Alien and Sedition Laws

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Enacted in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Laws were the nation's first legislative acts designed to stifle political dissent in wartime. Congress enacted four laws to discourage domestic criticism and protest of the "Quasi-War" against France. The laws set a precedent for strengthening national and public security at the expense of civil liberties.

The Alien and Sedition Laws sprang from American responses to the French Revolution. On one side, led by Alexander Hamilton and including most of the Federalist Party, were shopkeepers, merchants, and tradesmen who viewed the French Revolution, with its execution of opponents, abolition of many religious laws and practices, and forcible seizure of property from the nobility and aristocracy, as horrifyingly radical. They sympathized more with England than France, maintaining that French aid in the War of American Independence was an act of naked self-interest. Not so, retorted a large number of farmers, small landowners, laborers, and newly arrived European immigrants. Articulated through the emerging Republican Party and the speeches and writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—authors of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions that would denounce the Alien and Sedition Laws—they viewed the French as brethren in a global march of democracy against monarchy, class-based privilege, and centuries-old traditions. The French Revolution, as they saw it, continued the American Revolution, and the 1778 treaties between the two nations were morally binding on Americans to support the French.

The controversy over Edmund Genet typified the dispute. Genet, French ambassador to the United States, traveled the United States to raise money for the revolutionaries, sailors for service aboard French privateers, and troops for military expeditions. Genet also criticized George Washington's neutrality policy in harsh tones. Federalists accused him of being a spy and Republicans countered that the Federalists were involved in a conspiracy to ruin Genet.

This was the political climate when John Adams, a Federalist, became president in 1797. By July 1798 the Federalist-controlled Congress, with Adams's support, ordered U.S. naval operations to begin against France. In August Federalists enacted the Alien and Sedition Laws to prevent domestic violence and opposition they believed could result from the Quasi-War.

The program consisted of four laws. First, immigrants would have to wait fourteen years instead of the customary five to become naturalized citizens. Second, the president received powers to deport aliens in peace time. Third, a similar presidential power would be applied to enemy aliens located in the United States during a declared state of war. Adams did not exercise either of these powers, but several French officials fled for fear of deportation. Fourth, and most significantly, stiff fines and jail time awaited a person found guilty of writing, speaking, or publishing "false, scandalous, and malicious" content about the president or either house of Congress, or causing the American people to despise the federal government. This law produced federal prosecutions of seventeen writers, editors, and publishers. Only one of the accused was found not guilty. The laws expired with the defeat of Adams in the 1800 election. Adams's successor, Thomas Jefferson, pardoned all who had been punished under the controversial program.

The Alien and Sedition Laws illustrated the effect of public fear in wartime or, in the case of the late 1790s, "quasi-wartime." Federalists imagined Republicans would aid French infiltrators and saboteurs. Depictions of guillotines severing the heads of French citizens intensified the fears of people who recalled Genet's efforts only a few years before. What would stop more Genets from organizing cells to kill Federalists or launch slave revolts? In Federalist eyes, behind every Republican stood a potential French agent, and behind every immigrant stood a potential Republican voter. Federalists calmed themselves by crafting the Alien and Sedition Laws to strengthen internal security and weaken the opposing political party that appeared to foment domestic discord.

More fundamentally, these laws revealed a belief that an open, self-governing society is vulnerable in wartime to domestic attacks from its enemies, regardless of how distant they might be. The existence of peacetime liberties and freedoms, the argument went, must be reduced during periods of armed conflict or the openness that Americans cherish will be turned against them. The laws further showed an inherent tension in the life of the early republic between political disagreements—the signs of a healthy public discourse—and the waging of war. Republicans in the late 1790s maintained that Federalists wanted to control the levers of power and crush organized political opposition in the name of fighting a war.

The Federalists used the Alien and Sedition Laws to wage the Quasi-War of 1798 at home. The laws epitomized the divisive effects of the French Revolution among Americans in the 1790s, and foreshadowed tensions over civil liberties and war that characterized American life in succeeding generations.


Miller, John Chester. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts. New York: Little Brown, 1951.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Daniel T. Miller

See also:Civil Liberties: Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions; Federalist Party; Jeffersonian Republican Party.

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Alien and Sedition Laws

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