Thomas Jefferson versus the Supreme Court

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Thomas Jefferson versus the Supreme Court.

In the year 1798 Congress passed an act to punish certain kinds of libel, commonly called the ‘Sedition Act.’

The courts of the United States proceeded to execute it. A number of persons were indicted under it, convicted, and sentenced. But the President (Thomas Jefferson) deeming the act unconstitutional, arrested the execution of judgments of the court in every instance. The courts would convict and pronounce sentence upon the criminal, and the President would pardon; and yet the Union did not fall to pieces. At length Congress became satisfied of the unconstitutionality of the act, and suffered it to expire by its own limitation.

One of the parties, named Matthew Lyon, was convicted under the ‘Sedition Act.’ and sentenced to pay a fine. The fine was collected. The pardon of the President released him from imprisonment, but did not refund the fine paid or collected; but thirty years afterwards, Congress restored to the heirs of Lyon the amount of the fine and interest.

Says President Jefferson: “I discharged every person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law, because I considered and now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image.” (Jefferson’s Works, 4, 556.)

It is the practice of late to hold up before the mind such frightful pictures of ‘collision,’ ‘resistance,’ ‘civil discord,’ ‘revolution,’ ‘anarchy,’ and ‘dissolution,’ that it would seem that any effort of resistance to the exercise of unauthorized power, and every attempt faithfully to execute official duty imposed by the Constitution and laws, is to be dreaded as an approach to treason; that every diversity of opinion or action between the functionaries of the two governments (State and United States) must terminate in the dissolution of the Union; that the hope of the nation rests, not so much in the intelligence and patriotism of the people, as in the successful pursuit of a run-away negro. But the real danger to the Union consists not so much in resistance to laws constitutionally enacted, as in acquiescence in measures which violate the Constitution. Is is much safer to resist unauthorized and unconstitutional power, at its very commencement, when it can be done by constitutional means, than to wait until the evil is so deeply and firmly rooted that the only remedy is revolution. — A.D. Smith, Judge of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.

Richland County Observer (Richland Center, Wisconsin) Apr 27, 1858

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