Alien and Sedition Acts

views updated May 18 2018


In 1798 America's Federalists drafted the Alien and Sedition Acts to preserve the national government they had crafted and their own political power. These four laws violated rights guaranteed by the Constitution, inflated presidential power, and disenfranchised America's immigrants. Although the Federalist majority was able to enact and implement its legislative program, it could not silence the public outcry against these repressive measures or force the acceptance of its political beliefs.

The Constitution of 1787 is a sparse document. This is in part because it was conceived as a blueprint for republican government, unencumbered with procedural minutiae, and in part because the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, lacking the time to hammer out the precise powers and roles of each branch of government, left the completion of their work to Congress. The Constitution of 1787 directed Congress to create a national judicial system, to establish a "uniform rule of naturalization," and to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper" to execute its enumerated powers. By restricting the Constitution to broad principles, delegates ensured its continued relevance. But the document's brevity also conferred great power on those who controlled the new national government in the 1790s—the men responsible for implementing the Constitution and filling in its gaps.

political differences

Congressional debates in the 1790s soon revealed differing political beliefs among Americans who had united to throw off British rule. As the decade progressed, two dominant groupings emerged. The Federalist Party, headed by the nation's first president, George Washington, and first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, styled itself the party of order or "Friends of Government." The Federalists advocated rule by "the better sort" and, using England as a model, strove to create a prosperous and powerful American nation. The Republican Party, headed by the nation's first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who led the opposition in Congress, called itself "Friends of the People," placed a stronger emphasis on the sovereignty of the people, and feared a distant and powerful government. The Jeffersonian Republicans also repudiated the British model of development, whether political, economic, or social.

Alexander Hamilton's plan of economic development (1790–1791) triggered the first battle in the struggle to define America's political principles. Hamilton's plan was based on a broad reading of the Constitution and was designed to create a powerful national government. Although President Washington was won over by Hamilton's vision and arguments, the men who coalesced into the Jeffersonian opposition demanded a "strict construction" of the powers granted by the Constitution in order to prevent the creation of an elected despotism. International developments heightened the tensions between these divergent political philosophies. Many Americans who had initially seen the French Revolution as a copy of their own noble struggle against tyranny were disquieted by the escalation of violence and radical ideas in the 1790s—especially the execution of Louis XVI and France's declaration of war against Great Britain in 1793, the writings of Thomas Paine, and the French subversion of republican governments that had been established throughout Europe.

In 1794 the Federalists, fearing the spread of French radicalism, negotiated Jay's Treaty, which secured peace with England, but only by surrendering America's claim to the right of neutral trade and by, in French eyes, abrogating America's 1778 Treaty with France. Publication of Jay's Treaty precipitated demonstrations by Americans who saw it as selling out to Great Britain; the prosecution of Benjamin Bache, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, for publishing the terms of the treaty; and attacks on American shipping by France, which viewed the treaty as an alliance between the United States and England. The Quasi-War (1798–1800) with France that ensued increased popular support for the Federalists, especially after peace talks between France and the United States were scuttled by bribes demanded by three French officials, identified only as X, Y, and Z. Blaming the continued hostilities on French venality and the seditious activities of foreign agents and the Republican opposition, Federalist leaders took advantage of their new popularity to arm themselves with the weapons necessary to silence their critics and to perpetuate their political power and principles.

Court Location# Naturalized, 1796–1818 June 1798 (Under Act of 1795)# Naturalized, 1800–1814 April 1802 (Under Act of 1798)
3 courts, N.Y. County2880
3 courts, Baltimore Co., Md.4440
1 court, Frederick Co., Md.660
3 courts, Charleston Co., S.C.1954

the acts

Although part of the Federalist program to protect the United States from foreign saboteurs and domestic dissidents, the Alien Enemies Act, passed on 6 July 1798, was supported by most members of Congress, who recognized the need to control unnaturalized immigrants whose governments were at war with the United States. The only provision challenged by the Jeffersonian opposition was the "very extraordinary power" given to the president to decide when the threat of "predatory incursion" was sufficient to invoke the act and to specify the treatment of enemy aliens. From a Federalist standpoint, this act was a complete failure. Because war was never declared between France and the United States, the Alien Enemies Act could not be used to apprehend or restrain French radicals. Instead, much to the chagrin of Federalist Anglophiles, the provisions of the Alien Enemies Act would be used against unnaturalized British immigrants during the War of 1812.

