The term sedition refers to overt conduct that excites people to rebel against their government. This may include making speeches, or distributing any writings with this goal in mind. Sedition by individuals in the South is what started America’s Civil War. Sedition is against both federal and state laws, and can lead to criminal charges that are quite severe. To explore this concept, consider the following sedition definition.

Definition of Sedition


  1. Speech or conduct that incites people to rebel against a lawful authority.
  2. Inciting people to rebel or resist governmental authority.


1325-1375       Latin  sēditiōn-

What is Sedition

Sedition takes place when one or more individuals engage in or promote the overthrowing of a government. A person who takes part in subversive acts is considered a “seditionist.” The United States and most other countries have laws against sedition. In fact, sedition is felt to be so damaging, especially to a newly formed nation, that the act was addressed specifically by President John Adams in 1798.

Difference Between Sedition and Treason

Sedition is often confused with treason, but there are distinct differences between the two. Sedition is considered to be a lesser crime than treason, as a seditionist encourages rebellion, but does not take overt actions in his attempt to interfere with, or overthrow the government. For example, a person may commit sedition by holding a meeting to discuss a rebellion or revolution in his home.

Treason, on the other hand, involves taking specific actions that betray one’s country, such as by waging war, providing aid to an enemy, or committing espionage. So if John lets enemy soldiers stay in his home, he can be charged with the crime of treason. In order for a person to be charged with treason, however, the prosecution must show that the individual actively engaged in a plan to bring down the government. Treason is treated as a more severe crime than sedition.

Alien and Sedition Acts

In 1798, the Federalist party passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which included a series of four laws intended to improve national security. This came in response to concerns of the federalist congress that the undesirable and disruptive peoples of the world would bring their rebellions to the American shores, ultimately to sidetrack the tranquility they American were working to achieve.

The Federalist party’s fear that political and social unrest in Europe would begin bleeding into the nation. At the time, Democratic-Republicans began showing support for the rebellion in France, by refusing to enforce federal laws. As the revolution went on, the Federalist party began convincing American citizens that the Alien and Sedition Acts were an important step to eliminating foreign enemies within the nation.

The collection of laws constitution the Alien and Sedition Acts gave the U.S. government power to arrest and detain aliens, made it a crime for U.S. citizens to print or publish false statements about the government, and changed the requirements for obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Espionage Act of 1917

The Espionage Act of 1917 is a federal law that was enacted just after the United States entered World War I.  The goal of the Espionage Act was to prohibit citizens from supporting U.S. enemies during times of war. It’s text, however, made it illegal for any American citizen to speak out in any manner against the government, or to interfere with military operations. If found guilty of one of the crimes listed under the Espionage Act, a person could face up to 20 years in prison, and fines up to $10,000. The Espionage Act was amended a year later by the Sedition Act of 1918.

The Espionage Act reads as follows:

(a) whoever, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the national defence with intent or reason to believe that the information to be obtained is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation, goes upon, enters, flies over, or otherwise obtains information, concerning any vessel, aircraft, work of defence, navy yard, naval station, submarine base, coaling station, fort, battery, torpedo station, dockyard, canal, railroad, arsenal, camp, factory, mine, telegraph, telephone, wireless, or signal station, building, office, or other place connected with the national defence, owned or constructed, or in progress of construction by the United States or under the control or the United States, or of any of its officers or agents, or within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, or any place in which any vessel, aircraft, arms, munitions, or other materials or instruments for use in time of war are being made, prepared, repaired. or stored, under any contract or agreement with the United States, or with any person on behalf of the United States, or otherwise on behalf of the United States, or any prohibited place within the meaning of section six of this title; or

(b) whoever for the purpose aforesaid, and with like intent or reason to believe, copies, takes, makes, or obtains, or attempts, or induces or aids another to copy, take, make, or obtain, any sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blue print, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, document, writing or note of anything connected with the national defence; or

(c) whoever, for the purpose aforesaid, receives or obtains or agrees or attempts or induces or aids another to receive or obtain from any other person, or from any source whatever, any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blue print, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note, of anything connected with the national defence, knowing or having reason to believe, at the time he receives or obtains, or agrees or attempts or induces or aids another to receive or obtain it, that it has been or will be obtained, taken, made or disposed of by any person contrary to the provisions of this title; or..”

Sedition Act of 1918

In creating the Sedition Act of 1918, Congress shored up the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover a wider range of offenses. These included speeches, and other expressions of any opinion that cast the U.S. government, or the war effort, in a negative way. The Sedition Act

It also covered speech that interfered with the sale of government bonds. In basic terms, the Espionage Act prohibited people from making negative comments about the U.S. government or war. The Espionage Act also gave the Postmaster General the authority to refuse to deliver any mail that contained that type of speech. If convicted of a charge under the Espionage Act, a person could face up to 20 years in prison. However, the Espionage Act only applied during times of war.

The amendment to the Espionage Act read is contained partly in Section 3, which reads in part:

“Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements, … or incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct … the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, or … shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States  … or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully … urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production … or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both …”

Both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were repealed in 1921.

Sedition Act Used to Convict Colonial Political Philosopher

Thomas Cooper, born in Europe in 1759, was a man of principles. He attended Oxford University, but didn’t graduate because he refused to take the religious test. He went on to study law, medicine, and the natural sciences, ultimately becoming a college president and political philosopher. Cooper went into the printing business near Lancashire, where he published materials urging political reform. His methods were considered extreme by many.

Cooper moved to the Americas, where he practiced law. He offered his services to the Jeffersonian Republicans, a group that participated in activism against the Alien and Sedition Acts. On October 26, 1799, the lawyer and publisher of the Sunbury and Northumberland wrote an article attacking the methods and philosophies of President John Adams. Shortly after the publication, Cooper was accused and charged with libel under the Sedition Act.

In April 1800, Cooper was indicted by a grand jury for intending to defame the United States president with the goal of bringing hatred to him from the citizens of the United States. Cooper pled not guilty to the charges, and he attempted to subpoena John Adams, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, and a member of Congress as witnesses. The attempt was unsuccessful and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, a close friend of John Adams, presided over the hearing.

Though much of what Cooper published about the Adams administration was opinion, the law at the time required Cooper to prove that all of his published statements were true in order for him to be acquitted. In addition, the rules of evidence at the time made it virtually impossible for Cooper to put on a useful defense. When Cooper was unable to prove to the court that the statements he had made were in fact true, he was found guilty of libel under the Sedition Act, and sentenced to six months in prison, and fined $400.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Espionage – The use of spies to discover the military and political secrets of other nations. Also used in the business world to discover corporate secrets.
  • Federalist Party – The first American political party.
  • State – A politically organized body of people, usually a nation or defined territory organized under one government.
  • Subversive – An act or thing intended, or intending, to subvert, undermine, or overthrow an established or existing system, especially regarding a legally established government or belief system.

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