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The New York Times

“ Sedition ”: a complicated story

As a shocked nation reacted to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 by a pro-Trump mob trying to disrupt the presidential election certification, a word describing the chaos quickly rose to the top. It borders on sedition, then President-elect Joe Biden said in his remarks to the nation. This is sedition, the National Manufacturers Association said in a statement accusing President Donald Trump of inciting violence in an attempt to retain power. Sign up for the New York Times The Morning newsletter And in the first hour of the attack, Merriam-Webster reported that sedition was at the top of his research, ahead of the coup, insurgency and putsch . Sedition Merriam-Webster defines it as incitement to resistance or insurgency against legal authority, a word that resonates in American history, archaic but familiar. Historically, charges of sedition have just as often been used to quell dissent (the Sedition Act of 1918, for example, prohibited the willful speaking, printing, writing, or publishing of disloyal, profane, slanderous language. or abusive in the form of government of the United States) because they must punish real threats to the stability or functioning of government. But for many scholars and historians, the use of the word January 6 and the force of condemnation it evoked was not out of place. Betrayal, traitor, terrorism, sedition these are strong words with specific meanings that are often put aside in favor of their impact on buzzwords, Joanne Freeman, historian at Yale University and author of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, said in an email. But meanings matter. And sometimes those words apply. What is sedition? ”The current federal penal code defines seditious conspiracy as an effort by two or more persons to conspire to overthrow, suppress or forcibly destroy the United States Government, or to make them war or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take or possess property of the United States contrary to their authority. But Geoffrey Stone, a lawyer at the University of Chicago and author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terror, has stated that, historically, the sedition was at the center a question of Normally it refers to a speech that advocates action or beliefs aimed at overthrowing or undermining the legal processes of government, he said. Actions like burning a building or murdering someone one are distinct crimes. who rushed to Capitol Hill on Jan.6, he said, they could argue that what they were doing was protest, which is protected by the First Amendment. The problem is, they went beyond the bounds of what the First Amendment would protect as speech, he said in an interview while the crowds were still inside the building. It doesn’t protect intrusions, and what they do arguably goes beyond that. What they are doing is preventing the government from functioning. When did Americans start talking about sedition? Revolutionary America was inundated with accusations of sedition against the British Crown. The idea of ​​sedition as a crime against the New Republic itself became entrenched in American political lexicon in the 1790s. It was a time of intense partisan conflict, before the opposing party system and the norm. peaceful transfer of power that was disrupted on Wednesday was not established. The Aliens and Sedition Laws, passed by the Adams administration in 1798, were intended to suppress the political enemies of the Federalists, the Adams Party, and to weaken Thomas Jeffersons’ Democratic Republicans. The larger context was a readiness conflict with post-revolutionary France, and federalists believed Democratic-Republican criticism of their policies undermined national stability and their fear that foreigners and immigrants, who were Democratically Republican-leaned, would support the France in a war. Under the law, journalists critical of the administration were thrown in jail, immigrant voting rights were tightened, and foreigners deemed dangerous to the peace and security of the United States could be deported. It took place against the backdrop of a fledgling republic that was unsure of its place in the world, said Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of history and law at Harvard. It was brand new: how do you protest? What effect does the protest have on the government? But we’ve been almost 250 years old now, she continued. We know the mechanisms of legitimate criticism, and they do not involve sabotaging government operations when those operations have been carried out by legal means. Who was seditious at the start of the 19th century? Adams and the Federalists were defeated in the election of 1800, not only because of the Sedition Act, Freeman said, but because of what it represented the undemocratic spirit of federalists in general. Thomas Jefferson and the victorious Democratic Republicans allowed the law to expire in 1802. But sedition remained a powerful concept. And it was increasingly used against abolitionists and to block any effort by African Americans, free or enslaved, to secure rights or otherwise challenge slavery and white supremacy. In 1832, after Nat Turners’ rebellion, Virginia passed a law against riots, routs, illegal gatherings, trespassing, and seditious speeches by free negroes or mulattoes, which were to be flogged in the same fashion, and to the same extent as the rebellious slaves. Who accused of sedition during the civil war? As cross-cutting tensions over slavery escalated, accusations of sedition flew back and forth. Southern slavers accused northerners who opposed slavery of fomenting sedition and insurrection. And words were hurled at Southerners who gave speeches questioning the authority of the federal government, even before the election of Abraham Lincolns in 1860 prompted 11 southern slave states to secede and ultimately take arms against the United States. The language is so strong in the literature of the day, said Manisha Sinha, a historian at the University of Connecticut who studies abolitionism, civil war and reconstruction. These people were not just slavers, which was morally odious, as abolitionists have been saying for centuries. They were traitors who had committed sedition, insurgents who had tried to disrupt American democracy. And during the war, accusations of sedition also circulated in the North itself. When Lincoln suspended the right to habeas corpus, it was justified as a necessary response to threats posed by outspoken critics of the war effort. Was the reconstruction destroyed by sedition? “For many historians, the storming of the Capitol on January 6 recalled a very specific story: the numerous attacks by white supremacy on black suffrage and legitimately elected governments during Reconstruction.In 1874, as part of a lawsuit to overthrow an elected biracial government, members of the White Militia in Louisiana attempted to take over government buildings in New Orleans, then capital, and install their own government, before being finally dislodged by federal troops., North Carolina, when white businessmen and ex-Confederates conspired to dislodge a biracial government and overthrow power The economic riot that followed killed dozens of people and most of the city’s black citizens were denied the right to vote for decades.violent redemption supréma white cistus across the South, many of which are just beginning to be candidly told. And that historic echo was underscored by the spectacle of men with Confederate flags parading through the halls of the Capitol, a spectacle, many noted, that would have been unthinkable during the Civil War. Sedition may have captured the moment on January 6. But some historians wonder if this is the most illuminating verbal touchstone, given its own complicated history. For me, the best expression is undemocratic vigilante paramilitary violence, said Greg Downs, a historian at the University of California at Davis, who studies reconstruction. He does what sedition can keep us from doing: connect what is happening today with what has happened in American history. When people say this is not happening in America, they are revealing their idealism but also their ignorance, he said. It’s already arrived. And it can happen again. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. 2021 The New York Times Company

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