The Alien and Sedition acts, passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress with a modicum of Democratic-Republican support in the summer of 1798, were a compilation of four laws: the Naturalization Act of 1798, the Alien Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Act. Although the acts were used by Federalists to suppress their political opposition, the Democratic-Republican Party, this was not the sole intent of the legislation. More than the product of Federalist revenge against their Jeffersonian opponents, these measures were born from fear for the survival of the republic.
When, during the revival of Anglo-French hostilities, the Senate ratified the Jay Treaty with Great Britain in 1796 (providing a preferential arrangement with the British), the French began attacking American commercial shipping on the high seas in an engagement known as the Quasi-War. By 1798, French warships had captured more than three hundred American vessels. In the spring and summer of 1798, Federalists and many Democratic-Republicans anticipated a French invasion of the United States. Both knew that French officials, such as "Citizen" Edmond Genêt, had for years meddled in American politics and had attempted to enlist American support for French military causes. Moreover, they had witnessed the immigration of thousands of Irish and French refugees into the United States during the 1790s. Although the Democratic-Republicans enjoyed the political support of these immigrants, both Federalists and Republicans feared that the French émigrés could sympathize or even ally with a French invading force, and both parties recognized that the Irish had long supported the French as enemies of Great Britain. Considered in this context, the three alien laws (Alien Enemies Act, Naturalization Act, and Alien Act) were as much real national security measures, designed to remove potential spies, collaborators, or instigators of domestic unrest, as they were elements of a repressive Federalist program to stifle Republican dissent. The Federalists also had an additional reason to restrict the rights of aliens in this country—their ethnocentric disdain for those ethnic minorities that were not Anglo-Saxon.
President John Adams signed the first piece of alien legislation, the Naturalization Act of 1798, into law on June 18. This law continued a trend seen in the last decade of that century toward restricting immigration and naturalization. The First Congress passed a naturalization law in 1790 that required only two years' residency by any free, white alien in the United States and an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution. In 1795, Federalists succeeded in amending that law, raising the residency requirement to five years and also demanding that the prospective citizen renounce all former allegiances.
But the Federalists who sought to revise the law once more in 1798 meant to increase the conditions for citizenship beyond what might be seen as reasonable. Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist representative from Massachusetts, the new bill's sponsor, and member of the House Committee for the Protection of Commerce and Defence of the Country, not only wished to put an end to immigration and naturalization, but also presented an amendment to bar all naturalized American citizens from 1798 forward from ever "holding an office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States." This would have effectively barred Thomas Jefferson's naturalized supporters from controlling Congress.
Samuel Sitgreaves, Federalist representative from Pennsylvania, agreed with Otis's intention, but he worried that such an attempt to eliminate naturalization would bring charges of unconstitutionality by the opposition party, so he suggested that the House simply extend the time of residence to such an extent that it would effectively exclude immigrants from holding national office. Persuaded by Sitgreaves's argument, Otis withdrew his amendment. The committee subsequently drafted a new bill that essentially followed Sitgreaves's suggestion by raising the residency requirement from 5 to 14 years. The bill then passed by a single vote in both houses of Congress, despite vociferous Democratic-Republican opposition.
Two alien bills were passed after the Naturalization Act. The Alien Act of June 25 gave the president sweeping authority to deport "all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or … suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government." The president was not limited to acting against the aliens of an enemy nation, nor was he confined to such broad powers solely during wartime. When Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the Treasury and still an influential Federalist Party strategist, learned of this he was dumbfounded. Hamilton predicted that these provisions would provide political capital for the opposition. Hamilton's fears proved correct, as German American protesters—erstwhile Federalists—near the capital of Philadelphia burned mock copies of the Alien Act and then voted Democratic-Republican in the fall elections.
Democratic-Republicans moved to frame another alien bill that would be much more specific, distinguishing between peaceful émigrés and possible enemies. The Alien Enemies Act, passed on July 6, provided that in time of war or invasion by a foreign nation, male residents above the age of 14 who were citizens of that nation might be apprehended and deported as alien enemies by presidential proclamation. This law not only limited the president as to whom he could deport and when, it also strictly outlined the procedures for the courts and the officers of the law to follow, effectively removing enforcement from the executive branch.
