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The Free Press Crisis of 1800

Thomas Cooper’s Trial for Seditious Libel

Peter Charles Hoffer

February 2011
168 pages, 5-1⁄2 x 8-1⁄2
Landmark Law Cases and American Society
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1764-7, $34.95
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1765-4, $16.95

book cover imageThe far-reaching Sedition Act of 1798 was introduced by Federalists to suppress Republican support of French revolutionaries and imposed fines and imprisonment “if any person shall write, print, utter or publish . . . scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” Such a broadly and loosely defined offense challenged the freedom of the American press and gave the government the power to drag offending newspaper editors into court. The trial of Thomas Cooper in particular became an important showcase for debating the dangers and limits of the new law, one with great implications for both the new republic and federal constitutional law.

Cooper’s trial has now been rescued from long neglect and illuminated by Peter Charles Hoffer, one our nation’s preeminent legal historians. While most modern students of the Sedition Act regard it as an extreme measure motivated by partisan malice, Hoffer offers a much more nuanced view that weighs all the arguments and fairly considers the position of each side in historical and legal context.

Hoffer sets the stage by revisiting both the much better known 1735 trial of Peter Zenger and the subsequent fashioning of the First Amendment during the first meeting of the U.S. Congress. He then describes the rise of political factions in the early republic, congressional debate over the Sedition Act, and Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s Kentucky and Virginia Resolves. After a close reading of Cooper’s allegedly seditious writings, Hoffer brings the trial record to life, capturing prosecution and defense strategies, including Cooper’s attempt to subpoena President Adams and Federalist trial judge Samuel Chase’s management of the prosecution from the bench. Long after the Federalists had departed the scene, echoes of the free-press crisis continued to roil American politics—reappearing in the debates over antislavery petitions, the suppression of dissent during the Civil War and two world wars, and most recently in the trials of suspected terrorists.

Hoffer’s book is an authoritative review of this landmark case and a vital touchstone for anyone concerned about the role of government and the place of dissent in times of national emergency.

“A terrific piece of work by one of our very best historians. Written with verve and authority, it provides a masterful account of a little-known story with powerful implications for the subsequent history of free speech.”—Peter S. Onuf, author of Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood

“A fast-paced, brilliant, readable book that takes on one of the most important problems in republican government: when is opposition thought and dissenting rhetoric so dangerous that fundamental liberties need to be surrendered to ensure the security of all? Hoffer brings fresh insight to bear on this classic dilemma.”—Douglas Bradburn, author of The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Making of the American Union

PETER CHARLES HOFFER is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Georgia and coeditor of the prizewinning series Landmark Law Cases and American Society. His nearly dozen books include A Nation of Laws: America’s Imperfect Pursuit of Justice; The Supreme Court: An Essential History; and The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr.

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