Alien and Sedition Act - History

Alien and Sedition Act - History

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Alien and Secdition Act

The Alien and Sedition Acts marked an attempt by Federalists to suppress opposition at home. These acts gave the President the power to arrest and deport any alien suspected of having "treasonable or secret leanings."

The Alien and Seditions Acts were four separate laws. The first was the Naturalization Act. This act extended the time it was required to establish US citizenship for new immigrants. That time was extended from five years to fourteen. The Federalists were afraid that new immigrants were more likely to support the Democratic Party instead of the Federalist Party.

The second act was the Alien Act. This act gave the President power to imprison or deport any foreigner. The authors of the act hoped this would silence French refugees who opposed Federalist calls for war with France.

The third part of the laws was the Alien Enemies Act. This act allowed the government to arrest and deport any foreigners who were citizens of nations at war with the United States. The fourth act was the Sedition Act. This act was the most controversial, giving the government the power to arrest anyone who wrote critically of the President, the Congress, or the government. This law seemed to directly undermine the protection of the First Amendment, which guaranteed free speech.

All parts of the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. No one was ever deported based on the laws, but 25 newspapers editors were arrested and 10 were convicted and jailed.

Alien and Sedition Acts

In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a series of laws which, on the surface, were designed to control the activities of foreigners in the United States during a time of impending war. Beneath the surface, however, the real intent of these laws was to destroy Jeffersonian Republicanism. The laws, known collectively as the "Alien and Sedition Acts," included:

  • The Naturalization Act, which extended the residency period from 5 to 14 years for those aliens seeking citizenship this law was aimed at Irish and French immigrants who were often active in Republican politics
  • The Alien Act, which allowed the expulsion of aliens deemed dangerous during peacetime
  • The Alien Enemies Act, which allowed the expulsion or imprisonment of aliens deemed dangerous during wartime. This was never enforced, but it did prompt numerous Frenchmen to return home
  • The Sedition Act, which provided for fines or imprisonment for individuals who criticized the government, Congress, or president in speech or print .

Understanding the Issues and Context

Students should relate current concerns on national security with the fierce debates that raged in the early national period. What are the parallels with the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts? Does understanding what happened in 1798 help us make informed decisions today?

Students should be able to explain why the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed and to appraise their significance. Students should be able to explain the context of events and the constitutional theory that surrounded their passage. How did the Federalist party justify the need for the acts? Why did the Federalists feel the acts did not violate the Bill of Rights?

Students should be able to assess the arrest and imprisonment of critics of the Adams administration such as Benjamin Franklin Bache, Thomas Cooper, and Matthew Lyon. Were these violations of the First Amendment, or were they justified by the crises confronting the new nation?

Several sites provide texts and documents to prepare students for these assignments.

The Avalon Project at Yale University contains the texts of the Alien Act, the Sedition Act, and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. A useful feature of this site is that it allows a side-by-side comparison of draft and final versions of the resolutions, with changes highlighted.

The Virginia Report, the full text of an 1850 publication by J. W. Randolph, has the full texts of the Alien Act and the Sedition Act. It also contains the debates and resolutions of the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures, as well as the counterresolutions of Delaware, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Finally, it contains the Virginia Report of 1799, along with Madison's report, instructions to Virginia senators, and letters written in the 1830s by Madison on the bank question and the 1798 resolution. An online search will also find the text of the Naturalization Act.

Direct your students also to the Library of Congress website, which has facsimiles of the Annals of Congress, so that students can read the contemporary debate over the Alien and Sedition laws, Alien Enemies, Seditious Practices, and Seditious Writers. The Annals are searchable.

In American History

Although the young American republic was theoretically more stable and centralized than ever before, the first decade under the Constitution ratified in 1789 was fraught with political fears arising from both genuine threats and overreactions to wholly unexpected developments.

Perhaps the most important of these unexpected developments was the rapid emergence of political divisions that matured into parties competing to name the nation’s chief executive, a circumstance unprecedented in world history. Although parties are now considered a basic aspect of U.S. democracy, this was far from intended by the founders.

Believing that a republic could never survive the strain of constant battles for power, and that good, trustworthy leaders would never want to engage in those battles, the framers of the Constitution intentionally designed the new system to prevent the development of political parties or any other kind of organized competition for control of the national government.

The hope was that the increased size and diversity of the territory being governed, coupled with a multilayered structure of representation that included an appointed senate and an indirectly elected president, would make it impossible for the country’s many local political factions and interests to organize themselves sufficiently to control the national government.

Without the need to please or compete for public favor, learned, enlightened statesmen would be able to deliberate more or less in peace at the national capital, making wise, well-reasoned decisions for the good of all.

To the founders, parties and other forms of organized opposition to government were inherently conspiratorial, especially when a legitimate republican government existed. When the people already ruled, efforts to defeat or stymie their chosen leaders were considered plots against the people themselves by cabals of “artful and designing men” out for private gain, tyrannical power, or some other sinister purpose. Those who followed such evil leaders showed themselves to be mere “tools” or “dupes,” unworthy of the rights of independent citizenship.

In a comment that somewhat hyperbolically reflected the feelings of many colleagues, Thomas Jefferson expressed revulsion at the very idea of joining a political party: “Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

Despite this deep aversion to parties, the choices facing the young nation were simply too momentous and too divisive to be contained by the makeshift structure that the framers had devised. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton came into conflict immediately over financial policy and broader matters such as the basic structure of the new government and the future character of the nation.

Jefferson became convinced that Hamilton was the leader of a “corrupt squadron” who sought “to get rid of the limitations imposed by the constitution” with the “ultimate object” of “a change, from the present republican form of government, to that of a monarchy” modeled on Great Britain’s (Jefferson, 986).

Hamilton, for his part, was equally certain that Jefferson and his lieutenant James Madison led “a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and . subversive of . good government and . the union, peace and happiness of the Country”.

Believing that they were fighting for the very soul of the new nation, Jefferson, Hamilton, and their respective allies instinctively reached out for support among their fellow politicians and the citizenry at large, eventually spawning a party conflict whether they intended to or not.

Unfortunately, U.S. politicians of the 1790s engaged in party politics without really ever learning to approve of the practice. They saw themselves as taking necessary if sometimes distasteful steps to save the republic, and their opponents as conspirators against it, plain and simple.

Especially among the Federalist supporters of the Washington and Adams administration, there was no sense that there could be any such thing as a “loyal opposition,” and it was perhaps inevitable that steps would be taken to curb opposition to the government when the opportunity arose.

Political paranoia became far worse in the latter half of Washington’s presidency, when the French Revolution grew more radical and war broke out between France and Great Britain. The question of which side to take in the conflict, if any, came to define U.S. politics, and pushed foreign subversion to the head of the list of fears. Although highly exaggerated in practice, fears of foreign subversion in this period were probably more plausible than at any other time in U.S. history.

The United States was no world power in the 1790s, but occupied a situation much closer to those of developing or Third World nations during and after the cold war: small, weak, and subject to harsh buffeting by political, economic, and cultural winds coming from the more developed world.

Revolutionary France expected U.S. support as a sister republic and in return for France’s aid to the U.S. during the American Revolution. Beginning with “Citizen” Edmond Genet’s arrival in 1793, French envoys did their best to draw Americans into the conflict with Great Britain and influence American politics in favor of the French cause.

