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Alien and Sedition Laws


ALIEN AND SEDITION LAWS. Designed to impede opposition to the Federalists, the four bills known as the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in the summer of 1798, amid fears of French invasion. Skepticism of aliens and of their ability to be loyal to the nation permeated three of the laws. The Naturalization Act (18 June 1798) lengthened the residency requirement for naturalization from five years to fourteen, required the applicant to file a declaration of intent five years before the ultimate application, and made it mandatory for all aliens to register with the clerk of their district court. Congress repealed this law in 1802. The Alien Friends Act (25 June 1798) gave the president the power to deport aliens "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States." Its terms were sweeping but limited to two years, and it was never enforced. The Alien Enemies Act (6 July 1798) was the only one of the four to gather strong Republican support as a clearly defensive measure in time of declared war. It gave the president the power to restrain, arrest, and deport male citizens or subjects of a hostile nation.

The most controversial of the four laws was the Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes (14 July 1798), the nation's first sedition act. This law made it a crime "unlawfully to combine and conspire" in order to oppose legal measures of the government, or to "write, print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing" with intent to bring the government, Congress, or the president "into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against them … the hatred of the good people of the United States." The vice president, who at the time was a Republican, was not protected against seditious writings, and the act provided for its own expiration at the end of President Adams's term. Federalists in Congress argued that they were only spelling out the details of the proper restraints on free speech and press implied by common law. In fact, the act did liberalize the common law, because it specified that truth might be admitted as a defense, that malicious intent had to be proved, and that the jury had the right to judge whether the matter was libelous.

Federalist secretary of state Timothy Pickering directed enforcement of the Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against critics of the administration. Ten Republicans were convicted, including Congressman Matthew Lyon, the political writer James T. Callender, the lawyer Thomas Cooper, and several newspaper editors. Because Federalist judges frequently conducted the trials in a partisan manner, and because the trials demonstrated that the act had failed to distinguish between malicious libel and the expression of political opinion, this law was the catalyst in prompting a broader definition of freedom of the press. This experience also taught that the power to suppress criticism of public officials or public policy must be narrowly confined if democracy is to flourish.

The protest against these laws received its most significant formulation in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, drafted by Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The resolutions claimed for the states the right to nullify obnoxious federal legislation, but they did not seriously question the concept of seditious libel. Rather, they merely demanded that such prosecutions be undertaken in state courts, as indeed they were during Jefferson's own presidency.


Costa, Gregg. "John Marshall, the Sedition Act, and Free Speech in the Early Republic." Texas Law Review 77 (1999): 1011–1047.

Curtis, Michael Kent. Free Speech, "The People's Darling Privilege": Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Levy, Leonard W. Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1960.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1956.

Linda K.Kerber/c. p.

See alsoFederalist Party ; Loyalty Oaths ; Sedition Acts .

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