In 1798 President John Adams passed one of the most controversial sets of laws in US history. Known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, they hold great historical significance, particularly for the popular backlash that resulted.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws that were designed to aid and protect the United States in a potential war with France. The first three addressed foreigners living in the United States, or “aliens,” while the last protected against campaigns of disinformation from the press.
Historians concur that despite the intent, the acts severely impinged upon civil liberties, particularly First Amendment rights. When the Federalist-dominated government used the new laws to silence opposition to their policies, widespread discontent and demonstrations followed.
Widely celebrated upon passage by the ruling Federalists in government, the infamous acts had significant consequences that eventually helped doom the party.
Summary of the Alien and Sedition Acts
The Alien and Sedition Acts can be summarized by a series of four separate but related laws passed in mid-1798. The four laws consisted of:
|Increased the period of residence required to become a citizen from 5 to 14 years. Congress repealed the act in 1802.
|Alien Friends Act
|Authorized the President to deport all aliens he deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” Authorized for two years.
|Alien Enemies Act
|A wartime measure that allows the President to apprehend, restrain, secure, or remove any national of a country at war with the US. It is still in effect today.
|Banned the publishing of “false, scandalous, and malicious” writings against the federal government. Authorized until March 3, 1801.
While Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts for a variety of reasons, chief among them was the fear and expectation of war with France.
Once the United States’ closest ally, relations with France worsened throughout the 1790s. The French Revolution played a role in this as the instability in the French government strained relations.
Another major divisive event was the signing of Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain in 1794. The treaty merely delayed war with Britain, but the French viewed it as the beginning of a US/British partnership. In response, France began to seize neutral American merchant vessels.1
Virtually powerless with a weak navy to protect the United States’ merchant vessels, President John Adams sought a diplomatic resolution. However, this strategy led to the infamous XYZ Affair where French diplomats demanded bribes in exchange for peace.
The demands insulted the United States which subsequently prepared for and authorized the so-called Quasi-War with France in 1798. It is against this backdrop that Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.
The Significance of the Alien and Sedition Acts
The historical significance of the Alien and Sedition Acts lies in how it tested First Amendment protections, was anti-immigration, led to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and doomed the Federalists in the election of 1800.
Surprisingly, the Alien and Sedition Acts also touched on a number of other divisive issues, including states’ versus federal powers, slavery, war powers, and more.
Many of these same issues would linger for the next several decades, eventually culminating in the Civil War.
Tested First Amendment Protections
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Alien and Sedition Acts was how it tested the First Amendment protections guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
Under the Sedition Act citizens and the press could neither criticize the Adams administration without coming into conflict with the law, nor write misleading or false statements.
What made the act most controversial was how the Federalist-dominated government primarily enforced the Sedition Act against political opponents that criticized the Adams administration. While formal political parties did not yet exist at the time, Federalists dominated one faction, while Jeffersonian Democrats opposed them.
The Adams administration specifically targeted publishers loyal to the emerging Democratic-Republican faction. No one was off limits.
Matthew Lyon from Vermont was a sitting House of Representatives member accused of sedition and jailed during the 1798 election year. Despite this his constituents re-elected him, making him the only man to ever win election while in jail.1
While historians generally agree that the Sedition Act would be unconstitutional by today’s standards, what is most interesting is that the core of the opposition to the law centered around states’ rights vs federal power, not the First Amendment violations.
Many states already had their own laws in place with restrictions on speech that made libel a criminal offense. Even during the Revolutionary war nearly all states passed some form of legislation suppressing free speech with the aim to prevent wartime disinformation.2
Southerners in particular were prone to believe that the power to restrict freedom of speech rested with the states and not the federal government.
While opponents brought forward other arguments against the measure, it is almost impossible to separate them from the context that they believed states should have those powers to regulate speech.2
Another major aspect of the Alien and Sedition Acts revolved around the first three laws targeting foreigners living in the United States, or “aliens.”
Opponents criticized the Alien laws as anti-immigration and as a way to suppress Federalist opposition.
Most immigrants at the time tended to align with Democratic-Republicans who adhered to the Jeffersonian ideals and beliefs. To transform the United States into an agrarian-dominated nation, immigrants were needed to help populate and work the vast tracts of land.
The Naturalization Act could be interpreted as an attempt to limit the influence of these Republican-aligned immigrants in future elections. By lengthening the period of naturalization from five to fourteen years, fewer immigrants could vote in elections, giving Federalists an advantage.
The Alien Enemies Act drew little controversy as it was designed solely as a wartime measure, given it is still in existence today. James Madison himself utilized the law against British nationals during the War of 1812.
While the Alien Friends Act was never enforced, its mere existence had the intended effect by silencing dissent from non-citizens.1
Once again, opposition did not center around the constitutionality of the anti-immigrant laws, but rather on the belief it was a power reserved for the states, not the federal government.
