Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (Major Acts of Congress)
In the summer of 1798 the young United States was on the brink of war with France, one of the mightiest powers in the world. Some worried America faced not only a powerful enemy abroad, but also a threatening undercurrent of opposition at home. Hoping to strengthen the nation during war, and at the same time crush their political rivals, the Federalist party in power passed a series of four laws collectively termed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist, believed as a result of the new laws "there will shortly be national unanimity."
Hamilton, like most other Americans in the eighteenth century, maintained that political factions or parties threatened the stability of the new nation. Yet hardly had the first Congress convened before proto-parties began to form. An array of congressmen known as Republicans joined Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in opposing Hamilton's economic plans. Newly founded political newspapers helped congressmen and party leaders attract the support of ordinary voters. Newspaper editors in the 1790s actively aligned themselves with national figures and parties, while launching fierce attacks against political rivals.
By the middle of the 1790s foreign policy disagreements highlighted the distinction between the proto-parties. As France and England battled for European supremacy against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the American parties sought opposite alliances with the European rivals. In 1794 Federalist concerns about the anarchy of the French Revolution led President George Washington to dispatch John Jay to negotiate a treaty linking American commercial and diplomatic interests with England. Republicans, who saw France as America's natural ally because of the republican values of the Revolution, harshly criticized the Jay Treaty. By 1796 the wartime naval practices of impressment and privateering led the United States into a "Quasi War" naval and diplomatic crisis, with France. Hoping to avoid war, President John Adams sent representatives to negotiate a peace settlement with the French. The French demanded a bribe to avoid war, outraging Americans in what became known as the "X,Y,Z Affair."
Seeking to capitalize on the anti-French and anti-Republican sentiment arising from the X,Y,Z Affair and the Quasi War, Federalists in Congress proposed the four Alien and Sedition Acts in June and July of 1798. Three dealt with aliensmmigrants who had yet to become naturalized American citizens. Federalists knew these European immigrants overwhelmingly voted Republican, and took advantage of public fears that they might aid France during a war. The "Act Concerning Aliens" and the "Alien Enemies Act" established a registration and surveillance system for foreign nationals living in the United States. The laws allowed the president (at the time, Adams, a Federalist) to arrest and deport aliens who might endanger the nation's security. President Adams, however, never used the Alien Acts. The "Naturalization Act" increased the period of residence required to become a naturalized citizen and to vote, from five to fourteen years.
The Sedition Act awakened even more controversy because it stifled the possibility of opposition politics. The act prohibited "any false, scandalous and malicious" writing or speaking against the U.S. government, the president, or either house of Congress. The language of the act specifically cited those who brought the government "into contempt or disrepute," anyone who might "excite ... the hatred of the good people of the United States," stir up "sedition," or "excite any unlawful combinations ... for opposing or resisting any law of the United States." Further, the act applied to anyone who might "aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation." Violators of the Sedition Act were to be tried in federal court and could be punished by fines of up to $2,000 and imprisonment for up to two years.
Even before 1798, Federalists had prosecuted Republican editors in state courts under the common law of seditious libel. State judges and juries, however, leaned Republican, while the federal judiciary was overwhelmingly Federalist. Under a fiercely partisan application of the Sedition Act, Federalist judges indicted fourteen Republican editors, with ten convicted and imprisoned. The United States had only about fifty Republican-leaning newspapers at the time, so this constituted a substantial portion of the Republican press. Major Republican journalists placed on trial for sedition included John Burk, James Callender, Thomas Cooper, and William Duane. The first and most unusual prosecution under the Sedition Act was of Matthew Lyon, a Congressman from Vermont, who became a martyr for Republicans after being fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in jail.
The Federalist enforcement of the already unpopular Sedition Act made it even more despised. Jefferson decided that the states themselves offered the best means to protect basic rights and Republican values from the Federalists whom he believed were subverting the Constitution. Jefferson and Madison authored resolutions in the state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia respectively in the late summer of 1798 to stop the new laws. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions introduced the doctrine of state interposition, arguing that the national government was a "compact" among the states and that the states could decide to declare null and void the new federal laws they believed to be unconstitutional. Republicans in Virginia went so far as to call for the state to prepare to defend itself militarily against the Federalist-controlled government.
The Federalist designs with the Alien and Sedition Acts backfired. As the crisis with France calmed, public support for the acts quickly dissipated. Popular outrage against the laws not only helped unify the Republicans, but provided a powerful platform for their campaign in 1800. The election of 1800 saw Thomas Jefferson defeat John Adams in the presidential contest, and Republicans regained a majority in the Congress. The Republican Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802. The two Alien Acts and the Sedition Act contained provisions to expire automatically in the first years of the new century.
Many of the issues raised by the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts remained prominent. During the War of 1812 Republicans sought to destroy the Federalists for their support of a foreign enemy. The arguments that the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions advanced on behalf of state rights would reappear in controversies over secession in the nineteenth century. Most fundamentally, the delicate challenge of preserving civil liberties in the face of wartime concerns over national security continued into the twenty-first century.
See also: NATURALIZATION ACT; ESPIONAGE ACT (1917) AND SEDITION ACT (1918).
McKitrick, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788800. London: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Schudson, Michael. The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Sharpe, James Rogers. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956.