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A Quick End to Freedom of Speech —- The Sedition Act of 1798.

Today we often view the founding fathers as pioneers at the forefront of the freedom, fighting the British for independence and writing the US Constitution to establish and protect freedom from tyranny.  However, this view is not exactly accurate, as the founding fathers were greatly divided as to what freedom meant. Many believed that freedom was limited to white protestant men who owned a certain amount of property.  Some wanted a strong, all powerful government, such as Alexander Hamilton who believed the United States should be ruled by a monarch.  Others believed freedom was a privilege afforded to the elite, while others believed freedom was a right to be held by everyone. Benjamin Franklin described himself as “a radical moderate”.

In 1798, around ten years after the signing of the Constitution, and eight years after the addition of the Bill of Rights, President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts.  At the time, the French Revolution was raging, the US was embroiled in an undeclared “quasi war” with France, and the world was rife with political intrigue and scandal.  To protect the US and ensure that the radicalism of the French Revolution didn’t spread across the pond, the Federalist Party developed the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The Alien Act allowed the US government to deport any foreign nationals of a hostile nation.  The Sedition Act outlawed any speech or writing that was critical the government or its officials.

Of the two, it was the Sedition Act that had the most effect on the United States.  While the law had been officially created to prevent radicalism from spreading the in US, the effect of the law was to squelch opposition to the Adams administration, especially by the opposition party, the Democrat Republicans (Anti-Federalists).  

As a result of the Sedition Act, hundreds of people were arrested for speech that was deemed “dangerous” or “defamatory” to the US government and President Adams.  20 major Anti-Federalist newspapers were shut down, with their operators fined and imprisoned.  Uncounted scores of other minor media outlets were also closed.  When Benjamin  Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the newspaper Aurora, wrote an editorial accusing Adams of nepotism and monarchical aspirations, he was arrested and his newspaper was shut down.  He died of yellow fever before trial.  When a Vermont printer named Anthony Haswell criticized the government’s treatment of Bache and claimed the Sedition Act violated the 1st Amendment, he too was arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment with a $200 fine.  The most famous man convicted under the Sedition Act was Congressman Matthew Lyons, a staunch Anti-Federalist who was very critical of the Adams administration.  Because of his criticisms, he was arrested and jailed for four months and fined $500.  While in prison he won his re-election bid to Congress.

The Alien and Sedition Acts became a highly controversial and unpopular law among the American people.  James Madison and Thomas Jefferson secretly wrote “the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions”, which denounced the acts as unconstitutional.  In the Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison called for states to disobey the law, and if necessary secede or revolution against the United States. While the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were generally unpopular, the extreme unpopularity of the Sedition Act was a boon for Jefferson and a career breaker for Adams.  

In the presidential election of 1800 between Adams and Jefferson, the Sedition Act was a key issue, and one that made the Adams administration look very bad.  Jefferson won the election campaigning against the Alien and Sedition Acts.  After his election he pardoned those convicted under the act and had the government repay their fines.  While Jefferson portrayed himself as a champion of freedom due to his opposition of the Sedition Act, he himself used the Act to prosecute his own enemies and critics until the law expired in 1801. The Sedition Acts would be resurrected during World War I under the Wilson administration, causing the imprisonment of thousands of Americans who were doing nothing more than practicing their 1st Amendment rights.