The remainder of the Federalist program sparked far more controversy. The Naturalization Act, passed on 18 June 1798, was designed to disenfranchise immigrants, by increasing residency requirements from five to fourteen years, and to identify potential troublemakers, by requiring the registration of all unnaturalized aliens residing in the United States in 1798 and of all future arrivals. Penalties for immigrants who refused to report themselves and for all who failed to register aliens in their charge ranged from a monthly fine of two dollars for each infraction, to incarceration until the reports were made. The Naturalization Act of 1798 was, by Federalist standards, a great success. The new requirements virtually ended naturalization activity throughout the United States until the act's repeal on 14 April 1802. (See table 1.)

The Alien Act, passed on 25 June 1798 (also known as the Alien Friends Act), and the Sedition Act, passed on 14 July 1798, were temporary measures designed to silence the political opposition. This Alien Act gave President John Adams the power to deport any unnaturalized foreigner he considered "dangerous to the peace and public safety of the United States." Aliens who defied a deportation order would be imprisoned for up to three years and permanently excluded from U.S. citizenship; any deportee who returned could be imprisoned for "so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require." The furor generated by the Alien Act focused on the "inquisitorial power" conferred on the American president, the Federalists' extraordinarily broad interpretation of the power granted to Congress by the Constitution, and the violation of rights guaranteed to all "persons"—including unnaturalized immigrants. Members of the Republican opposition warned their colleagues of the dangerous precedent that the Alien Act would set and predicted that, if passed, it would be followed by a similar attack on the rights of American citizens. And indeed, the Sedition Act was enacted less than three weeks after the Alien Act.

The Sedition Act was a flagrantly partisan measure designed to ensure the reelection of a Federalist majority in 1800. The act's provisions, to remain in force until 31 March 1801, made it a crime for anyone, foreign- or native-born, to "write, print, utter or publish," or to "knowingly … assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writings" concerning the members of Congress or the President; those who did so could be fined two thousand dollars and imprisoned up to two years. Conspicuously excluded from the act's protection was Vice President Thomas Jefferson—the leader of the Republican opposition. During the election of 1800, no one could, or would, be charged under the Sedition Act for "uttering or publishing" any criticism of Jefferson, no matter how false or scurrilous. Ironically, despite its repressive implementation, the Sedition Act can be considered a progressive development in the law of libel because it allowed truth as a defense and because juries, rather than judges, were allowed to decide whether the publication or statement violated the law. Although some defendants were acquitted under the law, most were convicted by partisan judges and juries who ignored the Act's more progressive provisions.

the federalist "reign of terror"

The Federalist campaign to silence, vilify, and weaken the political opposition made full use of the powers conveyed by the Alien, Sedition, and Naturalization Acts of 1798. The fourteen-year residence requirement prevented foreigners from casting (legal) votes for members of the Jeffersonian opposition. Immediately after the passage of the Alien Act, Federalist officials drew up lists of "dangerous" immigrants and prepared deportation orders for President Adams's signature. But official measures proved unnecessary, as hundreds of immigrants, most of them French refugees from Saint Domingue (the earlier name of Haiti), set sail from America's inhospitable shores in the summer of 1798; other immigrants went into hiding. News of the treatment awaiting them also reduced the number of English and Irish radicals emigrating to America. In the end, no foreigners were deported under the provisions of the Alien Act.

