The trial of Abijah Adams was conducted by Chief-Justice Dana and lasted through three entire days, the jury rendering its verdict on the morning of the fourth day. Sullivan, the attorney-general, presented the case of the Commonwealth. The prosecution as he presented it "had no connection with the Sedition Act of Congress," but was "under the common law of the State." The articles set forth in the indictment were libels against the General Court of Massachusetts, for "the common law of the country, which was common reason, prohibited such outrages" albeit there was no statute defining libels upon the government. In support of this doctrine the attorney-general argued that the offense described in the indictment was indictable by the common law of England. To obviate the objection that such an action would be an infringement of the freedom of the press, Blackstone's definition, that liberty of the press meant only freedom from restraint prior to publication, was appealed to as authoritative. If the offense charged in the indictment was libellous by the common law of England, the conclusion that it was punishable in Massachusetts was easily reached. The first settlers in Massachusetts brought that doctrine to America with them as a part of the common law.
For the defense, Messrs. Whitman and George Blake presented three lines of argument: 1. The defendant, being merely employed in the office of the Chronicle, was not the real culprit, if there be one; 2. The matter set forth in the indictment was not libellous; 3. Under the constitution of Massachusetts no indictment can be maintained for a libel against the government of the state. Two of these lines of argument possess great interest. The second shows incidentally the opinions of leading Massachusetts Republicans in regard to the constitutional doctrines of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, as expressed in a carefully considered argument before
- In the following account of the trial the elaborate argument, published in the Chronicle from April 11 to May 2, 1799, is followed unless some other authority is cited.
- Massachusetts Mercury, March 8, 1799; Columbian Centinel, March 6, 1799.