March 27, 1800
Senate Holds Editor in Contempt
Should it be possible to send someone to jail for publishing the text of a bill while it is still before the Senate? On March 27, 1800, a majority of senators believed the answer to that question to be a resounding "yes".
Two years earlier, at a time of national paranoia over possible war with France, a Federalist-dominated Congress, supporting the administration of President John Adams, had passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. The 1798 Sedition Act targeted journalists loyal to the opposition Democratic-Republican party, formed around the leadership of Adams' vice president, Thomas Jefferson. That statute provided for the imprisonment of any person who wrote, published, or uttered any false or malicious statement about the president or Congress.
By early 1800, with Congress still meeting in Philadelphia, Senate Federalists launched a campaign against William Duane, the hard-hitting editor of that city's influential Republican newspaper The Aurora. In February, Duane published a Federalist-sponsored Senate bill, leaked to him by three Republican senators. The purpose of the leaked bill was to establish a special committee for the coming election. Composed of six senators, six representatives, and the chief justice, the committee would review electoral college ballots and decide which ones should be counted. In his outraged reporting on this blatantly unconstitutional device to swing the election to Adams, Duane mistakenly indicated that the bill had already passed the Senate.
Duane's error gave Senate Federalists an excuse to create a "committee on privileges." This panel quickly concluded that he had illegally breached Senate privileges by publishing the bill and that he was guilty through his false statements of exciting against senators "the hatred of the good people of the United States."
On March 24, Duane complied with a Senate order to appear in its chamber to hear the charges on which a party-line majority had found him guilty—without trial—and to comment before the Senate passed sentence. Allowed a two-day continuance to confer with counsel, he decided not to return. When the Senate cited him for contempt and ordered his arrest, Duane went into hiding until Congress adjourned several weeks later.
By the time the new session convened in November 1800, the government had moved from Philadelphia to Washington. The disruption of the move, together with the subsequent election victories that placed Jefferson in the White House and his fellow Democratic-Republicans in control of Congress, concluded this bizarre chapter of Senate history.
Rosenfeld, Richard N. American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.