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Alien and Sedition Acts: legislation that led to the defeat and destruction of the Federalist Party

Updated: Feb 16, 2021


The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by Congress under the Adams Administration, are perceived by many people, both then and now, as an attempt by the Federalists to limit and control foreigners entering and living in this country. In addition, many claimed that they were also meant to limit criticism of the Adams Federalist Administration and its policies. While these may well have been some of the reasons for the push for these laws, from the perspective of the Adams Administration, there were other reasons more vital to the safety and security of the newly founded United States.

As we have seen in the last few postings here in the Academy, beginning in the 1790s, the young United States faced attempts, instigated by foreign agents, to draw the US into the wars in Europe. Many of these plots were either instigated by, or at least supported by American Citizens looking to increase their own wealth. Considering the way we tend to put those who fought in the Revolutionary War on a pedestal, one of the most surprising and disturbing aspects of this, is the number of Revolutionary War veterans who were willing to go against the policies of their country, risking war, in order to enrich themselves or advance their own political agenda. As we have seen from previous posts, this included people like General George Rogers Clark; General William Moultrie, the Governor of South Carolina; General Lachlan McIntosh; Congressman John Brown of Kentucky; Captain Isaac Shelby, the governor of Kentucky, who had fought in Lord Dunmore’s War and the American Revolution; and William Blount, a Senator from Tennessee.

It was against this background of foreign interference and questionable loyalty of prominent citizens that John Adams, a Federalist, was elected President in 1796 with Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson as his Vice-President.

Portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

The Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, wanted to create a stable and secure country - one that was safe for business and wealthy men of property. The opposition Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson, tended to represent poor farmers, craftsmen, and recent immigrants. (The party, referred to as the Republicans or Jeffersonians, was the forerunner of today's Democratic Party.)

In foreign affairs, the Federalists detested the French Revolutionaries, and their revolution of 1789 because it led to mob rule and confiscation of property, an idea diametrically opposed to the ideals of American free enterprise. The Republicans supported the French Revolution for its democratic ideals and the overthrow of the status quo.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton, Leader of the Federalist Party

Shortly after becoming president, Adams sent diplomats to France to smooth over the bad feelings. But three French representatives--dubbed X, Y, and Z--met secretly with the U.S. diplomats and demanded $10 million in bribes to the French government to begin negotiations. When the Americans refused, Mr. X threatened the United States with the "power and violence of France."

News of the "XYZ Affair" enraged most Americans. Many Federalists at once called for war against France. President Adams, however, only proposed war preparations and a land tax to pay for them. On the defensive, Republicans spoke out against the "war fever." Rumors of a French invasion and enemy spies frightened many Americans. President Adams warned that foreign influence within the United States was dangerous and must be "exterminated."

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by the Federalist-dominated 5th United States Congress and signed into law by President John Adams in 1798. They made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act), allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous (Alien Friends Act of 1798) or who were from a hostile nation (Alien Enemy Act of 1798), and criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government (Sedition Act of 1798).

Republican Campaign Poster from 1800

The Federalists argued that the bills strengthened national security during the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800. Critics argued that they were primarily an attempt to suppress voters who disagreed with the Federalist party and its teachings and violated the right of freedom of speech in the First Amendment.

The Democratic-Republicans denounced these acts and that helped them to victory in the 1800 election, when Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent, President Adams. The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act expired in 1800 and 1801, respectively. The Alien Enemies Act, however, continues in effect as Chapter 3; Sections 21–24 of Title 50 of the United States Code. The US government used this law to find and imprison dangerous enemy aliens from Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II. (This was separate from the Japanese internment camps used to remove people of Japanese descent from the West Coast.) After the war they were deported to their home countries. In 1948 the Supreme Court determined that presidential powers under the acts continued after cessation of hostilities until there was a peace treaty with the hostile nation. The revised Alien Enemies Act is still in effect today.

