July 14 is famous as Bastille Day in English-speaking countries. In France, the day is called La Fête Nationale (the National Holiday) and was originally called Fête de la Fédération (“federation feast”) to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the end of the French Revolution. The French celebrate the day each year, referring to it as Le Quatorze Juillet (the fourteenth of July). Like Independence Day in the United States, it is a national holiday in France. The day celebrates the fall of the Bastille when just under a thousand Parisians attacked the prison releasing its seven inmates. Like the 4th of July, it marks the beginning of republican democracy and the end of tyrannical rule. The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, which originates from the revolution, does not commemorate the storming of the Bastille. Rather it celebrates the three tenets of the republican national motto: “liberty, equality and fraternity”.
In United States history, July 14 is the date when one of the most egregious breaches of the U.S. Constitution was enacted by Congress, the Sedition Act of 1798. In direct violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech, the Sedition Act permitted the prosecution of individuals who voiced or printed what the government deemed to be malicious remarks about the president or government of the United States. The infamous Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by the Federalist controlled Congress stemming from fears of the French revolution, specifically the Reign of Terror, and an undeclared naval war with France. The Federalists were fearful of revolutionary support growing in the United States among Irish and French immigrants and from Democratic-Republicans, sympathetic to the French cause, who wished to oust the Federalists from office. Fourteen Republicans, mainly journalists, were prosecuted, and some imprisoned, under the act. Among the prosecutions were the following:
- James Thomson Callender, in his book “The Prospect Before Us” called the Adams administration a “continual tempest of malignant passions” and the President a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor”. He was indicted and convicted in 1800, fined $200 and sentenced to nine months in jail.
- Matthew Lyon wrote an essay in the Vermont Journal accusing the administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice”. He was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in jail.
- Benjamin Franklin Bache accused George Washington of incompetence and financial irregularities, and charged the “the blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous Adams” with nepotism and monarchical ambition in his newspaper “The Aurora”. He was arrested in 1798 but he died of yellow fever before trial.
- David Brown set up a liberty pole in Dedham, Massachusetts with the words, “No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long Live the Vice President”. He was arrested and tried, fined $480, and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.
- Luther Baldwin of Newark, New Jersey, who, following the adjournment of Congress in July 1798, when President Adams and his wife were traveling through Newark past a local tavern, heard one of the patrons say, “There goes the President and they are firing at his ass.” Baldwin said “he did not care if they fired thro’ his ass.” He was arrested and later convicted of speaking seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States. He was fined $150, assessed court costs and expenses, and sent to jail until he paid the fine and fees.
Readers interested in this dark time in American history can learn more by reviewing two titles recently added to the Brooklyn Law School Library collection. The first is Press and Speech Under Assault: The Early Supreme Court Justices, the Sedition Act of 1798, and the Campaign against Dissent by Wendell Bird (Call No. KF9397.A3281798 B57 2016). The other is The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution by Terri Diane Halperin (Call No. KF9397.A3281798 H35 2016). Interestingly, the U.S. Supreme Court never heard a case to decide whether the Alien and Sedition Acts were constitutional. The Sedition Act expired on March 3, 1801, the last day of the first and only presidential term of John Adams.