Genet greeted crowds of well-wishers, handed out military commissions, and outfitted privateers, while later French ministers fed politically calculated information through friendly newspaper editors. The British kept a lower profile, but successfully pressed to keep the United States militarily neutral and commercially dependent on British trade (by means of the controversial Jay Treaty), while staying in secret, sometimes illicit, conflict with various U.S. officials.

Republicans generally took the side of France, or opposed closer ties to Great Britain the Federalists generally took the opposite approach, and increasingly regarded France as a dire threat to U.S. independence, the Christian religion, and everything else they held dear.

More important than what the French or British actually did was the growing conviction, within each of the emerging parties, that the other side was working, out of greed or fanaticism, in treasonous collusion with a foreign aggressor.

Republicans regarded the Federalists as the “British party” and their leader Jefferson infamously labeled Washington, Hamilton, and Adams as traitors (in an inadvertently published letter), “men who were Samsons in the field & Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England” (Jefferson, 1037).

However, the Federalists gave far more than they got in this respect, calling their opponents “Jacobins” after the most radical, conspiratorial, and ultimately bloodthirsty faction of the French Revolution. This was equal parts a venomous partisan label and a sincere statement of who and what many Federalists thought was driving the opposition to their policies, an international revolutionary conspiracy.

Through the battles over Hamilton’s financial system, the French Revolution, and the Jay Treaty, the incipient party conflict had matured to the point of a contested presidential election by 1796, pitting Vice-President John Adams against former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

Deteriorating relations with France in the wake of the Jay Treaty, including attacks on U.S. shipping, French threats, and the distinct possibility of war, put the Federalists in a strong position. Adams won, and soon after the XYZ Affair inflamed the country against France and set up the belligerent national mood that made the Alien and Sedition Acts possible.

The Press, Immigration, and the Origins of the Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were the domestic planks of an aggressive national security program passed by the Federalists in preparation for an allout war against France that many of them desired but never managed to make happen.

A military build-up was also put in motion, including the construction of a fleet of war-ships and a vastly enlarged army that included forces designed to rapidly mobilize against rebellious Americans as well as foreign invaders.

This early homeland security legislation’s specific targets were determined by two aspects of the party conflict that disturbed the Federalists most: the role of the press and the role of immigrants in the growing popular opposition to the policies of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, and in the democratization of U.S. political culture more generally.

The press was seen as a powerful political weapon that had fallen into the hands of conspirators, mercenaries, and fools. As the founders and other U.S. politicians perceived it, the press was the “great director of public opinion” and capable of destroying any government by turning its own people against it. “Give to any set of men the command of the press, and you give them the command of the country,” declared an influential Pennsylvania Federalist (Addison, 1798, 18󈝿).

Although still a relatively primitive medium by modern standards—a standard U.S. newspaper featured only four pages, filled haphazardly with a seemingly random assortment of miscellaneous material without real headlines or illustrations— newspapers (along with pamphlets) were thought to have been instrumental in bringing about both the American and French Revolutions, as well as numerous political developments in Great Britain.

Founders on both sides of the 1790s political spectrum, including Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, and Samuel Adams, had relied on the press as their “political engine” during the movement for independence from Great Britain.

The founders began their new nation assuming that, with British tyranny defeated and republican government established, the press would now serve a more passive political role. It would build loyalty to the new regime, chiefly by providing the people with basic information about their government’s activities, such as copies of the laws that had been passed.

As the first Washington administration gathered, it seemed more than enough when Boston businessman John Fenno showed up in the national capital and started the Gazette of the United States (the G.U.S.), a would-be national newspaper intended to “endear the general government to the people” (Pasley, 57) by printing documents and congressional proceedings, along with letters, essays, and even poetry hailing President Washington and Vice-President John Adams as gods among men.

When fundamental disagreements broke out among the leading founders, however, the press was quickly drawn into the growing partisan conflict. To those who saw Hamilton as a not-sohidden hand guiding the country toward monarchy and aristocracy, the G.U.S. began to seem positively sinister, an organ for government propaganda that might be able to overbear the voters’ better judgment.

Jefferson and Madison sought to counter the influence of the G.U.S. by helping create a new Philadelphia newspaper, the National Gazette, to lead the public charge against Hamilton’s policies. The editor, the poet Philip Freneau (a college friend of Madison’s), was given a no-work job in Jefferson’s office.

The newspaper provided Jefferson with a surrogate that would fight in the war for public opinion and still allow him to remain above the fray and within the administration. When he was exposed as the National Gazette’s sponsor and confronted by President Washington, Jefferson claimed that Freneau’s paper had “saved our constitution” from Hamilton.

Although the National Gazette folded in 1793, it set a number of important precedents. In some places, it was the birthplace of the party system, since it was in the National Gazette’s pages that the very idea of an opposition political party (as opposed to a mere group of like-minded legislators) was first floated. Again and again in the following century, politicians and parties looked to newspapers as their primary public combatants in the bruising battles that followed the Jefferson-Hamilton split.

The Philadelphia Aurora, founded by a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, took over as the leading Jeffersonian paper, and around it developed a loose national network of local newspapers that spread the opposition movement’s ideas around the country by copying from each other. Such newspaper networks became the primary means through which nineteenth-century U.S. parties sought to influence the U.S. public and a vital component of their campaigning.

The Federalists of the 1790s thought of themselves as the nation’s rightful ruling class, “the wisest and best” rather than a political faction that had to compete for public favor and control of the government. The development of an opposition party and an opposition press was threatening, offensive, and patently a conspiracy.

During the congressional debates on the Sedition Act, arch-conservative congressman John Allen of Connecticut read from a New York newspaper in which the strongest words used against President Adams were that he was “a person without patriotism, without philosophy” and “a mock Monarch.” Allen flatly declared that, “If this be not a conspiracy against Government and people,” he did not know what a conspiracy was (Debates and Proceedings in Congress).

The opposition press was doubly or triply bad because of the fact it was largely manned by men that the aristocratically minded Federalists considered thoroughly unfit to “undertake the high task of enlightening the public mind.”

Whereas in colonial times most newspaper writing was done by men of education and social prestige—the lawyers, ministers, and merchants of the major towns—the political writing of 1790s fell increasingly to much lesser sorts of men, especially the generally selfeducated artisan printers who produced the hundreds of new journals that popped up across the country. “Too many of our Gazettes,” lamented Rev. Samuel Miller, “are in the hands of persons destitute at once of the urbanity of gentlemen, the information of scholars, and the principles of virtue”.

The Alien and Sedition Acts’ strongest supporters feared a kind of social and political subversion, in which worthy officials stood to lose their stations and reputations to upstarts and nobodies who would sling mud and rouse the rabble. “It is a mortifying observation” Judge Alexander Addison wrote in one of many published charges to his grand jury, “that boys, blockheads, and ruffians, are often listened to, in preference to men of integrity, skill, and understanding”.

Even more threatening than the printers were the immigrants. The British government harshly repressed the radical democracy movements that had grown up in England, Scotland, and Ireland in response to the French Revolution. Working-class journalists were among the most influential activists in those movements, and many of them were forced into exile during the mid-1790s to avoid mobs and jail.

Not a few of these transatlantic “Jacobins,” including the Alien and Sedition Acts victims James Thomson Callender, William Duane, and John Daly Burk, ended up in the port cities of the United States, doing the work they knew best, for Democratic Republican newspapers. Duane became editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, the Republicans’ most widely read journal, and thus in many respects the national voice of the party.

