Freedom of the Press Under Stress

Though freedom of the press was protected in the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights, its application would be tested just a few years later when political parties developed in the mid-1790s. As politicians split into Federalists (including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams) and Democratic-Republicans (such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison), newspapers sprouted up supporting the opinions of one side or the other.

Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, published by Ann Greenleaf, was one of these divisive papers that frequently opposed the decisions of the party in power: the Federalists. Greenleaf would be one of 25 people (all spouting anti-Federalist opinions) arrested for violating the Sedition Act, a bill that made it a crime punishable by two years in jail and a $2,000 fine to “print, utter, or publish…any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against any part of the Government.

Through the indictment of Ann Greenleaf from the case United States v. Ann Greenleaf, students can see how the Sedition Act passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress in the summer of 1798 limited freedom of the press:

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Students can learn the impact of this important law by exploring how the indictment describes both Ann Greenleaf personally (“a wicked, malicious and seditious person”) and the controversial statements that were published in her paper.

In the February 9, 1799, issue, Greenleaf published an article that questioned the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The article described citizens of Flat Bush erecting liberty poles as they had done prior to the American Revolution to show displeasure toward the British.  The cause of their current displeasure: the recent passing of what the paper called the “Tyrannical and Unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Bills.” Naturally, for an article that questioned the Sedition Act, she was indicted by the Sedition Act for exciting the “Hatred of the good People of the United States” against Congress.

She was also in indicted for publishing an article the following August asserting that pro-Federalist newspapers were both employed in the service of the U.S. Government and secret agents of the British government “sent here to assist in demoralizing the Political mind.” The article based its assertion on the fact that these papers (like Noah Webster’s American Minerva) were nauseatingly pro-British and bitterly anti-French.

In the end, Ann Greenleaf’s case would never go to trial.  Since she had sold her paper and was no longer in publishing, the U.S. Attorney for the NY District recommended to John Adams that the government drop its case.  John Adams agreed.

To understand how the Sedition Act limited free speech, ask your students to carefully analyze the language of the indictment.  Model careful document analysis.

Focus particular attention to the specific language used to describe Ann Greenleaf and her crime. Terms such as “wicked, malicious and seditious person” and “wickedly and maliciously intending and contriving to defame the Government…excite the Hatred of the good People of the United States” should stand out for students.

Then, focus attention to the selections quoted from the February and August issues of Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser. The quote from the February issue begins near the bottom of page two with “It appears that the Honest Yeomanry…”  The selection from the August issue begins one-third of the way through page four with “To say those principles have crept into our public counsels…”

After reading the document, ask students to answer the following, citing specific evidence from the text:

  • How does the indictment describe Ann Greenleaf and the crimes she committed?  
  • In the sections before the selections from Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser, how does the indictment describe the result of publishing these articles?  
  • What arguments do the selections from Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser make about the Federal government?
  • Reading Section 2 of the Sedition Act (click on Show/Hide Transcript and scroll down to An Act in Addition to the Act, Entitled “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States.”), how did the provided selections from the Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser violate the law? Be specific.

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 does the criticism leveled at Congress and the Government compare to criticisms members of the media make today?


This is one of several posts about the the Bill of Rights. The indictment of Ann Greenleaf is featured in the eBook Putting the Bill of Rights to the Test: A Primary Source-Based Workbook, that includes historical documents and other sources to help students explore some of the core concepts, or protections, found in the Bill of Rights, and how they’ve been tested throughout American history. 

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