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Teachable Texts from the National Archives at New York City

United States v. William Durell: Violating the Alien and Sedition Acts


Less than a decade after the Bill of Rights was passed and freedom of speech and of the press was guaranteed, Congress passed a series of laws that severely limited that right. During a stressful time of a quasi-war with France and the birth of the two-party system, the party in power (the Federalists) created the Alien and Sedition acts to limit the political power of their rival (the Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonians, among other names). To do this, the Federalists toughened the naturalization requirements, gave power to deport enemy immigrants, and made it illegal to write, print, utter or publish anything that was false, scandalous, and malicious against the government.

The following case, United States v. William Durell, involves the printing of such an essay. The defendant, who was a printer from Mount Pleasant, New York, printed an "Answer To The Youths of Philadelphia" comparing President John Adams to the traitor Benedict Arnold.


United States v. William Durell
Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-2004
U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York
Criminal Case Files, compiled 1790-1912
National Archives Identifier 278376

Discussion Questions:

  • What was William Durell accused of doing to John Adams? Be specific.
  • How does the court record describe William Durell?
  • Why did William Durell compare John Adams to Benedict Arnold?
  • Reading the text of the Sedition Act, do you feel this law was unconstitutional? Explain.
  • How would our nation be different if the Sedition act was still in effect? Explain the consequences.

Extension Activities

  • Further Research: Throughout our history, during times of emergency, the rights of American citizens are infringed upon by the government. Research 5 other instances of a reduction in civil liberties and evaluate whether this reduction was justified.
  • Debate the issue: Is the curtailment of the Bill of Rights ever justified? Why or why not?
  • Connections to Today: Search recent newspapers or online for negative comments about the current President? Would these comments be considered seditious under the Sedition Act? Why or why not?


National History Standards

  • Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
    • Standard 3B: The student understands the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and its continuing significance.

NY Standards

  • SS5. I.2. The state and federal governments established by the Constitutions of the United States and the State of New York embody basic civic values (such as justice, honesty, self-discipline, due process, equality, majority rule with respect for minority rights, and respect for self, others, and property), principles, and practices and establish a system of shared and limited government. (Adapted from The National Standards for Civics and Government, 1994)

NJ Standards

  • 6.1.8.A.3.e Determine why the Alien and Sedition Acts were enacted and whether they undermined civil liberties.

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