Along with the refugee journalists came a politically noticeable number of other immigrants whom the Federalists found suspicious, especially the Irish who became a major presence in the capital city of Philadelphia during the 1790s. In the spring of 1797, Federalists tried to impose a tax on certificates of naturalization, hoping to keep out what Rep.

Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts called the “hordes of wild Irishmen” who might “disturb our tranquility” (Debates and Proceedings in Congress). The Federalists’ prejudice ensured that the Irish and other recent immigrants would become an important voting bloc for their opponents.

Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United Slates, within such time as shall be expressed in such order, which order shall be served on such alien by delivering him a copy thereof, or leaving the same at his usual abode, and returned to the office of the Secretary of State, by the marshal or other person to whom the same shall be directed. And in case any alien, so ordered to depart, shall be found at large within the United States after the time limited in such order for his departure, and not having obtained a license from the President to reside therein, or having obtained such license shall not have conformed thereto, every such alien shall, on conviction thereof, be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, and shall never after be admitted to become a citizen of the United States. Provided always, and be it further enacted, that if any alien so ordered to depart shall prove to the satisfaction of the President, by evidence to be taken before such person or persons as the President shall direct, who are for that purpose hereby authorized to administer oaths, that no injury or danger to the United Slates will arise from suffering such alien to reside therein, the President may grant a license to such alien to remain within the United States for such time as he shall judge proper, and at such place as he may designate. And the President may also require of such alien to enter into a bond to the United States, in such penal sum as he may direct, with one or more sufficient sureties to the satisfaction of the per- son authorized by the President to take the same, conditioned for the good behavior of such alien during his residence in the United States, and not violating his license, which license the President may revoke, whenever he shall think proper .

SECTION 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, whenever he may deem it necessary (for the public safety, to order to be removed out of the territory thereof, any alien who mayor shall be in prison in pursuance of this act and to cause to be arrested and sent out of the United States such of those aliens as shall have been ordered to depart therefrom and shall not have obtained a license as aforesaid, in all cases where, in the opinion of the President, the public safety requires a speedy removal. And if any alien so removed or sent out of the United Slates by the President shall voluntarily return thereto, unless by permission of the President of the United States, such alien on conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require.

SECTION 3. And be it further enacted, That every master or commander of any ship or vessel which shall come into any port of the United States after the first day of July next, shall immediately on his arrival make report in writing to the collector or other chief officer of the customs of such port, of all aliens, if any, on board his vessel, specifying their names, age, the place of nativity, the country from which they shall have come, the nation to which they belong and owe allegiance, their occupation and a description of their persons, as far as he shall be informed thereof, and on failure, every such master and commander shall forfeit and pay three hundred dollars, for the payment whereof on default of such master or commander, such vessel shall also be holden, and may by such collector or other officer of the customs be detained. And it shall be the duty of such collector or other officer of the customs, forthwith to transmit to the office of the department of state true copies of all such returns.

SECTION 4. And be it further enacted, That the circuit and district courts of the United States, shall respectively have cognizance of all crimes and offences against this act. And all marshals and other officers of the United States are required to execute all precepts and orders of the President of the United States issued in pursuance or by virtue of this act.

SECTION 5. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for any alien who may be ordered to be removed from the United States, by virtue of this act, to take with him such part of his goods, chattels, or other property, as he may find convenient and all property left in the United States by any alien, who may be removed, as aforesaid, shall be, and re- main subject to his order and disposal, in the same manner as if this act had not been passed.

SECTION 6. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force for and during the term of two years from the passing thereof.

Jonathan Dayton, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
TH. Jefferson, Vice President of the United States and President of the Sentate.

I Certify that this Act did originate in the Sentate.
Attest, Sam. A. Otis, Secretary

APPROVED, June 25, 1798.
John Adams
President of the United States.

An Act Respecting Alien Enemies

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That whenever there shall be a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion shall be perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States, by any foreign nation or government, and the President of the United States shall make public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies. And the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized, in any event, as aforesaid, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed, on the part of the United States, towards the aliens who shall become liable, as aforesaid the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject, and in what cases, and upon what security their residence shall be permitted, and to provide for the removal of those, who, not being permitted to reside within the United States, shall refuse or neglect to depart therefrom and to establish any other regulations which shall be found necessary in the premises and for the public safety: Provided, that aliens resident within the United States, who shall become liable as enemies, in the manner aforesaid, and who shall not be chargeable with actual hostility, or other crime against the public safety, shall be allowed, for the recovery, disposal, and removal of their goods and effects, and for their departure, the full time which is, or shall be stipulated by any treaty, where any shall have been between the United States, and the hostile nation or government, of which they shall be natives, citizens, denizens or subjects: and where no such treaty shall have existed, the President of the United States may ascertain and declare such reasonable time as may be consistent with the public safety, and according to the dictates of humanity and national hospitality.

SECTION 2. And be it further enacted, That after any proclamation shall be made as aforesaid, it shall be the duty of the several courts of the United States, and of each state, having criminal jurisdiction, and of the several judges and justices of the courts of the United States, and they shall be, and are hereby respectively, authorized upon complaint, against any alien or alien enemies, as aforesaid, who shall be resident and at large within such jurisdiction or district, to the danger of the public peace or safety, and contrary to the tenor or intent of such proclamation, or other regulations which the President of the United States shall and may establish in the premises, to cause such alien or aliens to be duly apprehended and convened before such court, judge or justice and after a full examination and hearing on such complaint. and sufficient cause therefor appearing, shall and may order such alien or aliens to be removed out of the territory of the United States, or to give sureties of their good behaviour, or to be otherwise restrained, conformably to the proclamation or regulations which shall and may be established as aforesaid, and may imprison, or otherwise secure such alien or aliens, until the order which shall and may be made, as aforesaid, shall be performed.

SECTION 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the marshal of the district in which any alien enemy shall be apprehended, who by the President of the United States, or by order of any court, judge or justice, as aforesaid, shall be required to depart, and to be removed, as aforesaid, to provide therefor, and to execute such order, by himself or his deputy, or other discreet person or persons to be employed by him, by causing a removal of such alien out of the territory of the United States and for such removal the marshal shall have the warrant of the President of the United States, or of the court, judge or justice ordering the same, as the case may be.

At the Second Session,
Begun and help at the city of Philadelphia, in the state of Pennsylvania, on Monday, the thirteenth of November, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven.

An Act in Addition to the Act, Entitled “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States.”

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States, or to intimidate or prevent any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States, from undertaking, performing or executing his trust or duty, and if any person or persons, with intent as aforesaid, shall counsel, advise or attempt to procure any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination, whether such conspiracy, threatening, counsel, advice, or attempt shall have the proposed effect or not, he or they shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and on conviction, before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and by imprisonment during a term not less than six months nor exceeding five years and further, at the discretion of the court may be holden to find sureties for his good behaviour in such sum, and for such time, as the said court may direct.

SECTION 2. And be it farther enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

SECTION 3. And be it further enacted and declared, That if any person shall be prosecuted under this act, for the writing or publishing any libel aforesaid, it shall be lawful for the defendant, upon the trial of the cause, to give in evidence in his defence, the truth of the matter contained in publication charged as a libel. And the jury who shall try the cause, shall have a right to determine the law and the fact, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.

