argued before the court that truth should have been a defense in this case. He said the jury should decide such cases.

He argued for "the right to publish with impunity truth, with good motives, for justifiable ends, though reflecting on Government, Magistracy, or individuals."

It was said that Hamilton's arguments lasted for six hours over two days, February 13 and 14, 1804.

The problem was that even though Andrew Hamilton had used the same argument in 1735, it had never been written into state law.

The judges split, two and two, therefore sustaining the conviction.

Even before the judges ruled, a bill was introduced in the New York Legislature providing for truth as a defense in common law cases of seditious libel. It also provided that the jury had the right to determine both the law and the fact in such cases. These were the two main arguments of Andrew Hamilton in the Zenger case.

After the passage of the law, the New York supreme court overturned Croswell's conviction.

In time, the law was to also apply to civil libel, an area that was largely untried as of 1804.

The Duel
The duel was a result of long-standing animosity between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. They were bitter enemies. Among other things, Hamilton had opposed Burr when Burr ran for governor of New York in 1804. Burr lost barely.

A letter by Dr. Charles D. Cooper was published in the Albany Register. It said that while Hamilton was in Albany defending Croswell he had attended a dinner party. During the party Hamilton had supposedly said about Burr: "Mr. Burr is a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reigns of government."

Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused. Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel by letter. Even though friends urged Hamilton to ignore the challenge, he accepted.

Dueling was against the law in New York State. Therefore, the duel was fought across the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Hamilton was shot and died the next day. His son had been killed in a duel at the same spot several months before.

For more information go to

Return To Top

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
In suggesting the means for restoring rights abused by the Alien and Sedition Acts, these resolutions questioned the very nature of the federal union. The documents affirmed that the federal government was created by the states and that the states must be superior. On that basis, a state might nullify a federal law.

Throughout the late summer and early fall of 1798, Jefferson conferred with James Madison about strategy to oppose the Alien and Sedition Acts. Since all three branches of the national government were in Federalist hands, they turned to the states.

Secretly, Jefferson drew up a set of resolutions to be introduced into the next session of the strongly Anti-Federalist Kentucky legislature; Madison did the same for the Virginia legislature. One reason they kept their roles in the drafting secret was fear of being indicted under the sedition law. Jefferson was the vice president. That the vice president should worry about being prosecuted is an indication of the temper of the times.

In early November 1798 after Federalist gains in the off-year elections and only a few days before Congress reconvened, Kentucky adopted Jefferson's resolutions, denouncing the Sedition Act and other recent "unconstitutional" acts and asserting that the government was a compact of states, not of individuals.

Virginia adopted similar, although somewhat milder, resolutions on December 21.

John C. Calhoun and other Southerners later would cite these resolutions as the source of the idea of nullification and even secession. The same idea became the basis of States' Rights advocates in the middle of the 20th century.

From the Annals of America, Volume 4:

Jefferson's principal arguments were that the national government was a compact between the states, that any exercise of undelegated authority on its part was invalid, and that the states had the right to decide when their powers had been infringed, and to determine the mode of redress. The Kentucky resolutions thus declared the Alien and Sedition Acts to be "void and of no force."

Return To Top

The Election of 1800
The 1800 election turned, in large part, on the issue of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson was adamantly against them. Adams had supported them.

The final voting on whether to renew the Alien and Sedition Act was interrupted for eight days while the House voted on the election of Jefferson and Aaron Burr

The Electoral College tied 71 to 71 between Jefferson and Burr, putting the election into the House. Electors at that time cast the same number of votes for the president and vice president. This was changed with the 12th Amendment in 1804.

The debate over the election in the House lasted six days. Each state had one vote. On the 36th ballot, the only Delaware delegate (Bayard) worked out a plan whereby certain Federalist states cast blank ballots to break the deadlock, thereby electing Jefferson. One of the states that cast a blank ballot was Vermont, from where Matthew Lyon was a representative.

All parts of the Alien and Sedition Acts expired on March 3, 1801, the day before Jefferson became president. Jefferson pardoned all those still imprisoned under the sedition law, and all pending trials were canceled.

The Congress met for the first time in the new capitol at Washington in the fall of 1800. Jefferson took office the next year. A new period in the life of the nation began.

In a letter to Mrs. John Adams in answer to criticism by her, Jefferson wrote:

I considered and now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image. (Palpable: can be perceived by the mind.)

Why weren't these laws declared unconstitutional? Judicial review had not been devised yet. It came in 1803 when Chief Justice John Marshall enunciated it in Marbury v. Madison.

The decision in Sullivan v. The New York Times, 1964, included a statement by Justice William Brennan in which he said: "Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history."

Return To Top