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Cancel Culture is happening on a historic scale, Part 2
How does the Sedition Act of 1798 compare to Cancel Culture?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In our new book, “The Canceling of the American Mind,” my co-author Rikki Schlott and I make the argument that Cancel Culture is on the scale of many of the worst “mass censorship” events in U.S. history. This series expands on that research from the Sedition Act of 1798 to 9/11.
In Part 1, we explored the ways Cancel Culture is on par with the worst trends in the history of First Amendment-protected speech and used the response to speech after 9/11 to predict the campus climate after Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel. As expected, campuses across the country have suddenly rediscovered the value of free speech and academic freedom, because they always do when the threat of censorship comes from the outside. It remains to be seen whether this recommitment to principle will hold when those same threats come from within. Given what I’ve seen in my two decades doing this work, I’m quite cynical about the odds there.
Now, we’ll shift our focus to the oft-repeated canard that Cancel Culture “isn’t a big deal” because a relatively small number of people have been canceled. This claim not only betrays an ignorance of history, but also the way censorship even of only a few victims can still have devastating ripple effects on our culture — and, indeed, our country.
To illustrate this, we’re going to head way back to the late eighteenth century and America’s first free speech crisis.
The 1798 Sedition Act
During John Adams’ presidency, Americans feared that a quasi-war with France could explode into a full-scale conflict and spell the end of our budding national experiment. This unease was compounded by internal conflict within our nascent union, with Federalist and Republican newspapers duking it out in print and smearing their political rivals with accusations of treason and other misdeeds. In this heightened climate, Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1798, which criminalized the printing, uttering, or publishing of “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about either the president or Congress.
It was no accident, by the way, that the office of vice president was not protected by the Sedition Act: It was occupied by Adams' political rival, Thomas Jefferson. “Free speech for me but not for thee” is a sentiment that has been with us forever.
Looking back, of course we know that an all-out war with France never materialized. But this wasn’t self-evident at the time. The Founding Fathers were painfully aware of the fragility of democratic self-rule. In fact, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton were among the many who died feeling very pessimistic about the future survival of the United States.
And so America’s leaders sought to preserve our fledgling new nation by any means necessary — even if that meant undermining the democratic ideal of free speech. And the defenses of this anti-speech philosophy sound shockingly familiar to us today. In a November 1, 1798, correspondence published in a Vermont newspaper, then-Secretary of State Timothy Pickering defended the Sedition Act by asking the public, “What honest man … can wish unlimited permission to be given for the publication of malicious falsehoods, and with intentions the most base?”
From our modern vantage point it’s easy to dismiss the very real fears of the past, but put yourself in the shoes of Americans alive at the time. We distort history and flatter ourselves as being more level-headed than our predecessors when we don’t consider the genuinely frightening threats people were facing.
By 1797, the French were antagonized by our granting the British favored nation trade status, and they had started to seize American merchant ships, arguably both to send us a message and to finance foreign wars — like the one some upstart general named Napoleon Bonaparte was conducting in Italy. And while the prior French revolutionary governments were mostly content to execute their own citizens, the French Directory was overseeing wars around the world. Many of our own citizens had deep ties to prominent French thinkers and diplomats, and only a few years earlier, French revolutionary governments had sent agents to the U.S. to try to recruit Americans to join them in fighting the British.
Ask yourself honestly: “Would I have panicked under the same circumstances?” John Adams did, and it had massive consequences for his reputation, his relationships, and our republic. For more on just how impactful those actions by President Adams and others were — and what Jefferson and Madison did to counter them — I can’t recommend Charles Slack’s book, “Liberty’s First Crisis,” highly enough.
Cancel Culture today will be seen as a black mark on our free speech record
The passage of the Sedition Act is still rightfully considered a shameful moment in American history despite the fact that it had a small number of direct victims. Although it was long estimated that it only resulted in about 15 indictments, exciting new research from scholar Wendell Bird in his excellent book, “Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798,” shows that the true tally was 51, involving 126 plaintiffs. There still seems to have been only about 10 convictions. When contextualized for scale, only 0.002 percent of Americans were prosecuted by this legislation. Does that somehow mean that it wasn’t a big deal? Absolutely not.
The Sedition Act was meant to create fear in the public, and it succeeded. In the March 16, 1799, edition of the Columbian Centinel, editor Benjamin Russel provided a summary of the cost of dissent:
A few more discharges from the artillery of the sedition act will compel the remaining garrisons of Jacobinism to surrender prisoners and purchase their freedom by adding a small sum to the public treasury. Howl! O ye lions. Tremble, O ye who obey not the commandments of your country.
When it comes to threats and even all-out assaults on free speech, it’s foolish to think that “body count” is all that matters. Compromising principles for short-term gains (or the illusion of them) has far greater consequences, and the Sedition Act remains a blot on our historical record for good reason. Cancel Culture is no different.
As I’ve said many times, Cancel Culture has more than 1,000 campaigns and 200 fired or forced-out professors under its belt — and, as I’ve also mentioned, this is almost surely an underestimate. I predict that we’ll be studying this in 100 years the way we study McCarthyism and the Red Scare today.
Next up in this occasional series: The mass censorship period that, I believe, is most comparable to Cancel Culture today: the Victorian era.”
Shot for the Road
Did I mention that I met my hero and Monty Python legend John Cleese — while naked?
Well, I did, and the interview — which may disappoint some viewers with a shocking lack of nudity — is now available to watch!