As the 18th Century drew to a close, and with the United States still experiencing growing pains amid political turmoil between the two major political parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, and with fears of a war with France, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These Acts constituted a major crisis for the new country, and one that tested its democratic values almost before the country could fully consolidate its post-revolution gains.
With France and England still at fighting for supremacy and Revolutionary France encroaching on American prerogatives, particularly with respect to freedom of navigation on the seas, the Federalists and Republicans squared off over alliances and notions of national interest. With President John Adams preoccupied with the situation with France, the Federalists in Congress succeeded in passing a series of bills designed to restrict immigration by raising the residency requirement from five to 14 years and authorized the arrest and deportation of aliens during time of war. The Federalists, who fervently supported England’s side in its conflict with France, sought to restrict the ability of immigrants thought to be supportive of France from emigrating to the United States. These anti-immigrant laws comprised three of the four laws the Federalists passed, and which were signed by President Adams.
It was the fourth of the bills passed, the Sedition Act, that posed the greatest threat to the nascent democracy. Intended to restrict speech, the law defined as “seditious” and, hence, illegal, the following:
“Section II. Punishes seditious writings. Definition of offence:
To write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against either the hatred of the people of the United States, or to stir up sedition, or to excie unlawful combinations against the government, or to resist it, or to aid or encourage hostile designs of foreign nations.”
In passing the Sedition Act, the Federalists intended to criminalize Republican opposition to Federalist-supported policies with respect to the “Quasi War” waging at sea with France. The Republicans, who more liberal on immigration issues and who sympathized with France, whose revolution ostensibly represented the values upon which the United States was founded, were the targets of the Sedition Act, and Republican-supporting newspaper editors were tried and convicted of violating the Act, fortunately, a misdemeanor under the terms of the new law.
President Adams wife, Abigail Adams, was a staunch supporter of the Federalists and that support extended to the Aliens and Sedition Acts. Abigail Adams was not opposed to war with France, and believed, as did the Federalists, that enemies within were as threatening to her husband, the president, and, by extension, to the country, as were enemies from outside, in effect, France. The Aliens and Sedition Acts represented the first major test of the resiliency of the new republic. Their expiration in 1801, coinciding with the end of John Adams presidency, was not challenged by the Federalists, who had succeeded in their goal of roiling the political waters to the disadvantage of the Republicans.