Alien Act of 1798

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Alien Act of 1798


By: The Fifth Congress of the United States

Date: June 25, 1798

Source: "Alien Act of 1798." Fifth United States Congress.

About the Author: Speaker of the House of Representatives Jonathan Dayton (1760–1824) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), U.S. vice president and president of the Senate, were the two leaders of the Fifth U.S. Congress. Dayton was elected to the House of Representatives (1791–1799) and was the Speaker of the House of Representatives for the Fourth and Fifth Congresses. He was also elected to the U.S. Senate (1799–1805). Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States (1801–1809).


In 1798, John Adams (1735–1826), of the Federalist Party, became the second President of the United States and Thomas Jefferson, of the Democratic-Republican Party (or Jeffersonian Party), became the vice-president. The Federalists, led by Adams and Alexander Hamilton, were composed mostly of wealthy, propertied-class businessmen. They were concerned about the country's security (and their own properties), thought most citizens were irresponsible, and did not like criticism from the opposing party. The Jeffersonian party, led by Jefferson and James Madison, consisted primarily of poor farmers, craftspeople, and immigrants. They prized the country's liberty, felt the country's power should rest with individuals, and were suspicious of the Federalists. They were often called anti-federalists because of their open and frequently bitter disagreements with the Federalists.

The two parties vehemently disagreed about the country's relationship with France. The United States had temporarily resolved its differences with England, arousing the anger of French leaders (who provided the U.S. with aid during the Revolutionary War and were enemies of England). After French diplomats threatened the United States, the Federalists wanted to declare war on France, while the Jeffersonians wanted to remain at peace. With talks of war and rumors of French invasion running rampant throughout the country, many Federalists felt they could better protect the United States from foreign invaders—while weakening the Jeffersonians—if they enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Federalist members of Congress proposed four laws to make the United States more secure from foreign spies and domestic traitors. On July 14, 1798, President Adams signed into law the Alien Act along with three other acts within the Alien and Sedition Acts.


SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance 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 any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States, within such time as shall be expressed in such order, which order shall be served on such alien by delivering him a copy thereof, or leaving the same at his usual abode, and returned to the office of the Secretary of State, by the marshal or other person to whom the same shall be directed. 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. Provided always, and be it further enacted, that if any alien so ordered to depart shall prove to the satisfaction of the President, by evidence to be taken before such person or persons as the President shall direct, who are for that purpose hereby authorized to administer oaths, that no injury or danger to the United States will arise from suffering such alien to reside therein, the President may grant a license to such alien to remain within the United States for such time as he shall judge proper, and at such place as he may designate. And the President may also require of such alien to enter into a bond to the United States, in such penal sum as he may direct, with one or more sufficient sureties to the satisfaction of the person authorized by the President to take the same, conditioned for the good behavior of such alien during his residence in the United States, and not violating his license, which license the President may revoke, whenever he shall think proper.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, whenever he may deem it necessary for the public safety, to order to be removed out of the territory thereof, any alien who may or shall be in prison in pursuance of this act; and to cause to be arrested and sent out of the United States such of those aliens as shall have been ordered to depart therefrom and shall not have obtained a license as aforesaid, in all cases where, in the opinion of the President, the public safety requires a speedy removal. And if any alien so removed or sent out of the United States by the President shall voluntarily return thereto, unless by permission of the President of the United States, such alien on conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That every master or commander of any ship or vessel which shall come into any port of the United States after the first day of July next, shall immediately on his arrival make report in writing to the collector or other chief officer of the customs of such port, of all aliens, if any, on board his vessel, specifying their names, age, the place of nativity, the country from which they shall have come, the nation to which they belong and owe allegiance, their occupation and a description of their persons, as far as he shall be informed thereof, and on failure, every such master and commander shall forfeit and pay three hundred dollars, for the payment whereof on default of such master or commander, such vessel shall also be holden, and may by such collector or other officer of the customs be detained. And it shall be the duty of such collector or other officer of the customs, forthwith to transmit to the office of the department of state true copies of all such returns.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the circuit and district courts of the United States, shall respectively have cognizance of all crimes and offences against this act. And all marshals and other officers of the United States are required to execute all precepts and orders of the President of the United States issued in pursuance or by virtue of this act.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for any alien who may be ordered to be removed from the United States, by virtue of this act, to take with him such part of his goods, chattels, or other property, as he may find convenient; and all property left in the United States by any alien, who may be removed, as aforesaid, shall be, and remain subject to his order and disposal, in the same manner as if this act had not been passed.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force for and during the term of two years from the passing thereof.

