U.S. Congress: The Alien and Sedition Acts

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U.S. Congress

Excerpt from The Alien and Sedition Acts

Passed in June and July 1798
Published in
Documents of American History, edited by
Henry S. Commager, 1943

The Jay Treaty opened trade with Britain and brought Britain and the United States closer together than they had been for years. The pact, signed on November 19, 1794, and named for U.S. Supreme Court justice John Jay (1745–1829), who negotiated it, angered the French. They saw it as a direct violation of the Treaty of Alliance, which they signed with the United States in 1778. In that treaty, France and the United States promised each other that if one were at war with Britain, the other would lend assistance. Also, under Article 8 of the treaty, neither the United States nor France could make a truce with Britain without the consent of the other. The 1778 French alliance had served the United States well during the American Revolution (1775–83), when the colonies were fighting for independence from Britain. The United States was ultimately able to defeat Britain and gain independence because of France's help. In 1793, the French declared war on Britain, expecting that the United States would help them fight the battle, as the terms of the treaty guaranteed. Instead, the United States declared a policy of neutrality, refusing to take sides in the war; then, in 1794, American negotiators signed the Jay Treaty, ignoring any U.S. obligations to France and strengthening U.S. ties to Britain.

The two emerging political parties in the United States, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, took opposing sides. The Federalists were led by New Yorker Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), former secretary of the treasury under America's first president, George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97). Federalists were often called Hamiltonians. The Federalists approved of the Jay Treaty because it opened trade with Britain; they were therefore considered pro-British. The Democratic-Republicans were led by Virginian Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who had served as President Washington's first secretary of state. The Democratic-Republicans were also called Jeffersonians. Democratic-Republicans were angered by the Jay Treaty. Still loyal to France for aiding the United States in the American Revolution, they believed the United States should honor its 1778 alliance with France. They were considered pro-French.

Federalist John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801), who had served as Washington's vice president, was inaugurated as the second U.S. president in March 1797. Although the number of Americans who sympathized with the Democratic-Republicans was growing, the U.S. Congress continued to be dominated by Federalists. Upon taking office, Adams faced worsening relations with France. Britain and France were still at war, and France was still angry about the Jay Treaty. France thought the United States should honor the 1778 French-American alliance instead of improving relations with Britain.

In mid-1797, in retaliation against the United States, France began seizing hundreds of American merchant ships carrying products to and from Europe and the West Indies. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike were infuriated by the seizures, but it was the Federalists who demanded war with France. Jefferson, who was serving as vice president, was angry with France, but he also remembered France's help during the American Revolution. Jefferson urged Congress to avoid war.

Taking advantage of anti-French sentiments, the Federalist-dominated Congress managed to pass a series of controversial laws called the Alien and Sedition Acts. Federalist lawmakers designed the laws to halt the growing number of Democratic-Republicans and to suppress opposition to the Federalists. Through the 1790s, thousands and thousands of immigrants from Europe were arriving in the United States. Immigrants, particularly those from France, were suspected of siding with the Democratic-Republicans; they were often referred to as pro-Jeffersonian "aliens." The term "alien" refers to a foreign-born person who has not been naturalized. Naturalization is the process by which an immigrant becomes a full U.S. citizen.

Three of the laws, the Alien Laws, made it more difficult for immigrants to become U.S. citizens. The first, the Naturalization Act, lengthened the time aliens had to live in the United States before they could be naturalized. The residency requirement was raised from five years to fourteen years. The second of these laws, the Alien Act, gave the president greater authority for expelling immigrants from the country or imprisoning them without having to specify any reason or grant a court hearing. The president merely had to suspect they were dangerous. The third law, called the Alien Enemies Act, gave the president similar powers to expel or imprison aliens in time of war. All three acts went against the American tradition of welcoming immigrants to the United States.

The most controversial of the Alien and Sedition Acts was the Sedition Act. The term "sedition" means rebellion against the government. The Sedition Act took direct aim at the so-called pro-Jeffersonian newspapers that sharply criticized the pro-British Federalists. More and more newspapers supported the pro-Jeffersonian or pro-Democratic-Republican viewpoint. Papers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and south to North Carolina published anti-Federalist articles.