The Sedition Act resulted in the arrests of twenty-five Americans. The most prominent of these was Matthew Lyon, a Republican Congressman from Vermont. Since his election in 1797, Federalists had portrayed the Irish-born Lyon as a savage and seditious "beast," a promoter of anarchy, and a tool of the French government. In October 1798 a jury, acting on the blatantly partisan charge of Supreme Court Justice William Paterson, found Lyon guilty of making remarks that heaped contempt and odium on the government and president of the United States. Sentenced to a four-month jail term and fined one thousand dollars for deriding President John Adams's "unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation" and his "continual grasp for power," Lyon conducted his successful reelection campaign from jail. In New Jersey an inebriated Republican and two drinking companions were found guilty of seditious libel for hoping that one of the artillery shots that accompanied John Adams's procession through town might lodge itself in the president's posterior. The Sedition Act's harshest penalties were meted out by the Massachusetts Circuit Court on Daniel Brown, a semiliterate "wandering apostle of sedition" who, after advocating the "downfall of the Tyrants of America, peace and retirement to the President," and long life to "the Vice-President and the Minority," hoped that "moral virtue" would become "the basis of civil government." Most of the others indicted under the Sedition Act were editors of Republican newspapers. Of those arrested, ten were found guilty; untimely deaths and disappearances allowed others to evade Federalist "justice." After his election President Jefferson pardoned the men who remained incarcerated for violations of the newly expired Sedition Act.

Ultimately the Alien and Sedition Acts destroyed the Federalist Party. By the end of 1798, the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures had passed resolutions denouncing the acts as unconstitutional and refusing to aid in their enforcement. The Kentucky Resolution, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, went even further, claiming that each state had the right to nullify any federal law it found unconstitutional. At the beginning of 1799, petitions signed by thousands of citizens across the country were presented in Congress, "praying" for the repeal of the "impolitic, tyrannical, and unconstitutional" Alien and Sedition Acts. The election of Thomas Jefferson and a Republican congressional majority in 1800 was the ultimate rejection of Federalist policies and principles.

the legacy

The political battles triggered by the Alien and Sedition Acts had many far-reaching and often unintended consequences. The legislative excesses of the Federalist Party discredited the concept of the "better sort" as society's natural rulers. After the victory of the Jeffersonian "Friends of the People" in 1800, most successful politicians stressed their (often fabricated) humble beginnings. The Federalist attack on the opposition press resulted in the proliferation of partisan newspapers and increased political participation by the public at large. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, states lowered or abolished property requirements for voters and ever larger percentages of the electorate cast ballots on election day. Prosecutions under the Sedition Act of 1798 illustrated both the importance and frailty of the American Constitution, which defined treason as an overt act, and the Bill of Rights, which decreed that "Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." In the nineteenth century, Republicans expanded their reading of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment; during the War of 1812, no Federalist was prosecuted for his opposition to the war with Great Britain. Thus, at one level, the experience of the acts led to a stronger ideology of freedom of expression.

The Alien and Sedition Acts also had pernicious consequences. They confirmed America's fear of the abuse of power by a distant, national government, demonstrated the inefficacy of "parchment barriers," and sowed the seeds of disunion. Because it had taken state action to topple the Federalist Party, state and local governments came to be seen as the true guardians of American liberty—qualified to challenge, perhaps even to nullify, federal laws that seemed to violate the Constitution or individual rights. From there it would be a small step to claim the right of a state to secede from a national government that refused to repeal "unconstitutional" edicts. The Alien and Sedition Acts also became a precedent for dealing with national crises. America has repeatedly responded to international threats by circumventing constitutional rights, impugning the motives of political opponents, equating criticism of government leaders and policies with treason, and exacerbating xenophobia.

See alsoAdams, John; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1800; Federalism; Federalist Party; Federalists; Hamilton, Alexander; Immigration and Immigrants: Immigrant Policy and Law; Jay's Treaty; Jefferson, Thomas; Judiciary Act of 1789; Judiciary Acts of 1801 and 1802; Presidency, The; Press, The; Quasi-War with France; War of 1812; Washington, George; XYZ Affair .


