In the summer of 1798, the United States was close to war with France. Many members of the Federalist Party, including President John Adams and Federalist leaders in Congress, not only believed that their Democratic-Republican opponents were pro-French, but that their vocal opposition to administration policies was dangerous to the country’s security. Therefore, to silence (as well as to weaken) the Democratic-Republican party, Congressional Federalists passed four statutes which are collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Three laws were aimed at foreign aliens, who tended to support the Democratic-Republican Party and its leaders:
- the Naturalization Act, which required that aliens to be residents within the US for 14 instead of 5 years before they could become US citizens.
- the Alien Act, which granted the President broad powers to deport during peacetime any non-US citizen he deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States."
- the Alien Enemies Act, which permitted the federal government to arrest, deport or imprison any alien belonging to an enemy nation at war with the United States.
The final statute was the Sedition Act. This measure aimed to curb public criticism of the Adams administration, especially at the hands of pro-Democratic-Republican newspapers. Passed on July 14, 1798, the Act asserted that to "print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the federal government - including the President himself - was a treasonable crime punishable by imprisonment and/or fines.
Although the Adams administration did act upon the alien laws, the Sedition Act was enforced with great energy. Over two dozen pro-Republican newspaper editors were arrested, fined, and imprisoned. Their newspapers, moreover, were shut down. Included among those charged was Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the pro-Jeffersonian Philadelphia paper, the Aurora.
These efforts to halt political dissent backfired. Many Americans believed the acts unconstitutional and were outraged that newspaper editors had been charged and imprisoned. The acts also led to the passage of Virginia and Kentucky resolutions(1799), written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson respectively. Passed by their state legislatures, these resolves condemned the actions of the Fedealist Congress and asserted that the states had the authority to declare them (and all tyrannical statutes) unconstitutional.
The Alien and Sedition Acts also politically weakened the Federalist Party during the election of 1800, especially after the diplomatic crisis with France passed without war. After Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency, Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802, while the other statutes were allowed to expire.
Questions to pose in a lecture and/or class discussion on the Alien and Sedition Acts:
1. Why did the Federalists pass the Alien and Sedition Acts? Why did they appear so unnerved by robust political debate and discourse?
2. How should the federal government balance national security concerns and personal freedoms in times of international crisis?
3. Did the Sedition Act inadvertently strengthen the First Amendment and Americans’ attachment to freedom of the press and the principle of free speech?
4. Were the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions dangerous documents in that they asserted the states’ power to declare certain federal statutes unconstitutional?