OTD in History… July 14, 1798, Congress passes the Sedition Act an assault on the first amendment




OTD in History… July 14, 1798, Congress passes the Sedition Act an assault on the first amendment

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history July 14, 1798, President John Adams signed into law, the immensely unpopular Sedition Act. It was the fourth of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts meant to protect the fledgling nation plunged into a Quasi-War naval war with France but at the same time curtailed the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution ratified just seven years before. As the History Channel put it, the act was “one of the most egregious breaches of the U.S. Constitution in history,” “endangering liberty in the fragile new nation.” The laws furthered emphasized the divide between the newly formed political parties, President Adams’ the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans head by Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists supported closer relations with Great Britain, while the Republicans sided with old Revolutionary War ally France.

During the Quasi-War in 1798–99, France seized over 300 American ships because they were trading with Great Britain under Jay’s Treaty of 1795. France also refused “to accept the credentials of Charles Coatesworth Pinckney, the new American minister to France,” threatening to arrest him. Pickney along with John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry went to France to negotiate a deal to retrieve the “confiscated ships.” (Thackeray and Findling, 152) Three agents of French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand demanded from the American commissioners $ 250,000 and a $10 million loan. When Pickney, Marshall, and Eldridge notified Adams he sent Congress that, he was denouncing the treatment and wanted Congress to prepare for a possible War. Republicans demanded proof, Adams sent Congress the Commissioners report, the incident became known as the XYZ Affair, for the letters referenced to Tallyrand’s agents.

The moment was a great triumph for Adams as anti-French sentiment swept the new nation, Congress expanded the Army and Navy, with former President General George Washington agreeing to come out of retirement and lead the army with Alexander Hamilton as his second. Congress also cut trade with France but Adams would not agree to Hamilton’s demands for a formal declaration of war. Hamiltonian Federalists in Congress decided on the next best solution to maintaining Federalist control, the Alien and Sedition Acts. Publicly the acts were for national security protecting the country from France; privately Federalists aimed the laws at French supporting Republicans and their partisan press.

The fifth Congress passed four bills in 1798 compromising the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Nationalization Act increased the residency requirement for citizenship to fourteen from five years. The Alien Act allowed the president to deport any immigrant deemed dangerous. The Alien Enemies Act could imprison immigrants whose country declare or threaten war with America. Finally, the Sedition Act, the only one of the four acts enforced. The law punished by fine or imprisonment anyone who made “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government of the United States. The law clearly violated the First Amendment, Freedom of Speech and punished the Republican press, the Federalists greatest detractors. Ten Republican newspaper editors were prosecuted including Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon, who received a four-month prison sentence and a $1000 fine.

Republicans Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, passed in their respective state legislatures declaring the laws a violation of the First and Tenth Amendments. Their remedies called for a “states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution,” Madison called for states’ conventions to curtail federal power, while Jefferson suggested a state could nullify a law should they find it violated the Constitution. The resolutions were political, aimed at electing Jefferson president in 1800. Faced with a backlash Adams committed political suicide by breaking with Hamiltonian Federalists, resuming diplomatic negotiations with France, firing Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, and sending three new commissioners to France who negotiated a “forgive-and-forget agreement,” the Convention of 1800 with France’s new leader Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Alien Seditions Acts and breaking with Hamilton secured Jefferson ascendency to the presidency and Adams’ defeat. Three of the Acts expired right before or early in Jefferson’s term, with the Alien Enemies Act the lone holdover used during the World Wars in the 20th century. Nearly, two hundred and twenty years later Republican President Donald Trump is preaching and enacting similar anti-immigrant laws in the name of national security with his travel ban, upheld by the Supreme Court and his attacks on the press, continually referring to them as fake news. Trump’s Hamiltonian rhetoric and actions have a precedence neither the press nor the public refuse to acknowledge; throughout American history the Constitution has been threatened by those in the highest offices pledging oaths to protect it.


Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

OTD in History… July 11–12, 1804, Aaron Burr kills founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel




OTD in History… July 11–12, 1804, Aaron Burr kills founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr kills founding father and political rival Alexander Hamilton in a sunrise duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, Hamilton would die the next day on July 12. The political rivalry was both political and personal, representing the worst in partisanship between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Historian Joanne B. Freeman called it in her article, “Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel,” “the most famous duel in American history.” The duel or “affair of honor,” also represented an extreme example of partisanship in the nation’s history. While the political rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans appears the most polarizing with the presidency of Donald Trump, in the era of the first emergence of the two-party system, political rivalries took on a more dangerous tone then a Twitterstorm with the soon fading art of the duel.

Hamilton was born in the West Indies, orphaned as an adolescent, and sent to the colonies for his education, later graduating from King’s College. Then he joined the Continental Army under General George Washington, eventually becoming his aid. Hamilton rose to prominence as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, where he argued for a strong centralized federal government. Washington appointed him as the first Secretary of the Treasury and his monetary policy including the creation of the first national bank was essential to the new nation keeping economically afloat. In contrast, Burr was born to a rich New Jersey family, where he graduated the College of New Jersey, before entering the Continental Army, where he gained prominence during the attack on Quebec. After the Revolutionary War, Burr ran for New York’s State Assembly and in 1790 was appointed to the Senate.

Burr and Hamilton’s rivalry began in 1791, when Burr won a Senate seat away from Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler, a Federalist. Hamilton kept exacting revenge on Burr. Hamilton’s attacks go back to 1796, when Burr ran for the Vice Presidency against Thomas Jefferson, claiming, “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his career.” In 1800, when running mates Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College, Hamilton swayed Federalist Congressman the House of Representatives to break the tie and back Jefferson with a blank vote as opposed to Burr, who wanted now wanted the presidency and refused to step aside.

In 1804, Aaron Burr was not renominated as Vice President on Jefferson’s ticket and decided to pursue the governorship of New York since Governor George Clinton, was chosen as the Democratic-Republican Vice Presidential nominee. Again Hamilton intervened, Federalists were divided between Alexander Hamilton supported candidate Morgan Lewis and Burr, Hamilton support for Lewis again lost Burr a nomination he coveted.

Hamilton’s intervention in the New York gubernatorial nomination and the subsequent correspondence with Burr led him down the path to a certain duel. On April 24, 1804, the Albany Register published a letter between Charles D. Cooper to Hamilton’s father-in-law Schuyler. The letter quoted some of Hamilton’s negative remarks about Burr. The letter read, “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” Copper also said there is “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”

Burr responded to Hamilton in a letter “delivered by William P. Van Ness,” where he took most offense with the phrase “more despicable.” Burr wanted “a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertion of Dr. Cooper.” In a letter dated June 20, 1804, Hamilton refused to take responsibility for Cooper’s characterization, but he would “abide the consequences.” The next day, Burr responded, “political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum.” Hamilton again responded on June 22, writing “no other answer to give than that which has already been given.”

Burr, however, did not receive the letter until June 25, Nathaniel Pendleton, who was to deliver it withheld it, while Pendleton and Van Ness conferred the following note:

“General Hamilton says he cannot imagine what Dr. Cooper may have alluded, unless it were to a conversation at Mr. Taylor’s, in Albany, last winter (at which he and General Hamilton were present). General Hamilton cannot recollect distinctly the particulars of that conversation, so as to undertake to repeat them, without running the risk of varying or omitting what might be deemed important circumstances. The expressions are entirely forgotten, and the specific ideas imperfectly remembered; but to the best of his recollection it consisted of comments on the political principles and views of Colonel Burr, and the results that might be expected from them in the event of his election as Governor, without reference to any particular instance of past conduct or private character.”

Burr’s final response was to challenge Hamilton to a duel, Hamilton, who had been involved in ten previous shotless duels, agreed. Most duels, were resolved peacefully before any shots are fired, however, Burr wanted his honor restored and Hamilton refused to recant his slanderous attacks against Burr. Burr felt needed to fight a gentleman and prominent politician as Hamilton to restore his reputation. Duels were illegal in both New York and New Jersey, but New Jersey was lenient and Weehawken across the Hudson was a popular ground for duels.

