Though the right to petition the government is protected by the 1st Amendment, less than 10 years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, a Revolutionary War veteran and New York State Legislator was arrested for distributing a petition. The petition, addressed to the House and Senate, questioned recent government actions and stated that Congress had just deliberately passed a “series of Evils” that would lead to a “foreign war, a violated Constitution and a divided People.”
Through documents from the case United States v. Jedediah Peck, including the indictment, students can see how the Sedition Act passed by Congress on July 14, 1798, aimed to limit freedom to petition. (Find the full indictment and a transcription on DocsTeach.)
Jedediah Peck served as judge for a NY state court and was elected to the NY state legislature as Federalist. He disagreed, however, with the Federalists’ passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, that increased the requirements for citizenship and limited freedom of expression, respectively. So in April 1799, he asserted his 1st amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” For distributing this petition, and the specific language that it used, Jedediah Peck – an elected representative – was one of 25 people arrested for violating the Sedition Act.
Affidavits from witnesses described him carrying a six-inch stack of handbills with him and telling others that Congress was threatening the liberties of the United States. The indictment also describes the language of the petition to the House and Senate as containing “false, scandalous and malicious writings.” Among other claims, Peck was arrested for attacking the Alien and Sedition Acts as “obnoxious to a generous and free people,” and so wicked that it “convert[s] Freemen into Slaves,” respectively.
Though Jedediah Peck was arrested and subject to two years in jail and a $2,000 fine, he never went to trial. The U.S. Attorney (after reaching out to the Secretary of State and John Adams himself) decided not to pursue the case. For Jedediah Peck, his controversial statements gained him support for re-election to the NY State legislature. Today he is credited by some as the father of the NY public school system.
When using Peck’s indictment in the classroom, ask students to carefully analyze the document; model careful document analysis. Focus particular attention on the specific language used to describe Jedediah Peck and his crime. Terms such as “wicked seditious and ill disposed person” and “wickedly and maliciously intending and contriving to defame the Government…stir up sedition…and to excite the Hatred of the good People” should stand out to students.
Then, focus attention on the selections from the petition included in the indictment. For example, the indictment describes the petition as saying the Alien Act is “cruel, unjust, unnecessary, impolitic, and unconstitutional” and the Sedition Act is wicked in that it would “convert Freeman into Slaves.”
Ask students to answer the following, citing specific evidence from the text:
- How does the indictment describe Jedediah Peck and his crime?
- In the quoted selections from his petition, how does Peck describe the French government and the Adams administration’s interactions?
- In the quoted selections, how does Jedediah Peck’s petition describe the Alien and Sedition Act?
- 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.”), did Jedediah Peck 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.
You can explore related correspondence between Jedediah Peck and John Adams via Founder’s Online, a searchable archive of the correspondence and other writings of six of the Founding Fathers:
This is one of several posts about the the Bill of Rights. The indictment of Jedediah Peck 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.