When the Adams administration passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Federalist leaders were surprised by the substantial backlash from the populace.
Riots, protests, and petitions sprung up throughout the nation as citizens voiced their displeasure over the new laws. The once-reeling Democratic-Republicans seized an opportunity to organize opposition to the leading Federalists and rode the populist wave to victory in the important election of 1800.
Given the massive ramifications, just why did the Federalists pass the Alien and Sedition Acts?
What were the Alien and Sedition Acts?
The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four separate but related laws passed in the summer of 1798. The four laws were:
- Naturalization Act – Increased the residence period for citizenship from five to fourteen years. Congress repealed the act in 1802.
- Alien Friends Act – Authorized the President to deport all aliens considered dangerous to the United States. Authorized for two years.
- Alien Enemies Act – A wartime measure that allowed the President to imprison or deport any national of a country at war with the US. It is still in effect today.
- Sedition Act – Banned criticism against the federal government. Authorized until March 3, 1801.
Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts amid the backdrop of strained relations 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 complicated diplomacy.
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 US 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 overtures insulted the United States which subsequently prepared for and authorized the so-called Quasi-War with France in 1798. With these events going on in the world, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Why were the Alien and Sedition Acts Passed?
Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts primarily in anticipation of war with France, but also due to fear of disloyalty from non-citizens, fear of Revolution spreading to America, and to limit the criticism of the Adams administration.
As you can see, fear was a main factor behind the four laws. Federalist leaders feared the greater populace and the ramifications of a war with France and greedily attempted to cling to power.
The Federalists used this fear to justify passing the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 which eventually helped contribute to the demise of their party.
Anticipation of War with France
By the summer of 1798 the Adams administration saw war with France as imminent.
France’s unrestricted use of privateers to disrupt and capture American merchant ships, as well as the scandalous XYZ Affair strained relations to a tipping point. In July 1798, Congress passed a measure that allowed for executive action to protect American shipping, beginning the so-called “Quasi-War” with France.
In anticipation of the war and an escalation of the conflict the federal government passed measures to increase the size of both the army and navy in case of an invasion. The United States’ military power was weak at the time and the nation was vulnerable to invasion. Its navy was so small that it could barely even defend existing merchant ships.
Individual states like Virginia also passed measures to help strengthen and train their militia due to increased activity from British and French privateers off their coasts. An invasion seemed imminent, and the United States was not prepared.2
On the domestic side, Congress also passed the four laws making up the Alien and Sedition Acts between June and July 1798.
The Adams administration sought to quell any domestic unrest by giving the President the ability to deport any dangerous non-citizens. It also attempted to silence any dissent and disinformation that could arise from the war with the Sedition Act.
While the intent may have been genuine, the Adams administration strictly enforced the measures in a partisan way leading to accusations of the law being used only to silence political opponents.
Fear of Disloyalty from Non-Citizens
Another reason that the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts was due to their fear of disloyalty from non-citizens. As a new nation, the United States was composed of many citizens that were recently subjects or citizens of another country. In addition, many foreign nationals lived within the United States.
Most citizens saw themselves as citizens of their local communities or states first, and citizens of the United States second. These facts led many leaders in the federal government to suspect dubious loyalties.
Many of the early domestic disturbances of the time such as Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, and the ultimate battle over the nation’s direction between the two emerging political parties seemed to confirm these thoughts.
What wasn’t quite as clear was the role of foreign nationals in encouraging rebellion and dissent. Many Federalist leaders believed the French to be complicit in inciting these rebellions.
President George Washington himself believed in a wide French conspiracy among the populace encouraging disloyalty and dissent. With these beliefs it is not surprising that Federalists tended to promote closer ties with Great Britain over France.3
With a war looming with France, the United States government sought the ability to quell any and all disloyalty from non-citizens. Under the Alien Friends Act any non-citizen deemed dangerous by the President could be deported without a trial.
While Congress never enforced the Alien Friends Act, its mere existence helped to encourage voluntary departures from French foreign nationals, and the mere threat of the law helped silence dissent from non-US citizens.1
Federalist Fear of Revolution Spreading to America
One of the core principles of the Federalists was their belief that a republican form of government could only work if its leadership was composed of a wealthy aristocracy.
The Federalists were deeply untrusting of those who believed in a more democratic form of government where populism ruled instead of the wealthy elite.
Therefore, the Federalists turned a wary eye towards the French, particularly following the French Revolution and the execution of the King and those among the wealthy elite. One of their greatest fears was that French revolutionary ideals would spread to America.1
As their opponents in government, the Jeffersonian Democrats, embraced populism and new immigrants, the word “republicanism” soon became synonymous with “revolution.”1
The Adams administration governed at a time when each political faction truly thought the other would destroy the Union if in power. With that line of thinking, one can justify a whole host of actions to “save” the Union.
It was this fear that directly led to the Alien and Sedition Acts. By lengthening the naturalization period for immigrants to become citizens, as well as silencing opposing political ideologies via the Sedition Act, Federalists could help their chances at reelection in the crucial election of 1800.
Unfortunately, their plan backfired as citizens rejected the infringement upon their civil liberties.
Limit Criticism of Federalists
The Federalists’ intent for the Alien and Sedition Acts was to protect the American people from foreigners and propagandists. These people had the opportunity to sway public opinion against the federal government through lies, rumors, and propaganda.
The Federalists envisioned the Sedition Act would address this threat. However, the Adams administration went on to target prominent members of the press who criticized Adams and the federal government.
As Federalist-backed newspapers generally supported the war with France and Adams’ actions, this meant the full wrath of the Sedition Act was placed against the opposition.
Publishers of Democratic-Republican newspapers such as Benjamin Franklin Cache, William Duane, James Callender, and Anthony Haswell were targeted, indicted, and imprisoned for libel under the Sedition Act.
Even sitting Congressmen were not safe. Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon wrote that Adams was engaged in a “continual grasp for power” and “an unbound thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”4
He was later indicted for sedition, arrested, and sentenced to four months in prison, whereupon his constituents regarded him as a martyr and reelected him by a wide margin.
In a more humorous case, authorities arrested a commoner named Luther Baldwin after he exclaimed to his drinking buddies that “he did not care if [parade attendees] fired through [Adams’] arse.” 4
Baldwin and his friends were jailed until their $40-150 fines were paid in full.
Clearly, the Federalists applied the Sedition Act far beyond its original intent of protecting Americans from disinformation.
To recap, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts for several reasons:
- In anticipation of war with France
- Fear of disloyalty from non-citizens
- Federalists fear of revolution spreading to America
- Limit criticism of Federalists
Regardless of the reasons, the acts proved to be extremely unpopular with the American public. Where the Adams administration once had the nation’s backing for Adams’ handling of France’s inflammatory actions, the acts reversed this sentiment.
Other consequences resulted as a response to the Alien and Sedition Acts such as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. The theories espoused in the Resolutions—such as the nullification doctrine—further emboldened hard-line states’ rights activists, which became a major contributor towards the Civil War.
Ultimately, the historical significance of the Alien and Sedition Acts lies in the popular backlash that contributed to the demise of the Federalist party and the transition to widespread backing of Jeffersonian ideals.
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) Davidson, Philip G. “Virginia and the Alien and Sedition Laws.” The American Historical Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 1931, pp. 336–42. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1840329.
3) Smelser, Marshall. “George Washington and the Alien and Sedition Acts.” The American Historical Review, vol. 59, no. 2, 1954, pp. 322–34. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1843624.
4) Belt, Gorgon T. “The Sedition Act of 1798.” Freedom Foreign Institute, 2016, pp. 1–10. https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Sedition_Act_cases.pdf.