Freedom of the Press Under Stress

This post is part of our series on the Bill of Rights. We’re highlighting primary sources selected to help students explore core concepts found within the Bill of Rights, and how they’ve impacted American history. This year marks the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The National Archives is commemorating the occasion with exhibits, educational resources, and national conversations that examine the amendment process and struggles for rights in the United States.

Though freedom of the press was enshrined in the Bill of Rights in 1789, its application would be tested early in our nation’s history. When editor William Durell reprinted an article that compared President John Adams to infamous traitor Benedict Arnold in his rural New York newspaper the Mount Pleasant Register, he was the first person arrested under the Sedition Act.

Indictment of William Durell, United States vs. William Durell
Indictment of William Durell, United States vs. William Durell National Archives Identifier 1067894

Through documents of United States v. William Durell, including this indictment, students can see how the Sedition Act passed by Congress on July 14, 1798 aimed to limit freedom of the press.  The seditious paragraph (originally printed in the New Windsor Gazette) was in response to a recent quote from John Adams that stated independence was not his initial goal, but that it grew to be an “indispensible necessity” to preserve liberty.  For this belief, the article likened him to Benedict Arnold about to betray or sell the US to Britain.  That after the United States was once again “made an appendage to the British Monarchy,” Adams would hold “the first office under his Brittanic Majesty.”

Indictment of William Durell, United States vs. William Durell
Indictment of William Durell, United States vs. William Durell, National Archives Identifier 1067894

Though clearly a controversial act, the article was criminal due to the recent passing of the Sedition Act.  Passed at a time when the Adams administration and its Federalist allies feared both war abroad with France and dissension at home, the Sedition Act made it a crime for anyone to “print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against any part of the government.  If the intent was to defame, bring them into contempt, or “excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States,” it was seditious and punishable by up to 2 years in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Twenty five people were arrested for violating for violating the act, and all ten brought to trial were found guilty, including William Durell.  After delays, Durell was found guilty and sentenced to four months in jail, a $50 fine, and a $2,000 bond guaranteeing good behavior for 2 years.  In addition to the verdict, the long delay and seizure of his property by the local sheriff led to Durell to seek clemency from the court to help support his wife and five children.  He would receive a partial pardon from John Adams (he was still on the hook for the bond for good behavior) making him the only person convicted of violating the Sedition Act to be pardoned.

Ask your students to carefully analyze the indictment.  Model careful document analysis.

Focus particular attention to the specific language used to describe William Durell and his crime (page 1 of indictment). Terms such as “wicked, malicious, seditious and ill-disposed person” and “wickedly, maliciously, and unlawfully did print and publish” should jump out at students. Then, focus attention on the selection that is quoted from the Mount Pleasant Register that compares John Adams to Benedict Arnold(page 2 of indictment).

Ask students to answer the following, citing specific evidence from the text:

  • How does the indictment describe William Durell and his crime?
  • What was William Durell accused of doing to John Adams? Be specific.
  • Reading the Section 2 of the Sedition Act, did William Durell violate the law?  Why or why not?

After analyzing the document itself, lead a class discussion focused on one of the following questions:

  • Do you think the Sedition Act was constitutional? Explain.
  • How would our nation be different if the Sedition act was still in effect? Explain the consequences.

Additional Resources:

Explore related writings from John Adams via Founder’s Online, an online resource that has put transcripts from thousands of documents from the Founding Fathers.

To read the address that led to John Adams being compared to Benedict Arnold:

To read the text of John Adams pardon of William Durell:

2 thoughts on “Freedom of the Press Under Stress

  1. It is interesting to read background about this as freedom of the press is always such an important topic and one which is continually discussed, particularly in the light of terrorism and acts that incite hatred in the population. Good idea to have the model lesson plan on how to deal with this topic in the classroom.

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