The Challenge of the Sedition Act, 1798-1800
The party press debates of the 1790s produced the first major confrontation and debate concerning the First Amendment and what its protection of speech and the press actually meant. Although not completely defined at the time, a libertarian concept of freedom of expression developed during the conflict over the Alien and Sedition Acts and has provided the bedrock for the liberty of the press ever since.
Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts as a response to the growing political party conflicts that developed out of the disagreements over how the United States should respond to the French Revolution. Jay's Treaty with Great Britain had warded off war with that country, but it also angered France and sparked what President John Adams called "the half war with France." Perceiving the treaty with Britain as a violation of the Revolutionary alliance between the United States and France, the French republic began aggressively raiding American shipping in 1796. President Adams attempted to negotiate the conflict through the appointment of special envoys, but the French refused to discuss the issue without a promise of American loans and a bribe. The resulting scandal developing out of the attempted bribery became known as the XYZ affair. It not only ruptured American-French diplomatic ties for a time, but also provided the grounds for an attack by the Federalists on their Republican opponents.
The break in diplomatic ties between the United States and France came quickly following the publication of the documents related to the XYZ incident. Many believed that war was just a matter of time. French ships took advantage of American military weakness and raided merchant ships all along the Atlantic Coast. The president did not ask for a declaration of war, but Congress prepared for the worst. It appropriated money for the completion of three frigates already under construction and the addition of forty more ships to the navy. It also purchased arms and ammunition and strengthened harbor defenses, as well as tripling