Naturalization Act of 1798

The Naturalization Act, passed by the United States Congress on June 18, 1798, increased the period necessary for immigrants to become naturalized citizens in the United States from 5 to 14 years. Additionally, it required that those seeking naturalization declare their intention to become a citizen a minimum of five (5) years in advance and that “no alien, who shall be a native, citizen, denizen or subject of any nation or state with whom the United States shall be at war, at the time of his application, shall be then admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” Like the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795, the 1798 act also restricted citizenship to "free white persons".

Although passed under the guise of protecting national security, most historians conclude the intent was to decrease the number of voters who disagreed with the Federalist party. At the time, most immigrants (namely Irish and French) supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, the political rivals of the Federalists. The Naturalization Law of 1802 superseded this act.

The Alien Friends Act of 1798 and the Alien Enemies Act of 1798

The Alien Friends Act allowed the president to imprison or deport aliens considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" at any time, while the Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to do the same to any male citizen of a hostile nation above the age of fourteen during times of war. These acts gave the President the power to deport these aliens without trial or due process.

Some claim that Albert Gallatin, who was born in Geneva, Switzerland, was the target of the Alien Acts. He was the chief spokesman on financial matters for the Democratic-Republican Party, leading opposition to the Federalist economic program Gallatin's mastery of public finance led to his choice as Secretary of the Treasury by President Thomas Jefferson, despite Federalist attacks that he was a "foreigner" with a French accent.

While government authorities prepared lists of aliens for deportation, many aliens fled the country during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams never signed a deportation order.

The Sedition Act of 1798

In one of the first tests of freedom of speech, the House passed the Sedition Act, allowing the deportation, fine, or imprisonment of anyone considered a threat or publishing “false, scandalous, or malicious writing” against the government of the United States. Federalists championed the legislation fearing impending war with France and out of the desire to hold the majority in Congress and to keep the White House, then occupied by Federalist John Adams. In an era when newspapers served as political parties' chief information organs, the Republican press was particularly vicious in its attacks on Federalist policies and the Adams administration. The sweeping language of the Sedition Act made it illegal, among other actions, to “write, print, utter or publish...any false, scandalous and malicious writing...with intent to defame the...government” or “to stir up sedition within the United States.”

The Sedition Act of 1798
The Sedition Act of 1798

Federalist judges enforced the law with vigor. There were twenty-five arrests, fifteen indictments, and ten convictions, many upon charges so flimsy as to be comical. Targets of the act tended to be the editors of Democratic-Republican newspapers who criticized the Federalist administration of President John Adams. Leading Federalists thought that it was impossible to attack members of the government without attacking the very foundation of government itself.

Republicans countered that the Constitution expressly delegates no power to regulate speech or the press and that such powers are in no sense necessary and proper. The First Amendment, they argued, specifically prohibits the making of any law whatsoever about speech or the press.

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799

Signed into law by Adams on July 14, the law proved immensely unpopular with the public inspiring responses such as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions written secretly by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively. The resolutions argued that the states had the right and the duty to declare as unconstitutional those acts of Congress not authorized by the Constitution. In doing so, they argued for states' rights and strict constructionism of the Constitution. The resolutions, sent to the other states for approval, met with no success. Seven states formally responded to Kentucky and Virginia by rejecting the Resolutions and three other states passed resolutions expressing disapproval, with the other four states taking no action. At least six states responded to the Resolutions by taking the position that the constitutionality of acts of Congress is a question for the federal courts, not the state legislatures. Interestingly, although the New England states rejected the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798–99, several years later, the state governments of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island threatened to ignore the Embargo Act of 1807 based on the authority of states to stand up to laws deemed by those states to be unconstitutional.

Newspaper Advertisement from the 1800 Presidential Campaign
Newspaper Advertisement From the 1800 Election an Extremely Partisan and Outright Nasty Campaign

The Democratic-Republicans made the Alien and Sedition Acts a principal issue in the 1800 election campaign, and the President lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Under the incoming Republican administration, Thomas Jefferson pardoned those still serving sentences under the Sedition Act, and Congress soon repaid their fines. The Sedition Act expired on March 3, 1801; however, arguments made for and against it shaped later debate about constitutional protections of free speech.

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