American Eloquence, Volume 1 eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 194 pages of information about American Eloquence, Volume 1.

JOHN NICHOLAS

ON THE PROPOSED REPEAL OF THE SEDITION LAW

—­House of representatives, Feb. 25, 1799

MR. CHAIRMAN: 

The Select Committee had very truly stated that only the second and third sections of the act are complained of; that the part of the law which punishes seditious acts is acquiesced in, and that the part which goes to restrain what are called seditious writings is alone the object of the petitions.  This part of the law is complained of as being unwarranted by the Constitution, and destructive of the first principles of republican government.  It is always justifiable, in examining the principle of a law, to inquire what other laws can be passed with equal reason, and to impute to it all the mischiefs for which it may be used as a precedent.

In this case, little inquiry is left for us to make, the arguments in favor of the law carrying us immediately and by inevitable consequence to absolute power over the press.

It is not pretended that the Constitution has given any express authority, which they claim, for passing this law, and it is claimed only as implied in that clause of the Constitution which says:  “Congress shall have power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.”  It is clear that this clause was intended to be merely an auxiliary to the powers specially enumerated in the Constitution; and it must, therefore, be so construed as to aid them, and at the same time to leave the boundaries between the General Government and the State governments untouched.  The argument by which the Select Committee have endeavored to establish the authority of Congress over the press is the following:  “Congress has power to punish seditious combinations to resist the laws, and therefore Congress must have the power to punish false, scandalous, and malicious writings; because such writings render the Administration odious and contemptible among the people, and by doing so have a tendency to produce opposition to the laws.”  To make it support the construction of the committee, it should say that “Congress shall have power over all acts which are likely to produce acts which hinder the execution of,” etc.  Our construction confines the power of Congress to such acts as immediately interfere with the execution of the enumerated powers of Congress, because the power can only be necessary as well as proper when the acts would really hinder the execution.  The construction of the committee extends the power of Congress to all acts which have a relation, ever so many degrees removed, to the enumerated powers, or rather to the acts which would hinder their execution.  By our

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American Eloquence, Volume 1 from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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