Jonathan Dayton, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

TH. Jefferson, Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate.

I Certify that this Act did originate in the Senate.

Attest, Sam. A. Otis, Secretary

APPROVED, June 25, 1798.

John Adams

President of the United States.


The Alien Act of 1798—officially, An Act Concerning Aliens, and sometimes also called the Alien Friends Act—authorized the president to detain, arrest, deport, or imprison any alien that was considered dangerous to the country, whether during peace or war. The law had the potential to authorize the removal of large numbers of immigrants, though it never resulted in the deportation of any aliens and was in effect for only two years.

Besides the Alien Act, the Alien and Sedition Acts also contained three other acts. First, the Alien Enemies Act (An Act Respecting Alien Enemies) authorized the president, once war had been declared, to deport or imprison any male citizen associated with a country fighting against the United States. This law could potentially have led to the removal of 25,000 French-American citizens. No person was deported under this law, however, because the country did not go to war. Second, the Naturalization Act (An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization) increased residency requirements from five years to fourteen years for immigrants seeking citizenship. Since immigrants generally joined the Jeffersonian Party, lengthening the citizenship time would have impeded the growth of the Jeffersonians and strengthened the power of the Federalists. Third, the Sedition Act (An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States) outlawed conspiracies and made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. In reality, any Jeffersonian who spoke against Federalists—especially the Adams administration—were likely targets.

Although the Federalists stated publicly that these acts were intended to increase national security, for all intents and purposes the laws were enacted to control dissent, to silence opposing views, and to increase Federalist power. The laws were enacted specifically to eliminate criticisms levied against the Adams administration and the Federalists by Thomas Jefferson and the Jeffersonians.

The four laws limited the right of free speech and dissent in the United States. In particular, the Jeffersonians felt that the Alien Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). Consequently, the Jeffersonians drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which sought elimination of the Alien Act at the state level. In the resolutions, the authors accused Congress of exceeding its powers. They also declared the Alien and Sedition Acts void.

At the same time, Federalist members organized an alien list for deportation. Prominent Jeffersonian newspaper editors and publishers and U.S. Congressman Matthew Lyon (a Jeffersonian from Vermont) were on the list. Lyon was indicted for intentionally criticizing President Adams. He was found guilty by a Federalist judge, spent four months in jail, and was re-elected to office from his jail cell. Thirteen more indictments were brought under the acts, with some people being brought to trial.

During these years, the acts provoked a debate between Federalist and Jeffersonian politicians over freedom of speech and the press. Of note, James Madison (1751–1836), who became the fourth U.S. president, wrote an exceptionally skillful argument against the acts.

The acts expired at the end of John Adams's presidency, which occurred on March 3, 1801. Thomas Jefferson was elected the third U.S. president and members of the Jeffersonian Party were elected to a majority in the Congress. Jefferson stopped prosecutions under the acts, and he arranged for those affected by these laws to be compensated or apologized to by members of Congress. During Jefferson's two terms as president, he developed new definitions of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are in effect in the United States today. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Alien and Sedition Acts were known as the first attack on basic American civil liberties.

In the twenty-first century, parallels have been drawn between the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (short for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the PATRIOT Act has increased the power of the federal government to gather domestic intelligence and restrict the activities of potentially dangerous citizens. Many organizations and individuals find a connection between the Alien and Sedition Acts, especially the Alien Act, and the PATRIOT Act with regards to limiting civil liberties for the sake of security in the pursuit of domestic and international terrorism. Others see the additional security restrictions as necessary in a time of war on terrorism.



Rudanko, Martti Juhani. James Madison and Freedom of Speech: Major Debates in the Early Republic. Dallas, TX: University Press of America, 2004.

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

Web sites

The University of Oklahoma College of haw. "The Sedition Act of 1798." 〈〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).

The White House. "John Adams." 〈〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).

The White House. "Thomas Jefferson." 〈〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).

The Avalon Project at Yale haw School. "An Act Respecting Alien Enemies." 〈〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).

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Alien Act of 1798

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