Date of Award


Degree Name



College of Liberal Arts

Type of Degree


Document Type


First Advisor

Donna J. Spindel

Second Advisor

Montserrat M. Miller

Third Advisor

Christine Henderson

Fourth Advisor

Leonard J. Deutsch


On July 14, 1798, more than six years after the ratification of the First Amendment, the Federalist controlled Congress of the United States passed the Sedition Act. This Act, codifying the substantive English common law of seditious libel, made it a federal crime to publish defamatory matter against the Congress, President, or government of the United States. Republican critics of the act argued it to be unconstitutional as a violation of Congress’ limited powers, and the First Amendment’s press clause. Federalists, however, interpreted this clause to permit prosecutions for seditious libel. The ensuing public controversy over the Sedition Act represented the first serious debate over the original meaning of the First Amendment’s press clause and was thus an important early juncture in American constitutional development. Because no defendant convicted under the Act appealed to the Supreme Court, the Court never had the opportunity to review the Act’s constitutionality before its expiration in 1801.

In supporting the Sedition Act, Federalists attempted to reconcile the common law with the First Amendment’s press clause. A closer examination of their arguments shows how Federalists brought about a theoretical shift in the seditious libel doctrine, adapting it well as influential legal commentaries, further demonstrate that Federalist arguments were generally well received in the law. This thesis proposes that Federalists were able to impart a common-law understanding to the freedom of the press, thus establishing the doctrine of seditious libel in First Amendment jurisprudence.


Alien and Sedition laws, 1798.

Seditious libel – History.