As a result of the passage of the Alien Enemies Act, many recently arrived immigrants left the United States. Some went into hiding. Other potential immigrants—especially English and Irish political radicals—never left home. Ironically, the Alien Enemies Act was not enforced during the Quasi-War with France, but, to the chagrin of Federalists, it was enforced during the War of 1812 against unnaturalized British immigrants.
On July 14, the most repressive piece of Federalist national security legislation—the Sedition Act—became law with the signature of John Adams. The law was composed of two parts: the first, which was not so oppressive, clearly defined the crime of sedition; the second, more odious, part concerned seditious libel. Sedition, the law reasoned, consisted of a conspiracy to "oppose any measure … of government … to impede the operation of any law, … to intimidate or to prevent any person holding a place or office in … the government … from undertaking … his trust or duty." It carried the charge of high misdemeanor, a fine of up to $5,000, and a prison sentence not to exceed five years. But the act also outlawed seditious libel, defined as "false, scandalous, or malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States, or either House of the Congress … or the President … with the intent to defame … or to bring them … into contempt or disrepute." While the Sedition Act targeted Republicans and their newspapers, the law actually reformed the common law of sedition in a more liberal direction. Unlike the previous English common law interpretation, under the Sedition Act truth became an acceptable defense, malicious intent had to be proved, and the jury could determine not only the facts but also the law when deliberating a case. Nonetheless, Hamilton once more lamented the possible political consequences of the actions of his overzealous colleagues in Congress.
The original Senate bill, as proposed by Federalist James Lloyd of Maryland, had been more extreme. It contained a section dealing with treason as well as sedition in which Lloyd maintained that the crime of treason could be committed during peacetime. He suggested that although the United States was not officially at war with France, the French were, in reality, the enemies of America and that citizens who gave aid and comfort to the French should be considered traitors and summarily tried, convicted, and executed. Lloyd's presumption that it was possible to have enemies during peacetime shocked most, but many Federalists in the Senate agreed with him.
While the Alien Act and the Alien Enemies Act focused on national security in their intention and were lightly applied during the Quasi-War, the Naturalization Act and the Sedition Act had Federalist partisan intentions and were applied vigorously. Under the Naturalization Act, immigrants were required to register with U.S. officials, and the terms of the law effectively disfranchised thousands of naturalized or soon-to-be naturalized citizens. Federalists selectively applied the sedition law in 14 cases between 1798 and 1800, almost all the cases brought by Federalist district attorneys against Democratic-Republican newspaper editors. Most famously, William Duane, the editor of the Republican Philadelphia Aurora, and Jacob Schneider, editor of the German-language Republican Readinger Adler, were prosecuted for criticizing the Federalist Adams administration for its suppression of Fries's Rebellion, a tax rebellion in eastern Pennsylvania in 1799.
The Federalist attack on Amendment I through the Sedition Act led to the Virginia Resolutions (drafted by James Madison), which called for resistance to the Alien and Sedition acts. Similarly, the Kentucky legislature approved a resolve (anonymously written by Vice Pres. Thomas Jefferson) that the measures be opposed and that states had the power to "nullify" unconstitutional laws passed by the national government.
In 1800-1801, President Adams negotiated a peace with the French at the same time that he lost the presidential election to Jefferson and while the Federalists lost control of both houses of Congress to the Democratic-Republicans. Such losses were caused, at least in part, by the draconian excesses of the Alien and Sedition acts. The Democratic-Republicans revised the naturalization law in 1802, restoring the residency requirement to five years; the sedition law expired at the end of President Adams's term.
The legacy of the Alien and Sedition acts was profound. Their unsuccessful attack on Amendment I—and by extension those men who were more committed to participatory democracy in their politics—discredited the Federalists' concept of deferential politics and hastened the decline of their political power. If the intent of the Sedition Act was to muzzle the partisan press, the effect was to expand it. The contest of ideas, policies, and partisan politics in the press strengthened Amendment I and expanded the concept of free speech as the law of libel became more progressive—allowing truth to be used as a defense and employing juries of peers to decide guilt. Perhaps most important, the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions provided justification for states' rights advocates throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in their struggle over nullification in the 1830s and, ultimately, in support of Southern secession in 1860-1861.
- The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. , and .
- Emergence of a Free Press. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. .
- The Federalist Era: 1789-1801. New York: Harper & Row, 1960. .
- Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. .
- American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993. .
- Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956. .
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