SECTION 4. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force until the third day of March, one thousand eight hundred and one, and no longer: Provided, that the expiration of the act shall not prevent or defeat a prosecution and punishment of any offence against the law, during the time it shall be in force.

Jonathan Dayton, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Theodore Sedgwick, President of the Sentate pro tempore.

I Certify that this Act did originate in the Sentate.
Attest, Sam. A. Otis, Secretary

APPROVED, July 14, 1798
John Adams
President of the United States.

Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Congress enacted deportation laws targeting persons deemed political threats to the United States in response to conflicts in Europe.


Discussion Questions

What groups were potentially targeted for deportation under the Alien and Sedition Acts?

How might supporters of these laws have justified their provisions?

What might some of the potential long-term implication be of the law targeting “Alien Enemies”?


In response to fears of war with France, President John Adams and Congress pushed through four laws– known as the Alien and Sedition Acts– that limited the freedom of speech and of the press and represented some of the first federal deportation laws. The Alien and Sedition Acts authorized the detention or deportation of persons seen as posing political threats to the United States and those who emigrated from “hostile” nations and imposed more demanding requirements for naturalization. While the Sedition Act led to the prosecution and conviction of several newspaper owners, the deportation laws were generally not actively enforced at the time. The Adams administration also faced widespread criticism for these harsh laws. Nevertheless, the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, which authorized the President to detain, relocate, or deport immigrants from hostile countries in a time of war, is still in force in modified form.


An Act Concerning Aliens.

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States . . . And in case any alien, so ordered to depart, shall be found at large within the United States after the time limited in such order for his departure, and not having obtained a license from the President to reside therein, or having obtained such license shall not have conformed thereto, every such alien shall, on conviction thereof, be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, and shall never after be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.

An Act Respecting Alien Enemies

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That whenever there shall be a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion shall be perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States, by any foreign nation or government, and the President of the United States shall make public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies.

Alien and Sedition Acts

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Alien and Sedition Acts, (1798), four internal security laws passed by the U.S. Congress, restricting aliens and curtailing the excesses of an unrestrained press, in anticipation of an expected war with France.

After the XYZ Affair (1797), war with France had appeared inevitable. Federalists, aware that French military successes in Europe had been greatly facilitated by political dissidents in invaded countries, sought to prevent such subversion in the United States and adopted the Alien and Sedition Acts as part of a series of military preparedness measures.

The three alien laws, passed in June and July, were aimed at French and Irish immigrants, who were mostly pro-French. These laws raised the waiting period for naturalization from 5 to 14 years, permitted the detention of subjects of an enemy nation, and authorized the chief executive to expel any alien he considered dangerous. The Sedition Act (July 14) banned the publishing of false or malicious writings against the government and the inciting of opposition to any act of Congress or the president—practices already forbidden in some cases by state libel statutes and the common law but not by federal law. The federal act reduced the oppressiveness of procedures in prosecuting such offenses but provided for federal enforcement.

The acts were mild compared with later wartime security measures in the United States, and they were not unpopular in some places. Jeffersonian Republicans vigorously opposed them, however, as drastic curtailments of liberty in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which the other state legislatures either ignored or denounced as subversive. No aliens were deported, but there were 25 prosecutions, resulting in 10 convictions, under the Sedition Act. With the war threat passing and the Republicans winning control of the federal government in 1800, all the Alien and Sedition Acts expired or were repealed during the next two years, except for the Alien Enemies Act, which remained in effect and was amended in 1918 to include women.

Ray City History Blog

In 1834, William A. Knight, Levi J. Knight, Hamilton W. Sharpe, John Blackshear, John McLean, John E. Tucker, William Smith led the effort to form a State Rights Association at Franklinville, GA, then seat of Lowndes County. Lowndes, at that time included most of present day Berrien County, and the community settled by Wiregrass pioneer Levi J. Knight which would become known as Ray City, GA. The following year, the citizens of Lowndes again met to toast States Rights at Franklinville on Independence Day(1835) In 1836, they would designate their new county seat as Troupville, in honor of “the great apostle of state rights,” George M. Troup.

The State Rights Party of Georgia had been launched in 1833 by prominent leaders of the Troup party, including John M. Berrien, George R. Gilmer, William H. Crawford, William C. Dawson, and Augustin S. Clayton. The State Rights activists were committed to the notion that individual states could exercise nullification of federal laws which they found objectionable, although this doctrine was condemned by the Legislature of Georgia and other state governments. Furthermore, according to the State Rights supporters, individual states where bound by the Constitution only to the extent that they found agreeable states could secede from the Union at will. These ideas emerged in response the Alien and Sedition Acts – a sort of 17th century version of the Homeland Security Act – which the Federalists enacted as war with France loomed on the horizon.

According to the Library of Congress:

Signed into law by President John Adams in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress as America prepared for war with France. These acts increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and restricted speech critical of the government. These laws were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party. Negative reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped contribute to the Democratic-Republican victory in the 1800 elections. Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802, while the other acts were allowed to expire.”

The infringements of the Alien and Sedition Acts had prompted Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to secretly author the Kentucky (1798) and Virginia (1799) Resolutions which first proposed the argument that state legislatures had the right to nullify Federal statutes. In these resolutions lay the seeds of disunion which culminated in the Civil War.

The 1834 convening of the State Rights activists in Lowndes County was full of rhetoric over the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, South Carolina’s attempts at nullification, Andrew Jackson’s Nullification Proclamation which disputed a states’ right to nullify federal law, and the subsequent Force Act, which authorized the use of military force against any state that resisted federal law.

Georgia Journal
September 3, 1834 — page 3

According to previous arrangement, the citizens of Lowndes county friendly to State Rights met in Franklinville on the 4th of July, for the purpose of forming a State Rights Association – when, on motion, Wm Smith was called to the Chair, and John McLean appointed Secretary. The object of the meeting was then explained by Hamilton W. Sharpe, Esq. A committee of five persons, to wit: H. W. Sharpe, John Blackshear, John McLean, John E. Tucker, and Levi J. Knight, was appointed to draft a preamble expressive of the political sentiments of the meeting, and a constitution for the government of the association.

The meeting then adjourned until Friday the 1st day of August.

WM SMITH, Chairman

John McLean, Secr’y

THE STATE RIGHTS PARTY OF LOWNDES COUNTY, met pursuant to adjournment, on the first day of August, when Wm A. Knight was appointed President, Matthew Albritton and John J. Underwood Vice President, and William Smith recording Secretary and Treasurer. A committee of three persons was appointed to wait on the President, notify him of his appointment, and conduct him to the chair, after which he addressed the meeting at considerable length.

The preamble and Constitution being called for, H. W. Sharpe, from the Committee, reported the following, which was unanimously adopted.

Your Committee, to whom was confided the trust of preparing a Preamble and Constitution to be submitted to this meeting, for the formation of a State Rights association in the county of Lowndes, beg leave to submit the following:

This meeting, which is called in conformity to the request of the State Rights meeting which was formed in Milledgeville on the 13th Nov. last, is deemed by your committee to be of the utmost importance, in producing unanimity of action in suppor of these great conservative principles of State Rights hitherto of such great importance in prostrating the approaching spirit of consolidation. The triumph of those principles so much to be desired, calls loudly for the formation of local and county associations, as the best means of disseminating those great political truths maintained by the illustrious Jefferson, affirmed by the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, and sanctioned by the purest patriots of our country. The state of political parties in Georgia, and throughout the Union, calls loudly for this concert of action to preserve all that is dear to freemen.

