THE “REIGN OF WITCHES”

But the greatest crisis of the Adams administration arose over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Confronted with mounting opposition, some of it voiced by immigrant pamphleteers and editors, Federahsts moved to silence their critics. A new Naturalization Act extended from five to fourteen years the residency requirement for immigrants seeking American citizenship. The Alien Act allowed the deportation of persons from abroad deemed “dangerous” by federal authorities. The Sedition Act (which was set to expire in 1801, by which time Adams hoped to have been reelected) authorized the prosecution of virtually any public assembly or publication critical of the government.

Congressional Pugilists, a 1798 cartoon depicting a fight on the floor of Congress between Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon, a Republican from Vermont. Lyon would soon be jailed under the Sedition Act for criticizing the Adams administration in his newspaper.

While more lenient than many such measures in Europe (it did not authorize legal action before publication and allowed for trials by jury), the new law meant that opposition editors could be prosecuted for almost any political comment they printed. The main target was the Republican press, seen by Federalists as a group of upstart workingmen (most editors had started out as printers) whose persistent criticism of the administration fomented popular rebelliousness and endangered “genuine liberty.”

The passage of these measures launched what Jefferson—recalling events in Salem, Massachusetts, a century earlier—termed a “reign of witches.” Eighteen individuals, including several Republican newspaper editors, were charged under the Sedition Act. Ten were convicted for spreading “false, scandalous, and malicious” information about the government. Matthew Lyon, a member of Congress from Vermont and editor of a Republican newspaper, The Scourge of Aristocracy, received a sentence of four months in prison and a fine of $1,000. (Lyon had been the first former printer and most likely the first former indentured servant elected to Congress.) The government also imprisoned Thomas Cooper, a lawyer and physician in Pennsylvania who had emigrated from England in 1794, for writings accusing the Adams administration of pro-British bias. In Massachusetts, authorities indicted several men for erecting a liberty pole bearing the inscription, “No Stamp Act, no Sedition, no Alien Bill, no Land Tax; Downfall to the Tyrants of America.”

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