Scores of individuals were prosecuted under the Sedition Act for criticizing the John Adams Administration or Congress; the prosecutions were targeted at Democratic Republican newspapers in an effort to silence them.

John Adams and Thomas JeffersonBusts of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on display at Monticello

Democratic-Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont was convicted under the Sedition Act for attacking John Adams in print. Reelected while serving time in prison, Lyon returned to Congress in time to cast his vote for Jefferson when the election of 1800 was decided by the House of Representatives as the result of the tied vote between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson in the Electoral College.

The most prominent newspapermen convicted under the Sedition Act were Benjamin Franklin Bache (Benjamin Franklin’s grandson), William Duane, and James Thompson Callender, all of whom openly defied the Act by attacking President Adams and the Federalist Congress in print. When Jefferson won the Presidency, he noted that freedom of the press would be a hallmark of his administration and issued a blanket pardon to every person convicted under the Sedition Act.


Learn More

A Nation Divided: The Election of 1800

The Presidential elections of 1796 and 1800 were highly contentious and Founding Fathers Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams sometimes employed surrogate writers such as James Callender, to author newspaper pieces on their behalf. Learn more about these tempestuous elections and the role the free press played in this mini online exhibit.