Baseler, Marilyn C. "Asylum for Mankind": America, 1607–1800. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Buel, Richard, Jr. "Freedom of the Press in Revolutionary America: The Evolution of Libertarianism, 1760–1820." In The Press and the American Revolution. Edited by Bernard Bailyn and John B. Hench. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981.

Cole, David. Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism. New York: Norton, 2003.

Levy, Leonard W. Emergence of a Free Press. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985; Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.

Pasley, Jeffrey L. "1800 as a Revolution in Political Culture: Newspapers, Celebrations, Voting, and Democratization in the Early Republic." In The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic. Edited by James Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Powe, Lucas A., Jr. The Fourth Estate and the Constitution: Freedom of the Press in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Simon, James F. What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

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

Taylor, Alan. "From Fathers to Friends of the People: Political Personae in the Early Republic." In Federalists Reconsidered. Edited by Doron Ben-Atar and Barbara B. Oberg. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

Marilyn C. Baseler

Alien and Sedition Acts: 1798

views updated Jun 11 2018

Alien and Sedition Acts: 1798

Defendants: 24 people, including: James Thompson Callender, Thomas Cooper, William Duane, Anthony Haswell, and Matthew Lyon.
Crime Charged: Seditious libel
Chief Defense Lawyers: Lyon acted for himself, advised by Israel Smith; David Fay and Israel Smith (Haswell); Thomas Cooper and Alexander Dallas, (Duane); Cooper acted for, himself; and William B. Giles, George Hay and Philip Nicholas (Callender)
Chief Prosecutors: Charles Marsh (Lyon, Haswell); William Rawle (Duane, Cooper); and Thomas Nelson (Callender)
Judges: William Paterson and Samuel Hitchcock (Lyon, Haswell); Samuel Chase, and Richard Peters (Cooper); Bushrod Washington and Peters (Duane); and Samuel Chase (Callender)
Dates of Trials: October 8, 1799 (Lyon); May 5, 1800 (Haswell) April 16, 1800 (Cooper); June 3, 1800 (Callender); June 11, 1800 (Duane court appearance)
Place: Rutland, Vermont (Lyon); Windsor, Vermont (Haswell); Norristown, Pennsylvania (Duane); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Cooper); and Richmond, Virginia (Callender)
Verdict: Guilty (Lyon, Haswell, Cooper, and Callender)
Sentences: $1,000 fine, $60.96 court costs, 4 months in jail (Lyon); $200 fine, 2 months in jail (Haswell); $400 fine, 6 months in prison, a $2,000 surety bond upon leaving prison (Cooper); and $200 fine, 9 months in prison, a $1,200 bond for good behavior (Callender)

SIGNIFICANCE: On paper only, the terms of the Sedition Act were an improvement over traditional common law. But the fact that the federal government would enact a sedition law was a blow to freedom of the press.

Partisan politics contributed to the creation of the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, American perceptions and worries about European affairs, particularly realistic fears of a possible war with France, also contributed to their enactment. American attempts to maintain neutrality pleased no one at home or abroad.

The Naturalization and Alien Acts, which increased residency requirements for citizenship and gave extraordinary powers over aliens to the president, passed into oblivion unused. However, there were several prosecutions under the Sedition Act. The act's most pertinent provision allowed prosecutions against persons publishing "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" that brought the federal government, the Congress, or the president into disrepute.

Under common law, liberty of the press generally meant no prior restraint on publications. However, the publisher was responsible for what he (or she) wrote. If a court deemed the material to be libelous, the writer could be punished. Libel was a published statement that damaged a person's reputation, or in the case of seditious libel, the government or a government official. Truth was not a defense, nor did there need to be proof of malicious intent. Despite First Amendment prohibitions, most states had their own libel and sedition acts.

The federal Sedition Act tried to strike a compromise between common law and new American freedoms. Truth was a defense under the new federal statute, proof of malicious intent was required, and the jury would decide whether a libel existed. Under common law, the judge decided if material was libelous and he was free to determine any sentence. The Sedition Act stipulated that those convicted could be fined not more than $2,000 and imprisoned for no more than two years.

