Not long after the limited-government U.S. Constitution was ratified and the new government resumed operation, numerous political leaders began pushing to expand federal power. Leading politicians of the 1790s did not agree with each other about the proper scope of federal authority, either legally or practically.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed ideas for top-down manipulation of the economy. And fellow Federalist President John Adams signed into law the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which among other things outlawed any “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government, the Congress, and the president.
Adams and his Federalist Party supporters in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts under the guise of national security, supposedly to safeguard the nation at a time of preparing for possible war with France. The “Alien” part of the law allowed the government to deport immigrants and made it harder for naturalized citizens to vote. But the law mainly was designed to mute backers of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson, who also happened to be the vice president. Jefferson had finished second to Adams in the 1796 presidential election and again ran against him in 1800.
An early target of the new law was Rep. Matthew Lyon, who had accused Adams of “ridiculous pomp.” In the fall of 1798 the government accused the Vermont congressman of being “a malicious and seditious person, and of a depraved mind and a wicked and diabolical disposition.” He was convicted of sedition, fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in prison. Lyon campaigned for reelection from jail and won in a landslide. On his release in February 1799, supporters greeted him with a parade and hailed him as “a martyr to the cause of liberty and the rights of man.”
… Another target was James Callender, a pro-Jefferson journalist for the Richmond Examiner and the man who had exposed Federalist Alexander Hamilton’s extramarital affair. In 1800, Callender wrote an election campaign pamphlet that said of Adams: “As President he has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen, without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties … and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.” Callander was convicted of sedition, fined $200 and sent to federal prison for nine months. He continued to write from his prison cell, calling Adams “a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.”
… The government also came after critics of some members of the Adams administration, such as Treasury Secretary Hamilton. In 1799, Charles Holt, editor of the New London Bee in Connecticut, published an article accusing Hamilton of seeking to expand the U.S. military into a standing army. He also took personal jabs at Hamilton, asking, “Are our young officers and soldiers to learn virtue from General Hamilton? Or like their generals are they to be found in the bed of adultery?” The government promptly charged Holt with being a “wicked, malicious seditious and ill-disposed person — greatly disaffected” to the U.S. government. He was fined $200 and sent to jail for three months.
The speech crackdown extended even to private remarks, as Luther Baldwin, the skipper of a garbage boat in Newark, discovered. In July 1798, while passing through Newark on his way to his summer home in Massachusetts, Adams rode in his coach in a downtown parade complete with a 16-cannon salute. When Baldwin and his buddy Brown Clark heard the cannon shots while drinking heavily at a local tavern, Clark remarked, “There goes the president, and they are firing at his arse.” Baldwin responded that he didn’t care “if they fired thro’ his arse.” The tavern owner reported the conversation, and both drinkers were fined and jailed for sedition.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the opposition to the big government Federalist policies of the 1790s, and “in the end, widespread anger over the Alien and Sedition Acts fueled Jefferson’s victory over Adams in the bitterly contested 1800 presidential election.” Free speech was restored and the incoming president would focus on cutting the excess spending, taxes, and debt built up by the prior Federalist administrations.