There seems to be a spirit abroad in the land, which is likely to fatal to constitutional liberty, and subversive of the Republican doctrines of 󈨦 and 󈨧 and in their place is sought to be established antagonist doctrines, calculated to change our political institutions, & destroy our civil rights. If these doctrines should prevail, then farewell to freedom and State Sovereignty. Then will the altar of our political faith be destroyed, and its glories extinguished.

Our opponents, to wit, the self-styled Union party of Georgia, would dissemblingly profess to accord with the views of the illustrious Jefferson, and hypocritically pretend to adopt, as the rule of their faith, the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 󈨦 and 󈨧. They must have forgotten that those far-famed resolutions declare: “That there being no common judge, each party has a right to judge for itself, as well as of infractions as the mode and measure of redress.” Now this is the doctrine which we profess to believe this then would have been the State Rights doctrine of the Union party, if they had gone no farther but in a subsequent Resolution, they declare that in case Congress should pass an unconstitutional law, no State has a right to judge any thing about it. How this last sentiment can be made to agree with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, we leave our opponents to determine.

It is plainly deducible from the whole tenor of their proceedings, that the ultra-Federal doctrines of the Proclamation of the fatal 10th Dec. 1832, are approved and cherished. The tyrannical and despotic provisions of the Force Bill are sanctioned, its authors and supporters applauded, and the sovereignty of their own State denied. Then if these doctrines should eventually prove successful, it must result in the final overthrow of constitutional liberty, and the establishment of a consolidated despotism on the ruins of State Sovereignty.

While our opponents are thus actively and zealously engaged in disseminating and circulating these dangerous doctrines, they spare no pains in casting odium and reproach on those of us who are friends to State Rights and State Sovereignty. The terms “rebel, ”disunionist, ”traitor’ and other opprobrious epithets, are frequently applied to those who would exert their influence to arrest the Federal Government in its march towards absolute power and despotism. We, as a portion of the State Rights party of Georgia, would cast back these epithets, and say, let posterity judge who are the friends of the Union and liberty, when the transactions of the present day shall become matters of history.

We will now give our opinion of some of the leading political subjects, which seem to be the divisional line between the two parties now in Georgia.

We believe the doctrines of the Proclamation of the 10th Dec. 1832 to be radically wrong, and will have a tendency to destroy the original principles of our government, for it re-asserts the doctrines of the Federalist of former days “That the States of this Confederacy never had a separate existence that a State has no right to decide upon the constitutionality of any act of Congress, nor to arrest its progress in its own limits.

It denies the right of secession, even under the most oppressive laws, maintaining that the states have not retained their entire sovereignty, and that the allegiance of our citizens is due to the United States in the first instance, and threatening the employment of the sword and bayonet to coerce a State into submission.

The passage of the Act called the Force Bill to be a high-handed measure, unauthorized by the Constitution. The President, overlooking his former principles, demands of a submissive Congress, their sanction of these extraordinary powers and doctrines, and the means of carrying them into effect.

On no former occasion has the hand of power been exerted over the Constitution of a free country with more daring assumption.

In has, under the pretence of collecting the Revenue, at one fell swoop abolished the State governments, conferred upon the President unlimited powers, and placed at his disposal the Army, Navy, and Militia of the United States, not only to be used at his own caprice, but also authorizes him to confer this power on a deputy Marshall, or whoever he may think proper. It also give him the power to make a Custom house on a ship of war, and place it at the entrance of any harbor he amy think proper, there to exact at the mouth of a cannon, in the name of duites, the honest earnings of the laboring man, and bestow the money as a bounty upon the lordly manufacturer. The provisions of this act are a disgrace to our Statute Book, and a monumnet of the servile spirit of the 22d Congress, and should be torn from our public archives and consigned to the flames that consumed the records of the Yazoo speculation.

Your Committee, however, can but hope, that there is yet a redeeming spirit among the people of this Government, to check the rapid strides of absolute power which is threatening our institutions with a change from a Republic to a Despotism.

In order that the doctrine of State Rights and State Remedies may be promoted, we, its friends and advocates of the county of Lowndes, think it the utmost importance to organize an Association to act in concert with the Central Committee and all Associations of a similar kind.

Therefore, be it resolved, That it is expedient to form a State Rights Association based upon the doctrines of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 󈨦 and 󈨧, as put foth and contended for by Mr. Jefferson adn other republicans of that day.

In compliance with the duty imposed on your Committee, they would respectfully submit the following


Art. 1. This Association shall be known as the State Rights Association of the county of Lowndes, and have for its object the dissemination of sound political doctrine, based upon the Republican doctrine of 󈨦 and 󈨧, as put forthe by Mr. Jefferson and other patriots.

Art. 2. The offices of this Association shall be a President, two Vice Presidents, and a Secretary, who shall also act as Treasurer.

Art. 3. The President shall perform the duties which appertain to such an office in all Associations of a similar kind, and shall call meetings of the Association and appoint Committees and in his absence, one of the Vice Presidents shall preside.

Art. 4. The Secretary shall keep a correct account of the proceedings of the Association.

Art. 5. Any person may become a member of this Association by signing the Constitution.

Art. 6. This Constitution may be altered or amended by two thirds of the Association, at any annual meeting.

Art. 7. The officers of this Association shall be elected on the 4th of July in each and every year, unless it fall on the sabbath, the the Saturday preceding.

On motion of H. W. Sharpe, Esq. it was

Resolved, That the State Rights papers in Milledgeville be respectfully requested to publish the preceedings of this meeting.

Resolved, That the Editors of the Southern Recorder be directed to print one hundred copies of the Preamble and Constitution adopted by this Association for distributing among the people of this county, and forward their account for payment to the Recording Secretary.

The Association adjourned to meet at Franklinville, on Friday before the first Monday in October next.



From Georgia Journal, Sep. 3, 1834 — page 3

Georgia Journal, Sep. 3, 1834 — page 3

1834 William A. Knight elected president of Lowndes County State Rights Association at Franklinville, GA. Members include Levi J. Knight, Hamilton Sharpe, William Smith, Matthew Albritton, John J. Underwood, John McLean, John E. Tucker, John Blackshear

1834 William A. Knight elected president of Lowndes County State Rights Association at Franklinville, GA. Members include Levi J. Knight, Hamilton Sharpe, William Smith, Matthew Albritton, John J. Underwood, John McLean, John E. Tucker, John Blackshear

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Interview with Terri Halperin

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were four laws that were passed by the predominantly Federalist Congress and signed by John Adams to strengthen the national security of the United States. These acts not only restricted the ability of an immigrant to become a citizen, but made it easier to deport non-citizens who were either deemed dangerous or were citizens of hostile countries. Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the new laws criminalized the printing or speaking allegedly false statements about the federal government. Not surprisingly, these laws were incredibly controversial and strongly opposed by Thomas Jefferson's opposition Democratic-Republican party.

Terri Halperin's new book The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 published by Johns Hopkins University Press lays bear the deep divisions in the United States that potentially threatened the survival of the young nation. She examines the passage and strident debate that around these laws along with their problematic an uneven enforcement. Her book is excellent introduction to both the immigration laws of the new country and its interpretation of freedom of speech.

Terri Halperin is a member of the University of Richmond History Department and an adjunct professor of the James Madison Memorial Foundation Summer Institute. She is an United States historian and her focus is on the Early Republic.

