The Sedition Act

ryanAmerican History(ML), Mini Lessons

Common Sense American History eBook: The New Nation

In 1798 … Congress passed the Sedition Act. … This loosely drawn act barred ‘malicious [hateful] writing” that attacked the reputation of any official. Federalists used this law to attack ten Jeffersonian newspaper editors who were fined or imprisoned. Most prominent was Matthew Lyon of Vermont who won election to Congress while imprisoned in this act.

Jeffersonians attacked these acts as unconstitutional and tyrannical, in clear violation of the First Amendment, which protected free speech. Secretly working behind the scenes in 1798, Jefferson drafted a series of resolutions, which were adopted by the Kentucky legislature. That same year Madison framed a similar act for Virginia.

These resolutions, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, declared that each state should judge for itself how to respond to federal law. The Virginia resolution suggested that a state might “interpose” itself to resist the law. Kentucky held that a bad federal law might be “nullified” [invalidated] by a state declaring the federal law invalid.

  1. The question of whether local and state governments can “nullify” federal laws continues to be controversial. Today, it manifests itself, among other ways, in “sanctuary cities” and laws governing drugs. Do you think that states should have the authority to reject federal laws when their citizens don’t like them? Should there be limits on what laws to apply this to?
  2. Nullification and interposition were concepts used by the South to justify its secession. Does this change your view on the validity of these ideas?

This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History eBook.  Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers.  Click here to download the Common Sense American History materials.

Image Citation:

21, March 2016, WWII propaganda – Quiet by Sally Edelstein [Digital image].  Retrieved from <>.