Alien Enemy Act

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Alien Enemy Act


By: John Adams

Date: July 6, 1798

Source: Adams, John. "Alien Enemy Act." Statutes at Large. Boston: Little, Brown, 1798.

About the Author: John Adams (1735–1826) served as the second President of the United States from 1797 to 1801. A conservative who belonged to the Federalist Party, Adams spent his presidency wrestling with the problems associated with creating a new nation.


When France signed the Treaty of Amity with the United States in 1778, it officially became the first friend of the fledgling nation. This friendship did not last for long. By 1798, relations with France had deteriorated to the point that an undeclared Quasi-War had begun. President John Adams, concerned about protecting the U.S. from French saboteurs and spies, pushed the Alien Enemy Act through Congress.

The Alien Enemy Act is generally regarded as one of the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798. All of the acts arose in response to the same concerns. The beginning of the French Revolution initiated a generation of warfare between France and Great Britain. The fighting placed all neutral nations, especially the U.S., in a precarious position. As war escalated in Europe, both France and Britain violated U.S. neutrality rights by seizing American ships and sailors. Americans viewed this as an insult to their national honor and a threat to their sovereignty. However, the young nation was far too weak to do much about the situation. Federalists argued that the U.S. should link itself with Britain because of a shared culture and the stability of the English government. Democratic-Republicans (the forerunners to the modern Democratic Party) argued that the U.S. should move closer to France because France had supported the U.S. during the Revolutionary War and had a similar democratic government. In 1798, the U.S began a Quasi-War with France. This undeclared war took place strictly at sea.

In the midst of war, Congress passed a series of legislative acts, including the Alien Enemy Act, in response to a request from Adams. In practice, the act was transparently partisan. It was used to punish Democratic-Republicans, whom Federalists could barely distinguish from traitors. It was an era when the idea of loyal dissent had not yet become established. Democratic-Republicans for their part also resorted to scandalous lies and misrepresentations. The Federalists, however, controlled the machinery of government; Democratic-Republicans were the ones jailed and deported, although very few were prosecuted. When Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson beat Adams in the 1800 election, he let all of the Alien and Sedition Acts quietly expire.


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 or predatory incursion shall be perpetrated, 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 of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies. And the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized, in any event, as aforesaid, by his proclamation thereof, or other public act, to direct the conduct to be observed, on the part of the United States, towards the aliens who shall become liable, as aforesaid; the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject, and in what cases, and upon what security their residence shall be permitted, and to provide for the removal of those, who, not being permitted to reside within the United States, shall refuse or neglect to depart therefrom; and to establish any other regulations which shall be found necessary in the premises and for the public safety: Provided, that aliens resident within the United States, who shall become liable as enemies, in the manner aforesaid, and who shall not be chargeable with actual hostility, or other crime against the public safety, shall be allowed, for the recovery, disposal, and removal of their goods and effects, and for their departure, the full time which is, or shall be stipulated by any treaty, where any shall have been between the United States, and the hostile nation or government, of which they shall be natives, citizens, denizens or subjects: and where no such treaty shall have existed, the President of the United States may ascertain and declare such reasonable time as may be consistent with the public safety, and according to the dictates of humanity and national hospitality.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That after any proclamation shall be made as aforesaid, it shall be the duty of the several courts of the United States, and of each state, having criminal jurisdiction, and of the several judges and justices of the courts of the United States, and they shall be, and are hereby respectively, authorized upon complaint, against any alien or alien enemies, as aforesaid who shall be resident and at large within such jurisdiction or district, to the danger of the public peace or safety, and contrary to the tenor or intent of such proclamation, or other regulations which the President of the United States shall and may establish in the premises, to cause such alien or aliens to be duly apprehended and convened before such court, judge, or justice; and after a full examination and hearing on such complaint, and sufficient cause therefore appearing, shall and may order such alien or aliens to be removed out the territory of the United States, or to give sureties of their good behavior, or they be otherwise restrained, conformably to the proclamation or regulations which shall and may be established as aforesaid, and may imprison, or otherwise secure such alien or aliens, until the order which shall and may be made, as aforesaid, shall be performed.

Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the marshal of the district in which any alien enemy shall be apprehended, who by the President of the United States, or by order of any court, judge or justice, as aforesaid, shall be required to depart, and to be removed, as aforesaid, to provide therefore, and to execute such order, by himself or his deputy, or other discreet person or persons to be employed by him, causing a removal of such alien out of the territory of the United States; and for such removal the marshal shall have the warrant of the President of the United States, or of the court, judge or justice ordering the same, as the case may be.

Approved, July 6, 1798


The Quasi-War ended with the Treaty of Mortefontaine in 1800. However, relations between the two countries remained poor. Jefferson, Adams' successor, prepared for war when France closed New Orleans to American trade in 1802. When Napoleon suddenly decided to sell Louisiana to the U.S., the 1803 Louisiana Purchase removed the French presence from North America and dramatically reduced tensions with the United States. The respite proved to be brief. As France battled with Great Britain in the Napoleonic Wars, both sides seized American ships and shipping. The U.S. responded with a series of legislative restrictions, including the 1807 Embargo Act, which stopped trade with both countries. Only the defeat of Napoleon ended American tensions with France. By the mid-nineteenth century, both countries were firm allies.

In times of war, some Americans argue that constitutionally guaranteed freedoms need to be suspended to preserve national security. Statutes similar to the Alien Enemy Act have remained in force throughout most of U.S. history and have been used in many declared wars. Enemy aliens were interned in subsequent wars, including the War of 1812, World War I, and most notably, World War II. After the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, such imprisonment fell deeply into disfavor as an abuse of civil liberties. Although there have been occasional calls to jail perceived national enemies, such as Muslims in the 1990s, no national public official has publicly voiced support for such measures. Any official who does advocate such measures is likely to come under heavy attack for trampling the freedoms enshrined by the Constitution.



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

Smith, James M. Freedom's Letters: The Alien and Sedition haws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Vidal, Gore. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.

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Alien Enemy Act

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