Setting Bounds to Passions: Federalist Communication Policy and the Making of the Sedition Act of 1798
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The traditional view of the Sedition Act of 1798 has understood it as one of the more notorious pieces of legislation in American history. Often paired rhetorically with the Alien Acts, the Sedition Act is seen in the American historical imagination alongside the Salem Witch Trials, Japanese Internment during World War II, the McCarthy Hearings, and the Patriot Act to form a “ring of infamy” in American history. Since its passage, this has been the view of the Sedition Act as promoted by the Jeffersonian Republicans, and it has remained the dominant interpretation for more than two centuries. Unfortunately, this view places the Sedition Act in the wrong historical context, or little to no context whatsoever. When examined from the perspective of the entire decade of the 1790’s, the Sedition can be seen as part of a larger Federalist project to develop a system of political communication within the young United States that would promote and bolster the political system so recently established. The Sedition Act specifically was intended by the Federalists to help establish standards of political discourse in a climate where attacks on political leaders and national policy were increasingly disruptive to the very functioning of the national government.