The Sedition Act established serious punishments—heavy fines and imprisonment—for writing, publishing, or speaking in a manner considered critical of the U.S. government. The Sedition Act struck at the heart of the First Amendment, the portion of the Bill of Rights that guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of press.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from the Alien and Sedition Acts:

  • All three Alien Acts were designed to discourage immigrants from coming to America, especially if they were French. The legislation also targeted foreign-born residents of the United States who were not yet naturalized. They understood that simply being French or saying anything in France's favor could mean ejection from America or imprisonment.
  • Several ordinary U.S. citizens were arrested and convicted under the Sedition Act for merely speaking out against the Federalist-controlled U.S. government. However, the Sedition Act was aimed at silencing editors of major newspapers and journals that published pro-Jeffersonian (Democratic-Republican) articles.

Excerpt from the Alien and Sedition Acts

The Naturalization Act

An Act supplementary to and to amend the act,intituled "An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization; and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject."

SECTION 1. Be it enacted ..., That noalien shall be admitted to become a citizen of the United States, or of any state, unless ... he shall have declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, five years, at least, before his admission, and shall, at the time of his application to be admitted, declare and prove, to the satisfaction of the court havingjurisdiction in the case, that he has resided within the United States fourteen years, at least, and within the state or territory where, or for which such court is at the time held, five years. ...

The Alien Act

SECTION 1. Be it enacted ... That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during thecontinuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in anytreasonable or secretmachinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States . ... And in case any alien, so ordered to depart, shall be found at large within the United States after the time limited in such order for his departure, and not having obtained a license from the President to reside therein, or having obtained such license shall not have conformed thereto, every such alien shall, on conviction thereof, be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, and shall never after be admitted to become a citizen of the United States. ...

The Alien Enemies Act

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That whenever there shall be a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion orpredatory incursion shall beperpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States, by any foreign nation or government, and the President of the United States shall make public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens,denizens, or subjects ofthe hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actuallynaturalized, shall beliable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies. ...

The Sedition Act

SEC. 1. Be it enacted ..., That if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States, or tointimidate or prevent any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States, from undertaking, performing or executing his trust or duty; and if any person or persons, with intent as aforesaid, shall counsel, advise or attempt toprocure anyinsurrection, riot,unlawful assembly, or combination, whether such conspiracy, threatening, counsel, advice, or attempt shall have the proposed effect or not, he or they shall be deemed guilty of ahigh misdemeanor, and on conviction, before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and by imprisonment during a term not less than six months nor exceeding five years; and further,at the discretion of the court may beholden to find sureties for his good behaviour in such sum, and for such time, as the said court may direct.

SEC. 2. That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false,scandalous andmalicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent todefame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, intocontempt ordisrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, donein pursuance of any such law, or of the powersin him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage orabet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before anycourt of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

SEC. 3. That if any person shall be prosecuted under this act, for the writing or publishing [of] anylibel aforesaid, it shall be lawful for thedefendant, upon the trial of thecause, to give in evidence in his defence, the truth of the matter contained in the publication charged as a libel. And the jury who shall try the cause, shall have a right to determine the law and the fact, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.

SEC. 4. That this act shall continue to be in force until March 3, 1801, and no longer. ...

What happened next ...

Ultimately, the Alien Acts were not enforced, but some French aliens did go into hiding or leave the United States. The Sedition Act, however, was enforced. A number of newspaper editors and writers who spoke out against the Federalists were charged under the Sedition Act. Likewise, several citizens who acted or spoke against the Federalists were charged. Ten were brought to trial in front of juries. All ten were convicted and fined, and several spent time in jail (see box on the Sedition Act "Ten").

In 1798 and 1799, leaders of the Democratic-Republicans fought hard against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson and fellow Virginian James Madison (1751–1836), the principal author of the U.S. Constitution, wrote several statements called resolutions. They wrote the resolutions anonymously—that is, they did not sign their names or indicate they were the authors—because even they feared being charged under the Sedition Act. Jefferson's resolutions basically denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts as unconstitutional, meaning that by passing the laws Congress had gone against the Constitution's intent. Jefferson concluded that it was up to the states to nullify, or cancel, the acts. Kentucky's legislature approved Jefferson's resolutions and declared the acts "void and of no effect" in the state. Madison wrote a similar resolution against the acts, and the Virginia legislature adopted his resolution in 1798.