After all, the state of Virginia already had an exact law in existence that gave the Virginia legislature and the president of the United States the power to deport any aliens.2
Southerners did not truly believe the Alien Laws violated civil liberties; rather they opposed the measures as they were concerned the Alien Laws could eventually apply to the institution of slavery.
Any issue involving slavery could not rest in the power of the federal government, lest the southern way of life be forever threatened.
Led to Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
One of the most important outcomes of the Alien and Sedition Acts was how it led to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions are inflammatory declarations passed by the respective state legislatures in 1798-1799. Secretly authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the resolutions argued that states had the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional and proposed the theory of nullification.
While the Virginia Resolutions were more moderate than Kentucky’s, both exposed the same principles favoring states’ rights.2
These resolutions were a direct response to the hated Alien and Sedition Acts. While Jefferson and Madison believed they were standing up for states’ rights and the Constitution, the resolutions became much more dangerous to the Union than the Alien and Sedition Acts they derided.
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions became part of the Democratic-Republican platform in the election of 1800, and the platform’s hard-line stance significantly contributed to the splitting of the Union.
While neither resolution outright declared the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional, they paved the way for other states to do so in the future.
Jefferson and Madison soon found themselves on the opposite end when New England states debated declaring the Embargo Act of 1807 unconstitutional and the 1814 Hartford Convention saw the New England states debate secession.
Later, South Carolina became the first state to outright declare a law unconstitutional by nullifying the 1828 Tariff of Abominations during the Nullification Crisis that nearly split the Union. The state used the nullification doctrine established in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions as justification for its actions.
While the Alien and Sedition Acts were certainly controversial, the general electorate rebelled against them and voted out the Federalists responsible. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions went on to contribute greatly towards the eventual Civil War.
Contributed to Federalists Demise in Election of 1800
Lastly, the backlash from the Alien and Sedition Acts helped contribute to the Federalists’ demise in the important election of 1800.
The petitions and protests that arose throughout the nation in response served as a rallying cry and helped to organize Jefferson’s supporters into a more formal political party.3
These protests originated at the local level, not simply from the upper echelon down. While Madison and Jefferson led the battle cry, many local polities protested of their own accord.
The superior organizational capacity of the Democratic-Republicans was one of the primary ways they gained the upper hand in a sweeping victory during the election.
In a way, the Alien and Sedition Acts reversed Federalist fortunes and revived Jefferson’s political ambitions. In the wake of the French seizing US merchant vessels, the XYZ Affair, and the Quasi-War with France, a majority of citizens scorned Jeffersonianism as the faction favored closer ties with France.
After all those events, Federalist influence dominated and benefited from a strong nationalistic fervor. By passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalists gave Jefferson ammunition to boost his following, and he rode that wave to the Presidency in 1800.
Alexander Hamilton predicted that the Alien and Sedition Acts would be politically devastating to the Federalists and bolster the Jeffersonians. He remarked:4
“If we push things to an extreme, we shall then give to faction body and solidity.”
Hamilton proved right, as voters rejected the Federalists in what some historians call the “revolution of 1800.”
To recap, the significance of the Alien and Sedition Acts lies in how they:
- Tested First Amendment protections
- Led to Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
- Contributed to Federalists’ demise in the election of 1800
While no one was ever deported by the Alien Friends Act, fourteen individuals eventually were indicted under the Sedition Act, with ten convicted and sentenced to pay fines ranging from five to one thousand dollars.2
Historians generally agree that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional by today’s standards. However, at the time the Supreme Court did not get the chance to review the law’s constitutionality as the concept of judicial review did not exist until 1803 following Marbury v. Madison.
The Supreme Court never did formally address the act as the Jeffersonian Congress allowed its measures to expire. Nevertheless, between 1840-1844 Congress itself essentially declared the acts unconstitutional by remitting the fines of the several victims of the acts.1
Given their enormous significance over the following decades, the Alien and Sedition Acts rightfully belong among the most ill-advised series of laws in the history of the United States.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Farber, Alan J. “Reflections on the Sedition Act of 1798.” American Bar Association Journal, vol. 62, no. 3, 1976, pp. 324–28. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25727556.
2) Berns, Walter. “Freedom of the Press and the Alien and Sedition Laws: A Reappraisal.” The Supreme Court Review, vol. 1970, 1970, pp. 109–59. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108724.
3) Bradburn, Douglas. “A Clamor in the Public Mind: Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 3, 2008, pp. 565–600. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25096814.
4) Smith, James Morton. “Alexander Hamilton, the Alien Law, and Seditious Libels.” The Review of Politics, vol. 16, no. 3, 1954, pp. 305–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1405146.