In practice these changes availed nothing to those prosecuted. Federalist courts insisted on turning the truth-as-a-defense clause into a presumptive-guilt clause. The plaintiff, the government, did not have to prove that the statements made were false. The defendant had to prove they were true. And such attempts often were thwarted by the judge.

Benjamin Franklin Bache, the vitriolic publisher of the Aurora, spurred passage of the Sedition Act when he obtained and published a copy of a letter from France's foreign minister, Tallyrand. This action convinced many Federalists that connections existed between Republicans and the French government. Before the Sedition Act could be passed, Bache's intemperate remarks earned him a common law indictment for libeling President John Adams and his administration. Bache died of yellow fever before he could be tried.

The first man actually indicted under the new Sedition Act was a member of Congress, Matthew Lyon. Charges stemmed from publication of two letters.One, Lyon wrote to a newspaper in reply to an attack on him.

When I shall see the efforts of that power bent on the promotion of the comfort of the people, that executive shall have my zealous and uniform support: but whenever I shall see the public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power behold men of real merit daily turned out of office men of meanness preferred for the ease with which they take up and advocate opinions when I shall see the sacred name of religion employed as a state engine to make mankind hate I shall not be their humble advocate.

The other letter, published by Lyon, was written by Joel Barlow. Commenting on a speech of Adams', Barlow wondered why Congress had not sent the president "to a mad house."

Lyon tried to defend himself on the grounds that the Sedition Law was unconstitutional. The court did not look kindly on this defense. Found guilty, Lyon wrote, published, and was re-elected from his cell.

Anthony Haswell, a supporter of Lyon's, was indicted because an advertisement to raise funds for Lyon's fine, described "the oppressive hand of usurped power" Lyon suffered and "the indignities heaped upon him by a hard-hearted savage" [the jailer]. Also, reprinted from the Aurora was a charge Tories were holding government office. Haswell tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain testimony from the Secretary of War to prove the Tory charges. His lawyers argued just as unsuccessfully that the "oppressive hand of power" referred only to the marshal and the jailer.

The most elusive Republican was William Duane, who had married Bache's widow and taken over the Aurora. Duane charged that the British wielded great influence over administration politics and had spent a fortune in bribes. He claimed there was a secret alliance between England and America against France.

Duane appeared for trial, only to have the trial suspended for several months. A procedural reason was given, but the true reason rested with a letter Duane had obtained from Tench Coxe, one-time assistant to Alexander Hamilton in the Treasury. The letter, written years earlier to Coxe by John Adams, claimed the Pinckneys from South Carolina were enlisting help from the British to obtain federal appointments. Although this letter did not prove Duane's extravagant allegations, it showed some evidence of British influence.

While awaiting the new trial, Duane aggravated the Senate. He criticized a proposed, unpublished bill, to settle disputed presidential and vice presidential elections. Then, when summoned to answer questions, he refused to go because his lawyers refused to appear. They believed Senate rules precluded mounting an effective defense. Duane was arrested on a contempt warrant signed by Thomas Jefferson, president of the Senate.

Not until after the Congress adjourned did the administration indict Duane for libeling the Senate. When Jefferson became president, he dismissed that suit. To preserve the Senate's rights, Jefferson ordered a new suit instituted. The grand jury refused to indict.

Because he was one of Duane's lawyers, Thomas Cooper was indicted for a handbill published months prior to Duane's summons from the Senate. Prosecutor William Rawles treated the handbill as inflammatory:

Error leads to discontent, discontent to a fancied idea of oppression, and that to insurrection.

Cooper maintained that his statements were true, he held no malicious motives, and had attributed none to Adams. The judge, Samuel Chase, blocked Cooper's defense at every turn.

When James Thompson Callender faced Judge Chase after being indicted for his savage writings about Adams, like met like. Callender had no regard for truth or decency. Chase had little regard for truth or law. Chase struck down every reasonable defense request made, harassing the defense lawyers until they withdrew from the case.