When the Burr and Hamilton met at 7 a.m. on July 11, there are conflicting recounts as to what occurred from Burr and Hamilton’s second’s Van Ness and Pendleton, respectively. The seconds had their backs facing the duelers both claim the shots were “within a few seconds of each other.” Hamilton chose his position as the one challenged, and supposedly fired a shot in the air above Burr’s head, shots to the ground ended duels; Hamilton sent a conflicting message to Burr. Burr responded shooting Hamilton in the abdomen near his hip, the bullet ricocheted and lodged in Hamilton’s spine, he collapsed immediately, and Burr was ushered away behind an umbrella.

Historian Joseph Ellis pieced together what might have happened in his book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Ellis believes both second’s versions of what occurred were motivated to spare either Hamilton’s honor or Burr’s future. Ellis writes, “Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first. But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball into the tree above and behind Burr’s location. In so doing, he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge. Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton’s gun had whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear. According to the principles of the code duello, Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill.” (Ellis, 30) Historian Roger G. Kennedy concurs in his book Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character, writing, “Hamilton performed a series of deliberately provocative actions to ensure a lethal outcome. As they were taking their places, he asked that the proceedings stop, adjusted his spectacles, and slowly, repeatedly, sighted along his pistol to test his aim.” (Kennedy, 83)

Hamilton died the next afternoon at his physician’s home in New York. The outrage led to New York charging Burr for murder and dueling and his seconds for accessories to murder in August. In October, New Jersey charged Burr for murder as well. A number of Congressmen requested that New Jersey Governor Joseph Bloomfield have the charge dropped, which he did, New York eventually did the same. Burr was able to escape immediate prosecution because he was still the sitting Vice President, and he finished his term in Washington. Still, the court found Burr guilty of the misdemeanor dueling charge, which barred him from voting and holding political office for twenty years.

Despite their roles in the early founding of the nation, neither Burr nor Hamilton were honorable politically. After completing his term as Vice President, where he presided over Samuel Chase’s impeachment, Burr figured out another way to continue his political aspirations. In 1805, Burr with Commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army General James Wilkinson planned to take over part of the Louisiana Purchase territory, and form a new country with Burr as the leader, Burr also considered “seizing” some of Spanish America for his new empire. Burr put in his plans in motion in the fall of 1806, gathering “armed colonists” and going towards New Orleans. General Wilkinson fearing the ramifications, told on Burr to Jefferson. In February 1807, Jefferson had Burr arrested in Louisiana, and he was tried in Virginia for treason, however he was acquitted. The treason and dueling charges destroyed his political reputation.

Historian Thomas Fleming author of Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America does not have any more confidence that Hamilton would have been much better than Burr if he lived. In the CNN article entitled, “What if Aaron Burr had missed Alexander Hamilton?” Fleming described Hamilton as authoritarian leader who would have changed the course of American history and going against the Constitution, he was a part of creating. Fleming claimed Hamilton would have won the presidency in 1808, captured Canada in the War of 1812 creating the United States of North America. He would have broken apart the state of Virginia to smaller states, invade Spanish America to acquire Florida and Texas, and install a “puppet government” in Mexico. Hamilton would have industrialized America quickly, and abolish slavery.

Fleming noted, “The last letter Hamilton wrote before the duel called democracy a ‘disease’ that endangered the republic.” Hamilton would have “eliminated dissent,” instituted libel laws that would have “tamed newspapers” prevent them from ever criticizing is actions, and appointed every federal judge. Additionally, Hamilton would have created the “Christian Constitutional Society” making Christianity the official religion. Fleming notes, “At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Hamilton had given a three-hour speech recommending a president should serve for life,” Hamilton would have put this theory into reality. Soon the Congress and Senate would have been filled with patrons and family members, making an “American royal family.”

Fleming concluded, “A handful of historians would begin debating an even more taboo topic. Astounding as President Hamilton’s achievements had been, they would begin asking each other whether it was a good thing that Aaron Burr had missed on July 11, 1804.” With the Presidency of Donald Trump journalists and historians find his behavior either unprecedented in American history or desperately try to compare to him to previous presidents, but many of his words and actions resemble Hamilton’s worst excesses; views of the journalists, presidency for life, and sabotaging and fights with opponents. For all the recent reverence for founding father Alexander Hamilton, President Trump represents what a President Hamilton might have been.


Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Freeman, Joanne B. “Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 53, №2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 289–318.

Kennedy, Roger G. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

OTD in History… June 24, 1795, the Senate ratifies Jay’s Treaty establishing trade between America and Great Britain




OTD in History… June 24, 1795, the Senate ratifies Jay’s Treaty establishing trade between America and Great Britain

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this in history June 24, 1795, the Senate ratified Jay’s Treaty, negotiated by Chief Justice of the United States John Jay for President George Washington to resolve the outstanding issues between the United States and Great Britain after the Revolutionary War. The treaty avoided war and established preferential trade with Britain, alienating France, America’s ally in their war for independence. Although residue issues were resolved with Britain, it contributed to tensions over trade between the US, Britain and France that would contribute to the War of 1812. Additionally, the treaty was divisive between the two emerging political parties, the Federalists, who supported the treaty and Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, who distrusted the British and supported loyalties to France.

The Senate passed “The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America” with a vote of 20–10, the two-thirds majority necessary to pass. In 1794, President Washington sent Chief Justice Jay to London to negotiate the outstanding issues from the Revolutionary War that were continually causing tensions between the two nations. The issues involved tariff and trade restriction on American exports, the British refusing to vacate their Northwestern forts although it was party of the 1783 Paris Peace Treaty, which Americans believed were contributing to attacks by natives on American settlers, and the impressments of American ships, sailors and naval supplies, although America was considered neutral on trade.

The issues were putting the two nations at the “brink of war,” and President Washington listened to his Secretary of the Treasury and Federalist Alexander Hamilton about resolving the problems with Britain. Washington sent the pro-British Chief Justice to negotiate. Jay had negotiated on America’s part in 1783. Hamilton advised Jay to use a threat to bargain with Britain, that the US would join the Scandinavians, the Danish and Swedish and would fight against impressments. Hamilton, however, betrayed Jay and told the British that America would not use military force or form the alliance. Jay was left without any advantages in his negotiations. Virginia Senator James Monroe later joined the mission to watch over the Democratic-Republican interests.

Among Washington’s demands, he wanted the British to vacate their army from forts in the Northwest Territories, compensate slaveholders for slaves abducted and ship owners, whose ships were confiscated. Washington also wanted free trade with the British West Indies.

The British were refusing to comply because the US was breaking two articles of the 1783 Paris Peace Treaty, refusing to pay debts to British creditors and keeping loyalists’ confiscated properties from the war.

The agreement Jay negotiated with British Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville in the fall of 1794, hardly favored the US but it would avoid war. In the agreement, Britain would vacate the Northwestern forts, and grant the US “most favored nation” status with trade but severely restrict trade in the British West Indies. The remainder would be resolved by arbitration including the “Canadian-Maine boundary, compensation for pre-revolutionary debts, and British seizures of American ships.” In return, the US would grant Britain preferential trade rights including trade access with the British West Indies, and the US would adhere to Britain’s “anti-French maritime policies” including allowing the British to seize American goods to be traded with France with pay and French goods without pay. The US would also ensure that private British war debts were all repaid. Britain’s King George III signed the treaty on November 19, 1794.

Britain favored Hamilton and the Federalists and that was the reason they negotiated at all with the US. Historian John C. Miller writing in his 1964 biography, Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation noted, “The fact that the British were willing to make a treaty with the United States in 1794 was partly owing to their recognition that the strengthening of the ‘well-intentioned Party in America’ led by Hamilton was Great Britain’s best hope of stemming the tide of Jacobinism in the United States and upholding neutrality against the ‘French faction’ headed by Jefferson and Madison.” (Miller, 421)

Jay’s Treaty might have prevented war but it was a failure in American diplomacy, an observation made at the time and by historians. Historian Raymond Walters Jr. in his 1957 biography Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat writes, “The treaty Jay sent home represented a complete triumph for British diplomacy. The United States won modest concessions at a humiliating price.” More recently, historian Richard Norton Smith remarked, “Indeed, a first reading of the twenty-eight articles suggested that Washington’s experiment in secret diplomacy had blown up in his face. Instructed to secure American rights and open British markets; the chief justice did neither. Although agreeing to evacuate the northwestern posts no later than June 1, 1796, the British retained a share of the lucrative fur trade on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian boundary. In exchange for this concession, no more than a belated promise to carry out the terms of the old peace treaty, Jay had bargained away his country’s wartime rights as a neutral power.”