Kentucky and Virginia were the only states to adopt the resolutions. Disappointing Jefferson and Madison, no other state agreed that the states had the right to declare laws passed by Congress unconstitutional. To the contrary, the New England states—all Federalist states—argued forcefully that it was up to the Supreme Court, not the states, to decide the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. The Constitution did not specifically say that the Court had such power. However, the debates over Jefferson and Madison's resolutions led the Supreme Court in 1803 to adopt the role of ruling on the constitutionality of congressional law.

Although most states failed to adopt the resolutions, the debate focused opposition against the Federalist-written laws. The Alien and Sedition Acts had created many enemies and were, in the end, politically disastrous for the Federalists. The Democratic-Republicans used the unpopular legislation as a rallying point.

The Democratic-Republicans won the presidential election in 1800. Jefferson was inaugurated as the third U.S. president on March 4, 1801. Much to the relief of all Democratic-Republicans, the Alien and Sedition Acts were scheduled to expire in 1801. Jefferson and Congress refused to renew them. Jefferson pardoned those who were still imprisoned under the law and paid back their fines. He also influenced Congress to reduce the residency requirement for naturalization from fourteen years to five years, the requirement that had been in place before the Alien Laws were passed.

Did you know ...

  • By 1796, Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769–1798), grandson of Pennsylvania statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), was publishing strongly worded anti-Federalist articles in his Philadelphia newspaper, the

    The Sedition Act "Ten"

    Congress passed the Sedition Act on July 14, 1798. The act made it illegal to write, publish, or speak any criticism against the U.S. government. It was mostly intended to silence criticisms of the Federalist Congress and President John Adams. Federalists were predominantly merchants, manufacturers, shippers, and businessmen living in the Northeast. They were strongly pro-British because they desired good trade relations with Britain. In the late 1790s, anyone pro-British was anti-French, because Britain and France were at war. Thomas Jefferson, who would succeed Adams in 1801 as the third U.S. president, was strongly pro-French.

    Approximately twenty-five people were arrested under the Sedition Act. Of those, ten were convicted and became known as the Sedition Act "Ten."

    The Sedition Act was intended to silence pro-Jeffersonian newspaper editors. James Callender (1758–1803) of Virginia, editor of the Richmond Examiner, was sentenced to nine months in jail for criticizing President Adams. Northumberland Gazette editor Thomas Cooper (1759–1839) of Pennsylvania wrote an article calling Adams a threat to freedom and the rights of Americans. The article was reprinted in the Aurora, a strong pro-French, pro-Jeffersonian Philadelphia newspaper. Cooper was fined $400 and received six months in jail. In the New York Argus, David Frothingham of New York reprinted a letter that accused Federalist leader and former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton of trying to silence the Aurora. For this, Frothingham was sentenced to four months in jail and fined $100. Fellow New Yorker William Durrell reprinted an anti-Federalist article in his paper, the Mount Pleasant Register. He received a $50 fine and four months in jail.

    Although the act was directed at editors of newspapers, ordinary people also were arrested on Sedition Act charges. Benjamin Fairbanks and David Brown erected a liberty pole in Dedham, Massachusetts. (During the Revolutionary War, citizens began a tradition of assembling a pole on a prominent location, then decorating it with a flag, banners, or inscriptions in support of freedoms.) The pole was inscribed with anti-Federalist words. Fairbanks's sentence was light, but Brown received eighteen months' jail time and a $400 fine. Luther Baldwin watched President Adams and his wife participate in a procession in Newark, New Jersey; he then went into a shop and made a disrespectful comment about the president. The shopkeeper turned him in. Baldwin was fined $100 and thrown in jail until he paid the fine.

    Charles Holt (1772–1852), who lived in the strongly Federalist state of Connecticut, published an article in the New London Bee sharply criticizing the moral character of the U.S. Army and of President Adams. The Bee was the most pro-Jeffersonian newspaper in Connecticut. For his effort, Holt was sentenced to three months in jail and fined $200.