Callender's sentence expired the day the Act expired. The new Jefferson administration did not seek to renew the Sedition Act, although libel actions did continue under common law.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1951.

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

Alien and Sedition Acts

views updated May 23 2018


In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed four acts to empower the president of the United States to expel dangerousaliens from the country; to give the president authority to arrest, detain, and deport resident aliens hailing from enemy countries during times of war; to lengthen the period of naturalization for immigrants, and to silence Republican criticism of the federalist party. Also an act passed by Congress in 1918 during world war i that made it a crime to disrupt military recruiting or enlistments, to encourage support for Germany and its allies or disrespect for American war efforts, or to otherwise bring the U.S. government, its leaders, or its symbols into disrepute.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Passions over the French Revolution split early American politics. Having endured shays's rebellion and the whiskey rebellion, Federalists saw much to fear in the French Revolution. On the other hand, Democratic-Republicans, led by thomas jefferson, proudly supported the French Revolution as the progeny of the American Revolution. Democratic-Republicans still viewed Britain as an enemy, while the Federalists regarded Britain as a bulwark against French militancy.

In early 1798, john quincy adams, son of President john adams and the U.S. ambassador to Prussia, advised his father that France intended to invade America's western frontier. Jonathon Dayton, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, speculated publicly that troops already massed in French ports were destined for North America. Federal officials feared parts of America were rife with French agents and sympathizers who might rise up in support of an invasion. George Tucker, professor of Law at the College of William and Mary, predicted that 100,000 U.S. inhabitants, including himself, would join a French invading army. Former president george washington, summoned from retirement to lead the U.S. Army against a possible French invasion, expressed concerns that France would invade the southern states first, "because the French will expect from the tenor of the debates in Congress to find more friends there."

Congress responded to these concerns by enacting the alien and sedition acts, the popular names for four laws passed in 1798. On June 18, Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which extended from five to 14 years the period of residence required for alien immigrants to become full U.S. citizens (1 Stat. 566). On June 25, Congress passed the Alien Act, which authorized the president to expel, without a hearing, any alien the president deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety" of the United States or whom the president suspected of "treasonable or secret" inclinations (1 Stat. 570). On July 6, Congress passed the Alien Enemy Act, which authorized the president to arrest, imprison, or banish any resident alien hailing from a country against which the United States had declared war (1 Stat. 577).

None of these first three acts had much practical impact. The Naturalization Act contained a built-in window period that allowed resident aliens to become U.S. citizens before the fourteen-year requirement went into effect. President Adams never invoked the Alien Act, and the passing of the war scare in 1789 rendered the Alien Enemies Act meaningless.

However, the Sedition Act deepened partisan political positions between the Federalist Party and the democratic-republican party. The Sedition Act made it a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both, for citizens or aliens (1) to oppose the execution of federal laws; (2) to prevent a federal officer from performing his or her duties; (3) to aid "any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly, or combination"; or (4) to make any defamatory statement about the federal government or the president (1 Stat. 596).

Because the Federalists controlled Congress and the White House, Republicans believed these laws were aimed at silencing Jeffersonian critics of the Adams administration and its laws and policies. Eighteen people were indicted under the Sedition Act of 1798; 14 were prosecuted, and 10 convicted, some of whom received prison sentences.

The validity of the Sedition Act was never tested in the U.S. Supreme Court before it expired in 1801. But Congress later passed a law that repaid all fines collected under it, and Jefferson, after becoming president in 1801, pardoned all those convicted under the act.

Before becoming president, Jefferson joined Madison in voicing opposition to the Sedition Act by drafting the virginia and kentucky resolutions. Jefferson was responsible for drafting the two Kentucky Resolutions, while Madison penned the one Virginia Resolution. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions condemned the Sedition Act as a violation of the Free Speech Clause to the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The resolutions also argued that Congress had exceeded its powers by passing the law in the first place, since Congress may only exercise those powers specifically delegated to it, and nowhere in Article I of the Constitution is authority given to the legislative branch to regulate political speech. The Kentucky state legislature passed its two resolutions on November 16, 1798, and November 22, 1999, while Virginia passed its one resolution on December 24, 1798.

