In his newest book, The Words that Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation 1760-1840, Yale law professor and constitutional historian Akhil Reed Amar tells the story of the first 80 years of democratic debate in the United States. This excerpt focuses on the origins of America’s newspaper culture and the central role it played in forming our democracy.
The Sedition Act of 1798 was the first great test of the First Amendment’s protection for the freedom of speech and press. Under the new law, Americans could face up to $2,000 in fines (nearly $42,000 in 2020 dollars) and two years in prison for criticizing a public official. Passed only seven years after the ratification of the Constitution, the Sedition Act forced the young country to decide not just whether it was truly dedicated to freedom of speech, but also what that idea would even mean in a democratic republic.