Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Wendell Bird (Author)


In the first complete account of prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts, dozens of previously unknown cases come to light, revealing the lengths to which the John Adams administration went in order to criminalize dissent.

The campaign to prosecute dissenting Americans under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 ignited the first battle over the Bill of Rights. Fearing destructive criticism and "domestic treachery" by Republicans, the administration of John Adams led a determined effort to safeguard the young republic by suppressing the opposition.

The acts gave the president unlimited discretion to deport noncitizens and made it a crime to criticize the president, Congress, or the federal government. In this definitive account, Wendell Bird goes back to the original federal court records and the papers of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and finds that the administration's zeal was far greater than historians have recognized. Indeed, there were twice as many prosecutions and planned deportations as previously believed. The government went after local politicians, raisers of liberty poles, and even tavern drunks but most often targeted Republican newspaper editors, including Benjamin Franklin's grandson. Those found guilty were sent to prison or fined and sometimes forced to sell their property to survive. The Federalists' support of laws to prosecute political opponents and opposition newspapers ultimately contributed to the collapse of the party and left a large stain on their record.

The Alien and Sedition Acts launched a foundational debate on press freedom, freedom of speech, and the legitimacy of opposition politics. The result was widespread revulsion over the government's attempt to deprive Americans of their hard-won liberties. Criminal Dissent is a potent reminder of just how fundamental those rights are to a stable democracy.

Product Details

Harvard University Press
Publish Date
January 01, 2020
6.2 X 1.9 X 9.3 inches | 2.2 pounds

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About the Author

Wendell Bird is the author of Press and Speech under Assault: The Early Supreme Court Justices, the Sedition Act of 1798, and the Campaign against Dissent. He holds a D.Phil. in legal history from the University of Oxford and a J.D. from Yale Law School, and is a visiting scholar at Emory University School of Law.


By surveying the Alien and Sedition Acts prosecutions more thoroughly than has been done before, Bird makes clear the seriousness of the threats these statutes posed to freedom in the new republic. Had there not been the massive resistance to these acts that Bird so well demonstrates--in Congress, in the press, in juries, and even among judges--the repressive instincts that motivated then might not have been easily abandoned.--David Anderson, author of Mass Media Law
Nothing in the historical canon is truly definitive, but Bird's accounts of these prosecutions comes close. His lawyerly eye has unmasked a number of pseudonyms, addressed prosecutions of aiders and abettors, and even found a few Federalists who were targeted. A clear and compelling study.--Peter Charles Hoffer, author of Uncivil Warriors: The Lawyers' Civil War
A benchmark history of the Alien and Sedition Acts and their place in the political culture of the 1790s. With encyclopedic erudition, Bird documents the legal history of criminalized dissent and the rhetoric of transatlantic revolution and reaction that drove partisan politics in the early republic. He also does something more: he restores the necessity of a vibrant, contested polity to its rightful place at the center of American political ideas. Never has the Jeffersonian argument for an active and dissenting citizenry been more important, and never before have we had a more thorough treatment of that argument's origin and legacy.--Matthew Crow, author of Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection
Thanks to Bird's superlative sleuthing, now we know that Jeffersonian Republicans' opponents' objections to the Alien and Sedition Acts were not based on novel arguments, many more people were targeted than we thought, not everyone targeted was a Republican, and few state legislatures supported the Adams administration's campaign of repression. A must-read.--Kevin R. C. Gutzman, author of James Madison and the Making of America
Wendell Bird combines wide and deep research, analytical skill, and clear and strong prose to illuminate the history of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In addition to his superb, thoughtful treatment of the Sedition Act--a landmark in the history of contests over the meaning of freedom of speech and freedom of the press--Bird enriches our understanding of the neglected Alien Acts. This fine book will be invaluable to any student of free speech and free press, of citizenship, of the early American republic, and of the formative period of U.S. constitutional history.--R. B. Bernstein, author of The Education of John Adams