Sedition in America: A History

1. Introduction

The crime of sedition has been on the books in the United States since the Sedition Act of 1798. However, it was not until the 1940s that the federal government began to aggressively prosecute sedition cases. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the topic of sedition, particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

2. What Is Sedition?

Sedition is the act of portraying behavior or using language that is deemed capable of inciting revolt against the federal state. It is important to note that sedition does not necessarily have to be successful in order to be prosecuted; merely attempting to incite a rebellion can result in charges being filed.

There are a number of different ways in which someone can commit sedition. For example, printing or distributing seditious materials is a form of sedition. So is making seditious speeches or engaging in Seditious Conspiracy, which is defined as conspiring to overthrow the government or wage war against it.

Sedition is considered to be a serious offense against the state, and it is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. In some cases, people who have been convicted of sedition have also had their citizenship revoked.

3. The History of Sedition in the United States

The first Sedition Act was passed by Congress in 1798 and was signed into law by President John Adams. The act made it a crime to write, publish, or utter false, scandalous, or malicious statements about the president or the government. The Sedition Act expired in 1800, but not before dozens of people had been arrested and jailed for violating it.

In 1918, Congress passed another Sedition Act as a way to quell dissent during World War I. This act made it illegal to make any statements that might interfere with the war effort or cause insubordination in the military. A number of people were prosecuted under this act, including famed socialist Eugene Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making an anti-war speech.

4. The Smith Act of 1940

The Smith Act of 1940 was a federal law that made it a crime to advocate for the overthrow of the government or to assist any organization that was engaged in such advocacy. The law was passed in response to the rise of communism in Europe and Asia and was intended to prevent communists from gaining a foothold in the United States.

Under the Smith Act, anyone who belonged to or supported an organization that advocated for overthrowing the government could be prosecuted. A number of high-profile cases were brought under this law, including one against members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). In 1951, 11 top leaders of CPUSA were convicted under the Smith Act and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 3-5 years.

5. Other Notable Sedition Cases in American History

In addition to the Sedition Acts of 1798 and 1918 and the Smith Act of 1940, there have been a number of other notable sedition cases throughout American history.
In 1964, three civil rights activists were convicted of conspiring to incite a riot at an upcoming speech by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1969, seven members of the Chicago Eight were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And in 1970, the Weather Underground, a radical left-wing group, was charged with sedition for their role in a series of bombings.

More recently, in 2006, a federal grand jury indicted several members of an anti-government group called the Minutemen on charges of seditious conspiracy. The group was accused of plotting to kidnap and kill a number of public officials, including then-governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano.

6. Is Sedition a Problem Today?

The question of whether or not sedition is a problem in the United States today is a difficult one to answer. On the one hand, there are a number of people and groups who advocate for violence against the government. On the other hand, it is very difficult to prosecute sedition cases because they often involve speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, there has been a renewed interest in the topic of sedition. This is due in part to the fact that many people believe that Donald Trump incited violence against his political opponents during his campaign. Whether or not Trump actually committed sedition is still up for debate, but the fact that the question is being asked at all speaks to the current climate of mistrust and division in the United States.

7. Conclusion

Sedition is a crime that has been on the books in the United States for over 200 years. However, it was not until recently that the federal government began to aggressively prosecute sedition cases. In light of recent events, there has been a renewed interest in the topic of sedition and whether or not it is a problem in America today.


Sedition is a crime that covers a wide range of activities, including speech and other forms of expression, that are intended to overthrow the government or promote violence or lawlessness. The Sedition Acts are a series of laws passed by the United States Congress in 1798 and 1918 that made it a crime to engage in seditious activity.

In the United States, anyone can be prosecuted for seditious libel, regardless of whether they are a citizen or not. However, there must be some evidence that the person knew their actions would lead to violence or overthrow of the government.

The definition of sedition has changed over time in America. Originally, it was used to prosecute people who were critical of the government or engaged in anti-government activities. Over time, however, the definition has been broadened to include any type of expression that could potentially lead to violence or lawlessness.

There have been so few prosecutions for sedition in the United States because it is difficult to prove that someone actually intended to overthrow the government through their words or actions. Additionally, many people believe that prosecuting someone for their words violates their right to free speech.

The prosecution of Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of Mohammed could be considered a form of seditious libel if it can be proven that they knew their actions would lead to violence against the French government.

It is possible to commit acts of sedition without intending to overthrow the government if those acts could reasonably be seen as promoting violence or lawlessness. For example, inciting a riot would be considered an act of sedition even if there was no intention to overthrow the government.

Some potential defenses to a charge of seditious libel in America include proving that the speech or expression in question was not actually intended to promote violence or lawlessness, or that it was not reasonably likely to do so. Additionally, some courts have held that truth is a defense to seditious libel, meaning that if the statements made are true, then the person cannot be prosecuted for making them.

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