Educator Resources

United States v. Thomas Cooper

Teaching Activities

Standards Correlations

This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 3 -Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
    • Standard 3A -Demonstrate understanding of the issues involved in the creation and ratification of the United States Constitution and the new government it established.
    • Standard 3B -Demonstrate understanding of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and its continuing importance.

This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.

  • Standard III. B. 1 -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the purposes, organization, and functions of the institutions of the national government.
  • Standard III. D. 1. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on the role and importance of law in the American political system.
  • Standard V. B. 1. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding personal rights.

Constitutional Connection

This lesson relates to freedom of speech and freedom of the press as provided for in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Cross-curricular Connections

Share this lesson with your history, government, and language arts colleagues.


  • Instruct students to review the general information about the Alien and Sedition Acts in their textbook and compare it to the First Amendment of the Constitution. Lead a class discussion in which the students explain the differences and similarities between the act and the amendment.
  • Divide the students into seven groups and distribute one document to each group. Ask student groups to read and analyze their document using the Document Analysis Worksheet. Direct one representative from each group to report their analysis to the class. Assign students to write a one-page synopsis of the Thomas Cooper story as revealed by the documents.
  • Divide the students into four groups. Assign each group to read one column of the broadside (document 1) entitled "To The Public." Instruct the students to list on butcher paper any passages that question or challenge the government or the president of the United States. Ask students to post their lists.
  • Ask the students to compare their lists compiled in activity #3 to that enumerated in Judge Peters's indictment. Ask them if they can identify the statements in the broadside from which the charges listed in indictment were drawn? (Note: Peters did not hear the case; Associate Justice Samuel P. Chase did.)
  • After reading the indictment of Cooper, lead a class discussion using the following questions: Were charges brought against Cooper for opinions that were personal or political in nature? Did Cooper attack John Adams and the Federalist government on the basis of personalities or politics? Explain to the students that a personal (ad hominem) attack, for example, might be to call the president a cheater or liar. A political attack would be one that is critical of a governmental policy. It is possible to use both personal and political attacks at the same time.
  • Ask students to pretend that they are Thomas Cooper. Ask them to write a journal entry in which they reveal the defense Cooper planned to use in his "Not Guilty" plea, list the people whom he wanted to serve with subpoenas, and explain why the people who were to be subpoenaed were critical to his defense.
  • Ask students to determine how severe Cooper's sentence was. (To determine this, students will have to find out how to convert the value of an 1800 dollar to the value of a dollar today. As far as prison goes, you can assume that prisons in general were much more primitive in 1800 than today.)
  • Ask students to find a statement in the media (print, video, or audio) that criticizes the current president of United States or one of the president's policies and bring it to class. Direct the students to discuss whether the statements they found would have been subject to criminal investigation if they had been made in 1799. Let the students determine if the statements they found were "harsher" or more critical of the president than any statements that were found in the Cooper case. Finally, ask the students to explain if criticism was personal or political in nature.
  • Instruct each student to conduct a poll of 10 of their friends in which they ask: If Congress were considering legislation similar to the Alien and Sedition Acts today, would you support or oppose its passage? Ask students to share the results of their poll with the class. Discuss with students the reasons for the reactions.

The documents included in this project are from Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States. They (and others related to the case) are available online through the National Archives Catalog database, by searching keyword "Thomas Cooper" or using the following National Archives Identifiers:



The National Archives Catalog replaces its prototypes, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.


The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the National Archives Catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the National Archives Catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the National Archives Catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the National Archives Catalog will grow continually.

This article was written by John M. Lawlor, Jr., an instructor at Reading Area Community College in Reading, PA.

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