Sedition Act of 1918

Concern over disloyalty during wartime provided the backdrop for the second Sedition Act in U.S. history. In April 1917, the United States entered World War I when Congress declared war against Germany and its allies. A month later, the Selective Service Act reinstated the military draft. Both the draft and U.S. entry into the war were met with protest at home. Worried that anti-war protestors might interfere with the prosecution of the war, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918.

An amendment to the espionage act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a felony (1) to convey false statements interfering with American war efforts; (2) to willfully employ "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the U.S. form of government, the Constitution, the flag, or U.S. military or naval forces; (3) to urge the curtailed production of necessary war materials; or (4) to advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any such acts. Violations were punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. The law was aimed at curbing political dissent expressed by socialists, anarchists, pacifists, and certain labor leaders.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act of 1918 over free speech objections made by civil libertarians. However, in a famous dissenting opinion that shaped First Amendment law for the rest of the twentieth century, Associate Justice oliver wendell holmes jr. encouraged courts to closely scrutinize prosecutions under the Sedition Act to make sure that only those individuals who created a clear and present danger of immediate criminal activity were convicted (abrams v. united states, 250 U.S. 616, 1180, 40 S. Ct. 17, 63 L. Ed. 1173 [1919]).

further readings

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

Moore, Wayne D. 1994. "Reconceiving Interpretive Autonomy: Insights from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions." Constitutional Commentary 11 (fall).

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


Aliens "Aliens and Civil Rights" (Sidebar); Espionage; Freedom of Speech.

Alien and Sedition Acts

views updated May 11 2018

Alien and Sedition Acts

In March 1797, John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) entered office as the second president of the United States. His term was marked by challenges both internationally, with a war between France and Great Britain, and domestically as political differences grew between members of the Federalist Party and Democratic-Republican Party , the country's two main political parties. In 1798, both tensions culminated in the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts by the Federalist-controlled Congress.

Conflict on the high seas

Great Britain and France were at war over issues related to colonization and commerce. The United States was officially neutral in the war. In 1795, however, the United States had signed a commerce and alliance treaty with Britain called Jay's Treaty . France believed Jay's Treaty was a breach, or violation, of treaties of commerce and alliance that America had signed with France during the American Revolution (1775–83).

In angry response, France began seizing American merchant ships bound for British ports. France forced the sailors on those ships to serve France in its war with Great Britain. American attempts to negotiate peace with France in 1797 resulted in the XYZ Affair . Diplomatic dispatches revealed that three French agents, referred to as X, Y, and Z in the reports, had demanded bribes from the American peace envoy before opening negotiations.

Party politics

Domestic reaction to these foreign affairs emphasized growing philosophical differences between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. While the actions of the French were not popular, many Democratic-Republican Americans still distrusted England and sympathized with the ideals of the French Revolution, by which the people of France overthrew its monarchy in 1789.

Federalists, maintaining their history of antiforeign sentiment, became suspicious of the loyalty of the thousands of French West Indian refugees who flocked into the United States in an effort to escape revolutionary terror. The refugees often aligned themselves with the Democratic-Republicans.

Congress acts

Rallying behind the anti-French sentiment in the wake of the XYZ Affair, in June and July 1798 the Federalists of Congress passed four acts of legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The laws were intended to suppress both alien and domestic subversives, people who opposed the federal government. The Alien and Sedition Acts proved to be convenient tools for undermining the strength of the Democratic-Republican Party as well.

The first of the four laws, called the Naturalization Act, increased the length of residency required before an alien, or foreigner, could apply for American citizenship. Previously the probationary period had been five years. By increasing the period to fourteen years, the Federalists successfully suppressed immigrant citizenship and hence immigrant votes in America, which hurt mostly the Democratic-Republican Party.

