As a shocked nation reacted to the storming of the United States Capitol on Wednesday by a pro-Trump mob trying to disrupt the certification of the presidential election, one word describing the chaos quickly rose to the top.
“It borders on sedition,” President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in his remarks to the nation.
“This is sedition,” the National Association of Manufacturers said in a statement that accused President Trump of having “incited violence in an attempt to retain power.”
And within the first hour of the attack, Merriam-Webster reported that “sedition” was at the top of its searches, ahead of “coup d’état,” “insurrection” and “putsch.”
Sedition — Merriam-Webster defines it as “incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority” — is a word that echoes across American history, archaic yet familiar. Historically, charges of sedition have just as often been used to quash dissent (the Sedition Act of 1918, for example, made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States”) as they have to punish actual threats to government stability or functioning.
But to many scholars and historians, the use of the word on Wednesday — and the force of condemnation it conjured — was not misplaced.
“Treason, traitor, terrorism, sedition — these are strong words with specific meanings that are often tossed aside in favor of their buzzword impact,” Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale University and the author of “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War,” said in an email. “But meanings matter. And sometimes, those words apply.”
Revolutionary America was awash with charges of sedition — against the British Crown. The idea of “sedition” as a crime against the new republic itself became entrenched in the American political lexicon in the 1790s. It was a time of intense partisan conflict, before the system of opposing parties — and the norm of peaceful transfer of power that was disrupted on Wednesday — was established.
The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by the Adams administration in 1798, were intended to clamp down on the political enemies of the Federalists, Adams’s party, and weaken Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The broader backdrop was a brewing conflict with post-Revolutionary France, and Federalists’ belief that Democratic-Republican criticism of their policies undermined national stability, and their fear that foreigners and immigrants, who leaned Democratic-Republican, would support France in a war.
Under the law, journalists who criticized the administration were thrown in jail, immigrant voting rights were tightened and foreigners deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” could be deported.
“That took place in the context of an infant republic that was unsure of its place in the world,” Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard, said. “This was all new: How do you protest? What effect does protesting have on government?”
But “we’ve had almost 250 years now,” she continued. “We know the mechanisms for legitimate criticism, and they do not involve sabotaging the operations of government when those operations have been arrived at by lawful means.”