Here is our interview with Terri Halperin.

How did you become interested in the Early Republic?

After college, I worked as a legislative aide for a congressman. Part of my job was to help him with his whip duties by taking an initial poll of members. Having this small role in the leadership made me think about how Congress worked at its beginnings. My dissertation was a history of the United States Senate from 1789 to 1821.

Why did you want to write about the Alien and Sedition acts?

I have been teaching a class exploring the issues of debate and dissent in America from Colonial times through the Civil War for several years. The Alien and Sedition Acts are a major focus. I have been thinking about these issues for a while and was excited by the opportunity to write about them.

The XYZ Affair was the trigger for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Why had the relationship between the French government and the United States soured? What was the XYZ affair?

The Franco-American relationship soured in 1795 when the United States signed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. France believed that the Jay Treaty violated its own treaties with America signed in 1778 during the American Revolution. In the summer of 1796, the French government issued a secret decree authorizing the capture of neutral ships. These actions set off the Quasi-War between the United States and France. President Adams sent envoys to France to try to resolve the conflict. The French demanded bribes and other payments before they would negotiate with the Americans. The Americans refused and in their dispatches back to the American government, they identified the representatives of the French government as X, Y, and Z. Thus the incident was called the XYZ Affair. After the diplomatic mission failed, the Federalist-controlled government moved to shore up the country’s defenses. Federalists saw the Alien and Sedition Acts as defense measures.

Did the outbreak of violence and protests after the XYZ affair threaten the survival of the republic? How serious a threat did they truly represent?

It depends on your perspective. Federalists certainly believed that the republic was under threat, both from citizens and foreigners who were bringing radical ideas from Europe to the United States. Democratic-Republicans did not believe the same level of danger existed. They saw the danger coming from the Federalists who controlled the government and threatened people’s rights. It is hard from our perspective to gauge how serious the threat really was considering we know how it turned it out and that the republic survived the 1790s. I do think that we have to take the Federalists concerns as sincere to understand why they acted as they did and not simply dismiss them as paranoid.

I remember I was stunned when I first learned that John Adams had advocated the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. How did Adams justify the passage of the laws? Did he understand that they undermined the principles set down in the Bill of Rights?

I think that Adams’s role and his views are more ambiguous. For passage of the laws, I focused on the debate in the House of Representatives. For me the more interesting story involved arguments for and against the bills and how the bills evolved during the debate. As was typical of that time, Adams did not involve himself in congressional debates. While Adams supported the laws when passed, his enthusiasm waned when it came to enforcement. By the end of his presidency, he was at odds with many members of his party who remained staunch believers in the laws.

The interpretation of the First Amendment has changed over time. Was there more than one interpretation of the freedom of speech at the time? How did Americans react to the Alien and Sedition acts?

When the Bill of Rights was ratified, I do not think anyone really knew what its scope or impact would be. The Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government and not to the states. Many states had sedition laws, even states whose declarations of rights protected speech and the press. There was no consensus about what freedom of speech meant. That was part of what was debated in 1789-1800 and after. Although all agreed the government could not control speech before the fact (for example, require printers to get a license), they did not agree what could happen after the fact. Federalists argued that printers and others should be held responsible for what they said or wrote and could be prosecuted. For many, the constant agitation against their policies undermined the legitimacy of the whole government and thus threatened to destabilize the United States. They did not believe that the Sedition Act violated the First Amendment. Democratic-Republicans embraced a more modern definition of the First Amendment.

Americans reacted in different ways to the laws. Certainly, many backed the laws others exercised caution about what they said and wrote. Some people resorted to violence against printers in support of the Federalist government and the Sedition law others used violence to oppose the laws. Some Americans wrote newspaper pieces and pamphlets, organized and attended public meetings, and wrote and signed petitions. Many people were actively involved in the debate about whether the Sedition Act in particular was a good law.

Who was prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition acts? Were these trials seen as legitimate?

Between 1797 and 1801, there were 17 indictments for seditious speech by the federal government: 14 under the Sedition Act and 3 under common law, which had been initiated before the Sedition law was passed. Twelve of the people indicted for sedition were printers or somehow connected to that business. Adams’s administration specifically targeted the major Democratic-Republican newspapers and successfully brought indictments against four of the five of them. Most of the trials occurred in the spring or even fall of 1800, in the midst of the presidential campaign, which certainly added to the tensions and the drama. Even though the outcomes of the trials were pretty much foregone conclusions, the proceedings were legitimate and accepted in the legal arena even if not in the political. I think you have to recognize that the Judiciary cannot be completely separate from the political and that judges play a political role. This certainly was the case in these sedition trials.

What surprised you the most when you were researching this project?

I was surprised by how much the debates of 1798-1800 resonated today, especially with regard to immigrants and the role of the press. Just as politicians today grumble about misrepresentations of their views and events in the press, congressmen and others made the same complaints in the 1798. Although there was no such thing as illegal immigration during the 18th century, Federalists urged that naturalization rules be tightened to discourage immigration. They believed the recent immigrants would politically destabilize the country. On the other hand, Democratic-Republicans believed that immigrants' knowledge and skills would contribute to America’s prosperity and wanted more liberal policies. The late 17900s debate had similar fault lines as today.

Did the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the outcry change the understanding of the Bill of Rights? Did this incident strengthen the First Amendment?

The legacy of the Alien and Sedition Acts is ambiguous. The Federalists’ defeat in the Election of 1800 in many ways was the beginning of the end of the Federalists as a national party. However, the debate did not stop states from enacting sedition laws or prosecuting people for sedition. The federal government passed sedition laws and anti-immigrant laws during World Wars I and II. In fact, the Alien Enemies Act, which passed in 1798 and never expired, was used during War World II to force Germans, Italians, and Japanese to register with the federal government. The Alien and Sedition Acts controversy was the first time there was a national debate about these issues. These issues would be debated many more times –some are still being debated today.

How would you recommend using your book for a US history class?

While its focus is on the period of 1798 to 1800, I do discuss most of the 1790s. So, a teacher could use it in an American History survey class or a class on the Early American Republic. It could also be used in a legal or constitutional history class.

Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts

On July 4, 1798, the citizens of the capital city of Philadelphia turned out in large numbers to celebrate the nation’s independence day. While militia companies marched through the streets, church bells rang, and artillery units fired salutes, members of the United States Senate were trying to conduct a debate on a critical bill. One senator noted ‘the military parade so attracted the attention of the majority that much the greater part of them stood with their bodies out of the windows and could not be kept to order.’ Once they resumed their deliberations, however, the Federalist majority succeeded in gaining passage of an implausible bill, one quickly approved by the House of Representatives and signed on July 14 by President John Adams.

Ironically, as senators celebrated the freedom they had won from Britain, they approved a sedition bill that made it illegal to publish or utter any statements about the government that were ‘false, scandalous and malicious’ with the ‘intent to defame’ or to bring Congress or the president into ‘contempt or disrepute.’ This bill, seemingly a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment free speech protections, had a chilling effect on members of the Republican Party and its leader, Thomas Jefferson, who admitted that he feared ‘to write what I think.’

Support for this restrictive legislation had grown out of Federalist belief that the young nation was facing its gravest crisis yet, in the possibility of war with France and the spread of anti-immigrant feeling. The new law violated the beliefs of many Republicans, who regarded Federalists as reactionary defenders of privilege intent on bringing back the monarchy. Federalists saw their Republican opposites as irresponsible radicals eager to incite a social revolution as democratic as the one that had torn through France.