Two of the acts were specifically aimed at removing aliens from America. The Alien Friends Act allowed the president to deport any alien suspected of threatening the peace and safety of the United States. The Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to seize, imprison, or deport any aliens, dangerous or not, who were citizens of a country at war with the United States. Neither act was ever enforced, and both expired in 1800.

The Sedition Act proved to be the most controversial and powerful of the acts. Aimed at citizens and aliens alike, the act made it illegal to write, publish, or speak anything of “a false, scandalous, and malicious nature” against the government or the president “with intent to defame … or to bring them into contempt or disrepute.” Acting on behalf of the Adams administration, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering (1745–1829) brought more than a dozen indictments, or formal accusations, under the Sedition Act. Ten resulted in convictions, including those against Matthew Lyon (1749–1822), a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont , and the editors of eight major Democratic-Republican newspapers.


With no public way to criticize the administration or to challenge the Sedition Act, its opponents turned to state legislatures for relief. Thomas Jefferson (1751–1836), who was then vice president, anonymously penned the Kentucky Resolutions as James Madison (1751–1836) drafted the Virginia Resolutions. Both documents emphasized the rights of the states to declare federal laws unconstitutional and to decide when the federal government had overstepped its proper bounds.

While no other states passed official statements of opposition, public support for the Sedition Act eventually began to wane. The trials under the Sedition Act marked an early American confrontation between the power of the federal government and the liberties and free speech that people expected to enjoy in their new nation.

Recognizing that the Federalists may have gone too far, President Adams fired Pickering by May 1800 and no longer urged prosecutions under the Sedition Act. Although he managed to secure peace with France by October 1800, the effects of the Alien and Sedition Acts were profound enough to affect public opinion of the Federalist Party. Vice President Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican candidate for president in the election of 1800, won and was inaugurated the day after the Sedition Act expired by its own terms, on March 3, 1801.

Alien and Sedition Acts

views updated May 14 2018

Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).In 1798, the Federalist Congress passed four laws to check a perceived French threat during the Undeclared Naval War with France. The Naturalization Act (18 June) extended required residence from five to fourteen years before an alien could become a citizen. The Alien Friends Act (25 June) allowed the president to deport any alien deemed dangerous to “peace and safety” and the Alien Enemies Act (July 6) allowed the deportation of any alien from a country at war with the United States. The Sedition Act (14 July) rendered it a crime to make statements intended to defame or bring the president, Congress, or government into contempt or disrepute. Those convicted could be fined up to $2,000 and jailed for two years. The Naturalization and Enemies Acts were permanent; the Alien Friends Act would expire in 1800, and the Sedition Act in 1801. Not vigorously enforced, the Alien Acts convinced many aliens to leave the United States.

Ultimately twenty‐one people were indicted for sedition, and eleven were convicted, receiving sentences of up to eighteen months and fines of $1,000 or more. Influential Republican editors and leaders were the main targets, but any criticism was a federal crime. The Federalists argued that by allowing truth as a defense, the Sedition Act advanced civil liberties. Federal judges at sedition cases, however, interpreted the law so as to guarantee convictions: the accused must prove the truth of their opinions.

In November 1798, Vice President Thomas Jefferson and former congressman James Madison secretly drafted resolutions adopted by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures challenging the Alien and Sedition Acts. These resolutions argued that the states had not delegated power to punish libel to the federal government, and that free government rested on the people's free opinions. As president (1801), Jefferson pardoned all convicted under the Sedition Act and helped pay their fines.
[See also Adams, John; Civil Liberties and War.]


James Morton Smith , Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties, 1956.

Robert J. Allison

Alien and Sedition Acts

views updated May 21 2018

Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) Four US acts designed to curb criticism of the government at a time when war with France seemed imminent. Many of the severest critics were refugees from Europe who were regarded as disloyal. The acts imposed stringent rules on residency before naturalization, and gave the president unprecedented powers to deport undesirable foreigners or imprison them in time of war.

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