Historians, however, noted that Jay’s Treaty accomplished what it was supposed to in avoiding war with Britain. Historian Richard Brookhiser in his 1996 book, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington observed, “In the day time, your path through the woods is ambushed; the darkness of midnight … The ratification of Jay’s Treaty also assured that the country would not be tugged by sympathies with France into a showdown with Britain it could not afford.” (Brookhiser, 100) While historian Joseph J. Ellis concurred in his 2004 book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Jay’s Treaty “bet, in effect, on England rather than France as the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic. It recognized the massive dependence of the American economy on trade with England [and] it linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century.” (Ellis, 136)

The treaty divided the nation, with Hamilton’s Federalists supporting the pro-British deal and the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson and James Madison in opposition. Jefferson and Madison found that is favored Britain and put America’s trade interests at risk. With former Secretary of State Jefferson between posts, Madison as a Virginia Congressman was the official voice in opposition. After Washington signed the treaty, Jefferson wrote to Monroe on September 6, 1795, about the public opposition, “So general a burst of dissatisfaction never before appeared against any transaction. Those who understand the particular articles of it, condemn these articles. Those who do not understand them minutely, condemn it generally as wearing a hostile face to France.”

Neither was Washington satisfied with the treaty but he thought it was the country’s best chance to avoid another war with Britain, and opened up trade with Britain. Congress also opposed the treaty, and it was uncertain it would be ratified but the Senate passed it on June 24, and Washington signed it into law on August 18, 1795. Over the next year, Congress would remain divided as they worked on the appropriations bills to fulfill the treaty, and on April 30, 1796, the House passed with a vote of 51–48 the appropriations bills to fund the treaty.

In addition to keeping the nation out of war and increasing trade, it helped form the party-system in American politics. Historians Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenburg in The Growth of the American Republic, concluded, “The fight over appropriations for the Jay Treaty in the House marked the crystallization of the party system.” (Morison, Commager and Leuchtenburg, 308) Jay’s treaty staved off war as Washington hoped but was not a solution as Jefferson and Madison foresaw. The agreement threatened America’s trade neutrality, with Britain consumed in the Napoleonic Wars; America was caught in the middle. British impressments and blockades would only increase when Jefferson assumed the presidency and again put the country on the brink of war. Finally, Madison would take a stronger nation to war in 1812, to resolve finally British continual trade blockade and impressments.

Over 220 years later, the US is again confronted and divided by party over trade. Republican President Donald Trump’s protectionist and anti-trade America First policies, have his administration renegotiating or pulling out of the country’s free-trade agreements with its allies. Recently, Trump has taken his trade wars further imposing tariffs on trade partners unless they negotiate fair deals with the US. His policies contrast with the Democrats pro-free-trade ideology. Although the Democrats and the news media are treating Trump’s approach to trade as an abbreviation in American history, Jay’s Treaty and the uproar and opposition it caused proves trade agreements have always been controversial for the nation.


Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Miller, John C. Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Walters, Raymond. Albert Gallatin, Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969.

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. New York [etc.: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

British-American Diplomacy
Jay Treaty : Senate Resolution June 24, 1795

Resolved, (two-thirds of the Senate concurring therein,) That they do consent to, and advise the President of the United States, to ratify the treaty of amity, commerce, and navigation, between his Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, concluded at London, the 19th day of November, 1794, on condition that there be added to the said treaty an article, whereby it shall be agreed to suspend the operation of so much of the 12th article, as respects the trade which his said Majesty thereby consents may be carried on, between the United States and his islands in the West Indies, in the manner, and on the terms and conditions therein specified.

And the Senate recommend to the President to proceed, without delay, to further friendly negotiations with his Majesty, on the subject of the said trade, and of the terms and conditions in question.

Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America.
Edited by Hunter Miller
Volume 2
Documents 1-40 : 1776-1818
Washington : Government Printing Office, 1931.
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