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The Alien and Sedition Acts

Page history last edited by Elizabeth Gross 14 years, 5 months ago


     The end of the 1700s presented a political atmosphere of unrest and uncertainty. With the birth of the United States came a fragile new government divided into those who valued a centralized government, the Federalists, and those who saw legitimacy in state sovereignty, the Anti-Federalists or Republicans. The domestic debate was influenced by the escalating hostility overseas between England and France. Federalists who initially identified with the French Revolution became apprehensive when it degenerated into the Reign of Terror, which lead to the killing of thousands in France. The ratification by the Federalists of the Jay Treaty, which resolved disputes with Britain, was criticized by Republicans as a violation of the French-American treaty of alliance.


       John Adams, a Federalist, became president in 1797, with Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, as vice president. Adams sent three envoys to France to ease some of the tension, but French officials refused to negotiate and instead demanded money. Adams, seeing the affair as a deliberate threat against America, proposed a declaration of war to Congress, as well as a series of acts that severely infringed the rights of people in the United States.


     The Alien Act, approved by Congress on June 25, 1798, made it legal for the president to expel any aliens he deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" with up to three years in prison as punishment. Aliens were unable to obtain citizenship, and only the president could revoke the restriction imposed on the aliens. The act also required every ship commander to hand over to the government a list of every alien on board, specifying their names, occupations and "the nation to which they belong and owe allegiance." Federalists claimed the Alien Act enabled Congress to protect the country from foreign agression, largely determined by actions that threatened American government. This justification opened doors for further abuses of First Amendment rights in the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act.


     The Alien Enemies Act, approved on July 6, stated that during time of war between the United States and any other nation, the United States would make any aliens from the foreign nation publicly known as "alien enemies." The president would determine the "degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject." It would thereafter be the duty of the courts to order alien enemies to be removed from the United States.


     The Sedition Act posed a threat not only to aliens, but to U.S. citizens as well. Approved on July 14, the Sedition Act made it possible to convict citizens with a "high misdemeanor" if they were found to "oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States," or take part in "unlawful assembly...counsel, advice or attempt," with punishment of up to five years in prison and fines up to five-thousand dollars. 


     Federalists claimed that speech posing a threat to the government had to be punished. Federalists supported a loose interpretation of the Constitution. Their definition of free speech was based on Sir William Blackstone's, which stated, "The will of individuals is still left free; the abuse only of that free-will is the object of legal punishment." Federalists defended the acts by emphasizing what they saw as safeguards of free expression in the law: that juries would determine charges imposed by the acts, that truth was a defense, and that proof of malicious intent was required for conviction.


    Republicans were strongly opposed to these acts because they gave the president power undesignated by the Constitution. They argued that any limitation to freedom of speech was a violation of the First Amendment, and that any criminalization of free speech was a throwback to the oppression of colonial days. They further argued that the safeguards supposedly built into the act were illusory: truth could not be measured, jurors were appointed by judges who shared the same political allegiances, and the intent was malicious only if speech criticized those in power, namely, the Federalists.


     During this time newspapers were financially supported by political factions. Following approval of the acts, Republican newspapers increasingly attacked the acts as infringing rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The Sedition Act in particular criminalized anyone who would "write, print, utter or publish...scandalous or malicious writing against the government." This act resulted in the imprisonment of several contributors to Republican newspapers and pamphlets who supported individual rights over governmental power, including that of the Gazette's Thomas Cooper. Cooper's case brought increased public attention to the severity of the Alien and Sedition Act's violations against freedom of the press, especially since Cooper was a highly respected editor. Upon Cooper's conviction, Republican newspapers villanized Federalists and commented on the trial as a "parody of justice."  Reflecting the extensive opposition to the acts from citizens, the press, and Republican Congressmen, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were passed by the respective state legislatures in late 1798, declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional.







1.       Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston, MA: Atlantic Monthly Press: 1952.

        This book references the specific newspapers, pamphlets, memoirs, and letters that were written during the time the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. It also details the political environment as well as the Federalist theories leading up to the passage of the acts.


       Smith, James M. "President John Adams, Thomas Cooper, and Sedition: A Case Study in Suppression." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review , Vol 42 No. 3 (1955): 438-65. JSTOR. 2 Dec. 2008 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1898365>.

                         This article details the case of Thomas Cooper, who was famously tried for Sedition after he published a letter in the Aurora against the

                         Alien and Sedition Acts and the Adams administration.


2.      Taylor, Alan. "The Alien and Sedition Acts." The American Congress: The Building of Democracy. Ed. Julian E. Zelizer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 63-77.

        This chapter specifies the reasons behind passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts by Congress. It also includes the viewpoints of the political parties and the reactions of political party members to the acts.


3.      Our Documents- Transcript of Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). <http://ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=16&page=transcript>.       

                        This page offers the official transcripts of the Alien Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Acts of 1798.


       US History Videos- American History Timeline- History.com <http://link.history.com/services/link/bcpid1681694255/bclid1716500415/bctid1588489593>

                        This link offers a brief history of Adam's presidency.







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