The Free Press Crisis of 1800

Thomas Cooper's Trial for Seditious Libel

Peter Charles Hoffer

The 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.

“This little-known story is written with authority and would be an appropriate volume for students of history interested in press freedom, courses relating to legal history, and law school courses.

—Journalism History

“Hoffer closes with the warning that ‘the liberties we cherish are not always proof against power and partisanship’ and the admonition that this ‘lesson must be taught to each generation of Americans, especially those who apply and interpret our laws.’ Surely, this book will help us accomplish that task.

—Law and Politics Book Review
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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.

About the Author

Peter Charles Hoffer is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Georgia and coeditor of the series Landmark Law Cases and American Society. Among his other books are The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History, The Law’ls Conscience: Constitutionalism in America, and Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History, coauthored with N. E. H. Hull.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series