    The most famous case was brought against U.S. representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont. Lyon had been a member of the Green Mountain Boys, a group of patriotic rebels who defended Vermont during the American Revolution. He was elected to Congress after the war. Lyon was still serving in the House of Representatives in 1798 when he began showing his disapproval of Federalist policies and President Adams. Lyon was spirited and outspoken and not easily hushed. On January 30, 1798, U.S. representative Roger Griswold (1762–1812) of Connecticut made a disrespectful remark about Lyon's record in the war. When Lyon ignored him, Griswold repeated the comment, and Lyon spit in Griswold's eye. Members of the Federalist-dominated House tried to expel Lyon but failed to gather enough votes.

    On February 15, 1798, Lyon and Griswold's animosity toward each other erupted into a fight on the House floor. Griswold beat Lyon with his cane, and Lyon battled back with a pair of fireplace tongs. The Sedition Act was passed in July, and Federalists waited for the opportunity to punish Lyon. Lyon soon gave them that chance: He wrote a letter to an editor, criticizing President Adams; when the letter was published, Lyon was arrested. A Federalist judge convicted him of sedition, fined him $1,000, and sentenced him to serve four months in one of Vermont's dirtiest jails. Lyon began serving his sentence in October 1798. Vermont citizens petitioned unsuccessfully to release him. When Vermont Gazette editor Anthony Haswell (1756–1816) published an advertisement about raising money to pay Lyon's fine, he was jailed, too. Vermont citizens reelected Lyon as representative to the House in December 1798, while he was still in jail. He was released from jail in February after citizens raised money to pay the $1,000 fine.

    Aurora. Federalists feared the pro-French Bache would try to start a full rebellion against them. Bache's articles were a major reason that Federalists pushed for passage of the Sedition Act.
  • Some Americans believed the Sedition Act was justified because they felt the pro-Jeffersonian editors and writers used language that was uninhibited and abusive in their articles against the Federalists.
  • The ten men brought to trial under the Sedition Act generally faced juries that were operating under the influence of Federalist judges.
  • Although the Sedition Act was in direct opposition to the First Amendment right to free speech and freedom of the press, its legality was never tested before the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling.

Consider the following ...

  • Research further the anti-Federalist, pro-French ideas that Benjamin Franklin Bache expressed in his famous Philadelphia newspaper, the Aurora. Why was Bache so pro-French? Predict what his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, might have thought about his grandson's ideas.
  • Laws addressing sedition have appeared at different times in U.S. history. Find at least two other instances and explain the circumstances surrounding them.
  • The state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia passed the resolutions put forth by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, declaring that the Alien and Sedition Acts were "of no effect" in their states. Examine why other states, even the more Democratic-Republican ones, failed to pass the resolutions.

Intituled: Entitled.

Alien: Foreign-born person who has not been naturalized.

Jurisdiction: Legal authority.

Continuance: Duration.

Treasonable: Subversive.

Machinations: Schemes.

Predatory incursion: Hostile entrance.

Perpetrated: Committed.

Denizens: Inhabitants.

Naturalized: Officially recognized as a U.S. citizen.

Liable to be apprehended: Subject to arrest.

Intimidate: Deter.

Procure: Start.

Insurrection: Rebellion.

Unlawful assembly: Illegal gathering.

High misdemeanor: Illegal offense.

At the discretion: According to the judgment.

Holden to find sureties for his good behaviour: Required to pay a sum of money that could be taken by the court if the person failed to follow governmental orders.

Scandalous: Improper or disgraceful.

Malicious: Harmful.

Defame: Attack the reputation of.

Contempt: Disgrace.

Disrepute: Dishonor.

In pursuance of: In accordance with.

In him vested: Given him.

Abet: Support.

Libel aforesaid: Damaging material mentioned previously.

Defendant: Person accused and brought to court.

Cause: Reason for being charged.

For More Information


Commager, Henry S., ed. Documents of American History. New York: F. S. Crofts and Company, 1943.

Dunn, Susan. Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

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U.S. Congress: The Alien and Sedition Acts