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Criminal Dissent

Criminal Dissent

Prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Wendell Bird

ISBN 9780674976139

Publication date: 01/07/2020

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In the first complete account of prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts, dozens of previously unknown cases come to light, revealing the lengths to which the John Adams administration went in order to criminalize dissent.

The campaign to prosecute dissenting Americans under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 ignited the first battle over the Bill of Rights. Fearing destructive criticism and “domestic treachery” by Republicans, the administration of John Adams led a determined effort to safeguard the young republic by suppressing the opposition.

The acts gave the president unlimited discretion to deport noncitizens and made it a crime to criticize the president, Congress, or the federal government. In this definitive account, Wendell Bird goes back to the original federal court records and the papers of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and finds that the administration’s zeal was far greater than historians have recognized. Indeed, there were twice as many prosecutions and planned deportations as previously believed. The government went after local politicians, raisers of liberty poles, and even tavern drunks but most often targeted Republican newspaper editors, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. Those found guilty were sent to prison or fined and sometimes forced to sell their property to survive. The Federalists’ support of laws to prosecute political opponents and opposition newspapers ultimately contributed to the collapse of the party and left a large stain on their record.

The Alien and Sedition Acts launched a foundational debate on press freedom, freedom of speech, and the legitimacy of opposition politics. The result was widespread revulsion over the government’s attempt to deprive Americans of their hard-won liberties. Criminal Dissent is a potent reminder of just how fundamental those rights are to a stable democracy.


  • An exhaustive taxonomy of the prosecutions that took place under these high-handed laws. Doggedly scouring federal court records as well as the papers of such notorious partisans as Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Bird persuasively argues that the Federalists’ attempt to squash opposition and the free flow of ideas was even more nefarious than we thought…These acts legalized xenophobia, paranoia, censorship, and repression…The Federalist commitment to criminalizing dissent chills the blood, especially today.

    —Brenda Wineapple, New York Review of Books


  • Wendell Bird is the author of Press and Speech under Assault: The Early Supreme Court Justices, the Sedition Act of 1798, and the Campaign against Dissent. He holds a D.Phil. in legal history from the University of Oxford and a J.D. from Yale Law School, and is a visiting scholar at Emory University School of Law.

Book Details

  • 560 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press