Nothing divided Federalist from Republican more than their response to the French Revolution. Republicans applauded the revolutionaries’ destruction of aristocratic privileges, the overthrow of the monarchy, and the implementation of constitutional government. Yet, Federalists saw the same dramatic changes as the degeneration of legitimate government into mob rule, particularly during the bloody ‘Reign of Terror’ when ‘counterrevolutionaries’ lost their lives on the guillotine.

Federalist fears deepened as they watched the new French republican government encourage wars of liberation and conquest in Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, and the Italian peninsula. Rumors were rampant in 1798 about a possible French invasion of America, one that allegedly would be supported by American traitors and a population of French émigrés that had grown to more than 20,000.

The nation’s rapidly growing immigrant population deeply troubled Federalists. One Pennsylvania newspaper argued that ‘none but the most vile and worthless’ were inundating the country. William Shaw, the president’s nephew, arguing that ‘all our present difficulties may be traced’ to the ‘hordes of Foreigners’ in the land, contended America should ‘no longer’ be ‘an asylum to all nations.’ Federalists worried about the 60,000 Irish immigrants in the new nation, some of whom had been exiled for plotting against British rule. These malcontents, they argued, along with French immigrants, and a sprinkling of British radicals like the liberal theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, presented a grave challenge to the nation. The Federalists feared that the extremist ideas of the dissenters would corrupt and mobilize the destitute.

The British government, even more terrified than the Americans that ideas from the radical French regime might spread, had been at war with France for five years, trying to contain it. Both nations had seized neutral American ships headed to their enemy’s ports. President Adams initiated a two-pronged plan to stop the French from seizing any further ships. He sent three emissaries to negotiate with the French government, and he worked to push bills through Congress to increase the size of the navy and army. Federalist revulsion at anything associated with France reached a peak in spring 1798 when word arrived in Philadelphia that three French agents, identified only as X, Y, and Z, had demanded a bribe from the American diplomats before they would begin negotiations.

Insulted by the French government, convinced that war was inevitable, and anxious over a ‘dangerous’ alien population in their midst, Federalists in Philadelphia were ready to believe any rumor. They saw no reason to doubt the warning in a letter found outside the president’s residence in late April. It supposedly contained information about a plot by a group of Frenchmen ‘to sit [sic] fire to the City in various parts, and to Massacre the inhabitants.’ Hundreds of militiamen patrolled the city streets as a precaution, and a special guard was assigned to the president’s home. John Adams ordered ‘chests of arms from the war-office,’ as he was ‘determined to defend my house at the expense of my life.’

In such a crisis atmosphere, Federalists took action to prevent domestic subversion. They supported four laws passed in June and July 1798 to control the threats they believed foreigners posed to the security of the nation and to punish the opposition party for its seditious libel.

Two of these laws represented the Federalist effort to address perceived threats from the nation’s immigrant groups. The Alien Enemies Act permitted the deportation of aliens who hailed from a nation with which the United States was at war, while the Alien Friends Act empowered the president, during peacetime, to deport any alien whom he considered dangerous.

Although some historians acknowledge that there were legitimate national security concerns involved in the passage of the two alien acts, others conclude that the two additional pieces of legislation were blatant efforts to destroy the Republican Party, which had gained many immigrant supporters.

The Naturalization Act extended the residency requirement for citizenship from five to 14 years. For a few politicians, such as Congressmen Robert Goodloe Harper and Harrison Gray Otis, even this act was insufficient. They believed that citizenship should be limited to those born in the United States.

Apart from its limitations on speech, the Sedition Act, the last of the four laws, made it illegal to ‘unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government.’ While the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established that Congress couldn’t pass laws ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,’ there had been little discussion about the amendment’s precise meaning since its adoption seven years earlier.

In 1798 many Federalists drew upon Commentaries on the Laws of England written by Sir William Blackstone–the man considered by the framers of the Constitution to be the oracle of the common law–for their definition of liberty of the press. Blackstone wrote, ‘liberty of the press . . . consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications.’ However, if a person ‘publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity.’ In other words, if a person spoke or wrote remarks that could be construed as seditious libel, they weren’t entitled to free speech protection.

According to the Federalists, if seditious libel meant any effort to malign or weaken the government, then the Republican press was repeatedly guilty. Republican papers, claimed the Federalists, such as the Philadelphia Aurora, the New York Argus, the Richmond Examiner, and Boston’s Independent Chronicle printed the most scurrilous statements, lies, and misrepresentations about President Adams and the Federalist Party.

The president’s wife, Abigail, complained bitterly about journalistic ‘abuse, deception and falsehood.’ Particularly galling to her were the characterizations of her husband in editor Benjamin Bache’s Aurora. In April 1798 Bache called the president ‘old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams.’ Bache, she argued, was a ‘lying wretch’ given to the ‘most insolent and abusive’ language. He wrote with the ‘malice’ of Satan. The First Lady repeatedly demanded that something be done to stop this ‘wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse’ being ‘leveled against the Government.’ She argued that if journalists like Bache weren’t stopped, the nation would be plunged into a ‘civil war.’

At the same time, Federalists were hardly models of decorum when describing Republicans. Their opponents were, one Federalist wrote, ‘democrats, mobocrats and all other kinds of rats.’ Federalist Noah Webster characterized Republicans as ‘the refuse, the sweepings of the most depraved part of mankind from the most corrupt nations on earth.’

Although President Adams neither framed the Sedition Act nor encouraged its introduction, he certainly supported it. He issued many public statements about the evils of the opposition press. Adams believed that journalists who deliberately distorted the news to mislead the people could cause great harm to a representative democracy.

Letters and remarks of John and Abigail Adams made passage of a sedition bill easier, but the task of pushing it through Congress fell to Senator James Lloyd of Maryland and Congressmen Robert Goodloe Harper and Harrison Gray Otis. Although it passed by a wide margin in the Senate, the bill barely gained approval in the House of Representatives, where the vote was 44 to 41. To win even that small majority, Harper and Otis had to change the original bill in significant ways. Prosecutors would have to prove malicious intent, and truth would be permitted as a defense. Juries, not judges, would determine whether a statement was libelous. To underscore its political purpose, the act was to expire on March 3, 1801, the last day of President Adams’ term of office.

Prosecutions began quickly. On June 26, even before the Sedition Act was passed, Supreme Court Justice Richard Peters issued a warrant for the arrest of Benjamin Bache. Bache, the most powerful of all the Republican newspaper editors, was charged with ‘libeling the President and the Executive Government in a manner tending to excite sedition and opposition to the laws.’ Less than two weeks later, federal marshals arrested John Daly Burk, editor of the New York newspaper Time Piece, for making’seditious and libelous’ statements against the president. Neither faced trial, however. Bache died in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of September 1798, and Burk, who wasn’t a citizen, agreed to deportation if charges were dropped. He then fled to Virginia to live under an assumed name.

During the next two years 17 people were indicted under the Sedition Act, and 10 were convicted. Most were journalists. Included among them were William Duane, who had succeeded Benjamin Bache as editor of the Aurora Thomas Cooper, a British radical who edited a small Pennsylvania newspaper Charles Holt, editor of a New London, Connecticut, newspaper and James Callender, who had worked on the Aurora before moving to Virginia’s Richmond Examiner. Like Benjamin Bache, Callender delighted in condemning the president.

The Federalists didn’t target only journalists. They went after other individuals, including David Brown of Dedham, Massachusetts, who spouted anti-government rhetoric wherever a crowd gathered. Brown was arrested in April 1799, charged with ‘uttering seditious pieces’ and helping to erect a liberty pole with a placard that read ‘A Speedy Retirement to the President. No Sedition bill, No Alien bill, Downfall to the Tyrants of America.’

Incredibly, even an inebriated Republican, Luther Baldwin of Newark, New Jersey, became a victim. Following the adjournment of Congress in July 1798, President Adams and his wife were traveling through Newark on their way to their home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Residents lined the streets as church bells rang, and ceremonial cannon fire greeted the party. As the procession made its way past a local tavern owned by John Burnet, one of the patrons remarked, ‘There goes the President and they are firing at his a__.’ According to the Newark Centinel of Freedom, Baldwin added that, ‘he did not care if they fired thro’ his a__.’ Burnet overheard the exchange and exclaimed, ‘That is seditious.’ Baldwin was arrested and later convicted of speaking’seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States.’ He was fined $150, assessed court costs and expenses, and sent to jail until he paid the fine and fees.

The most outrageous case, however, involved Congressman Matthew Lyon, a Republican from Vermont. This fiery Irishman was one of the sharpest critics of President Adams and the Federalists. He had even engaged in a brawl on the House floor with Federalist Roger Griswold. Convinced that the Federalists intended to use the Sedition Act to silence their congressional opposition, Lyon confided to a colleague that it ‘most probably would be brought to bear upon himself first victim of all.’

While not the initial victim, Lyon quickly felt the wrath of the majority party. In the summer of 1798, he wrote an article criticizing President Adams’ ‘continual grasp for power’ and his ‘unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.’ During his fall re-election campaign, Lyon also quoted from a letter that suggested Congress should dispatch the president to a ‘mad house’ for his handling of the French crisis. In October, a federal grand jury indicted Lyon for stirring up sedition and bringing ‘the President and government of the United States into contempt.’

United States Supreme Court justices, sitting as circuit court judges, presided in the sedition trials. These judges, all Federalists, rejected the efforts of defendants and their counsel to challenge the law’s constitutionality. Samuel Chase, who sat in three of the cases, clearly was on a mission. ‘There is nothing we should more dread,’ he argued, ‘than the licentiousness of the press.’

Chase and the other judges handed down tough sentences. While none imposed the statute’s maximum penalties of a $2,000 fine or a jail sentence of two years, they often sent the guilty to jail. Most of the convicted endured three- or four-month sentences. James Callender, however, served nine months, and David Brown twice as long. The average fines were about $300, although Luther Baldwin’s fine was $150 and Matthew Lyon’s was $1,000.

As the trials progressed, two Republican Party leaders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, tried to overturn the Sedition Act. Concluding that the Bill of Rights couldn’t prevent abuses of power by the federal government, the two men collaborated on a set of protest resolutions asserting that the government was a compact created by the states and that citizens, speaking through their state legislatures, had the right to judge the constitutionality of actions taken by the government. In this instance, they called upon the states to join them in declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts to be ‘void, and of no force.’

While only Kentucky and Virginia endorsed the resolutions, the efforts of Jefferson and Madison encouraged Republicans to make the Alien and Sedition Acts major issues in the campaign of 1800. Voter anger over these bills, along with higher taxes and the escalating federal debt resulting from increased defense spending, gave Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives. The Federalists lost almost 40 seats, leaving the new Congress with 66 Republicans and only 40 Federalists.

There were other unexpected results from the passage of the Sedition Act. Clearly, Federalists had hoped to stifle the influence of the fewer than 20 Republican newspapers published in 1798. Some, like John Daly Burk’s Time Piece, did cease publication others suspended operation while their editors were in jail. However, circulation increased for the majority of the periodicals. Most discouraging to the Federalists, particularly as the campaigns for the 1800 election got under way, was the fact that more than 30 new Republican newspapers began operation following passage of the Sedition Act.

Not even prison stopped Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon. The most visible target of the Federalists, Lyon conducted his re-election campaign from his jail cell in Vergennes, Vermont. Considered a martyr by his supporters, Lyon regularly contributed to this image through letters and newspaper articles. ‘It is quite a new kind of jargon to call a Representative of the People an Opposer of the Government because he does not, as a legislator, advocate and acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the Executive,’ he wrote. In a December run-off election, Lyon won easily.

By 1802, in the wake of the Federalist election defeat, the Alien Friends Act, the Sedition Act, and the Naturalization Act had expired or been repealed. The Alien Enemies Act remained in effect, but no one had been prosecuted under its provisions because the United States hadn’t declared war on France, a necessary condition for the law’s implementation. After winning the presidency in the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson pardoned all those convicted of violating the Sedition Act who remained in prison.

By virtually every measure, the Federalist effort to impose a one-party press and a one-party government on the fledgling nation had failed. Ironically, the Sedition Act prompted the opposition to expand its view of free speech and freedom of the press. In a series of essays, tracts, and books, Republicans began to argue that the First Amendment protected citizens from any federal restraint on the press or speech. Notable among them was a pamphlet entitled An Essay on the Liberty of the Press, published in 1799 by George Hay, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Hay argued ‘that if the words freedom of the press have any meaning at all they mean a total exemption from any law making any publication whatever criminal.’ In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson echoed Hay’s sentiments, stressing the necessity of preserving the right of citizens ‘to think freely and to speak and to write what they think.’

For most, the arguments of Hay and Jefferson have prevailed, although even the Republicans were willing to acknowledge that states could and should impose speech restrictions under certain conditions. Moreover, there have been occasions, most notably during World War I, when the federal government declared that free expression was secondary to military necessity. In an effort to suppress dissent and anti-war activity in 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, a law that made it a felony to try to cause insubordination in the armed forces or to convey false statements with intent to interfere with military operations. It was followed by the Sedition Act of 1918, which banned treasonable or seditious material from the mail. Under this provision the mailing of many publications, including the New York Times as well as radical and dissident newspapers, was temporarily halted.

In the 200 years since the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, each generation of Americans has struggled to determine the limits of free speech and freedom of the press. In large part, it has been a dilemma of reconciling freedom and security with liberty and order. For the Federalist Party in 1798, however, the answer was simple order and security had to prevail.

This article was written by Larry Gragg and originally published in the October 1998 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

Alien and Sedition Acts

In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a series of laws which, on the surface, were designed to control the activities of foreigners in the United States during a time of impending war. Beneath the surface, however, the real intent of these laws was to destroy Jeffersonian Republicanism. The laws, known collectively as the "Alien and Sedition Acts," included:

  • The Naturalization Act, which extended the residency period from 5 to 14 years for those aliens seeking citizenship this law was aimed at Irish and French immigrants who were often active in Republican politics
  • The Alien Act, which allowed the expulsion of aliens deemed dangerous during peacetime
  • The Alien Enemies Act, which allowed the expulsion or imprisonment of aliens deemed dangerous during wartime. This was never enforced, but it did prompt numerous Frenchmen to return home
  • The Sedition Act, which provided for fines or imprisonment for individuals who criticized the government, Congress, or president in speech or print .

Watch the video: Adams and the Alien and Sedition Act. AF-419