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The First Years of the Union (1797-1809)

The Alien and Sedition Acts

The Election of 1796 and the Quasi-War

The Election of 1800

Summary

The Federalists, now controlling both the Senate and the House of Representatives, argued that the possibility of open war with France and the publicized attempts at espionage by French agents in the United States required Congress to take drastic action to guard against breaches in national security. To this end Congress passed a series of four measures, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts during June and July 1798, but it was only with the gravest misgivings that he did so, for the acts asserted the power of the central government to an unprecedented extent.

The first, and least controversial, act was the Alien Enemies Act. This act defined the procedure by which US authorities could determine whether a citizen of an enemy nation posed a threat to national security during wartime. If found guilty under the outlined procedures, the guilty party would be deported or detained. The Alien Enemies Act was not called into use until the War of 1812.

The second Act, the Alien Friends Act, was effective during peacetime, and allowed the president to deport any citizen of any foreign nation who he decided posed a threat to the nation while inside its borders. The law allowed the president to expel citizens without proof of guilt, claiming that spies would be adept at destroying evidence and able to easily fool many authorities. The statute was only enforceable until June 25, 1800, before the end of Adams' term and the 1800 congressional elections.

The Third act was the Naturalization Act. The Naturalization Act revised the procedures by which an immigrant could become a citizen of the United States. Rather than having to establish residency in the US for five years before becoming eligible to become a citizen, the Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement to fourteen years.

The final, and most controversial, of the Alien and Sedition Acts, was the Sedition Act. It forbade any individual or group to oppose "any measure or measures of the United States." Under the Sedition Act, it was illegal to speak, write, or print any statement about the president which brought him, in the wording of the act, "into contempt or disrepute." The Sedition Act was set to expire in 1801. Four of the five major Republican newspapers were charged with sedition just before the presidential election of 1800, and several foreign born journalists were threatened with expulsion. The Attorney General charged seventeen people with sedition, and ten were convicted.

The strongest reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts flared up in the South. In November and December 1798, shortly after the passage of the acts, both Kentucky and Virginia endorsed manifestos on states' rights, written anonymously by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively. These resolutions stated that state legislatures maintained the power of interposition, which allowed them to judge the constitutionality of acts of Congress. In 1799, Kentucky passed a resolution that declared that states could nullify objectionable federal laws.

While most states disagreed with these radical claims, tensions ran high everywhere. In Pennsylvania, German farmers staged what was known as the Fries Rebellion, where they attempted to organize a jailbreak to free men who had refused to pay taxes to support the expansion of the military. Thomas Jefferson increasingly hinted that the South was preparing to secede from the Union. The state legislature in Virginia purchased thousands of muskets to equip the militia should violence ensue. John Adams grew increasingly sensitive to criticism and feared for the future. It was under these conditions that the election of 1800 took place.

Commentary

At the beginning of 1798, the Republicans were reeling as a party. France's continued naval aggression, and the refusal to condemn French actions had wrested much of the party's power from its hands. The elections of 1798 overwhelmingly favored the Federalists. It appeared to many that the great political contest that had once raged between the two parties had ended in a Federalist victory. However, the Republicans need not have waited long for a new issue around which to mobilize. The Alien and Sedition Acts represented, to the Republicans, the legal incarnation of all that was evil and corrupt about Federalism. Claimed by many to be the greatest affront to liberty in all of American political history, the Alien and Sedition Acts once again polarized the nation between Republican and Federalist.

The Republicans did not object stringently to the Alien Enemies Act. The wartime act had a legitimate claim to protecting national security, and generally respected the rights of enemy citizens. Few could argue against its reasonableness. However, the Alien Friends Act aroused the ire of the Republican Party. Republicans screamed that the act effectively denied the constitutional right to fair justice, allowing the president to expel individuals without trial. They claimed that the Alien Friends Act had no place during peacetime, and pointed to the expiration date in 1800, claiming that the act was a Federalist plan to expel immigrants who were critical of the Federalists before power could change hands in the elections. Republicans saw the Naturalization Act as a blatant attempt to sap the political power of immigrants, most of whom were Republicans, by denying them citizenship and the right to vote.

The Sedition Act was by far the most offensive of the four acts to Republicans. The supposed purpose of the Sedition Act was to distinguish the boundaries between free speech and dangerous speech, which could cause violence or rebellion. However, the wording of the act was sufficiently vague that the Federalists in power could invoke the Sedition Act even in response to political discussion. Newspapers were forced to choke back opinions, and individuals had to take precautions before speaking or writing. The effect of the Sedition Act was to drown out all political criticism of the party in power. The Sedition Act clearly infringed upon the right to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment, considered by many to be the most sacred passage in the Constitution. Republicans reacted strongly to the Sedition Act; decrying the disrespect with wish the Federalist led Congress had treated the Constitution. Furthermore, the Federalists had written the law so that it would expire in 1801, so that they could not fall prey to it. This seemed to the Republicans evidence enough that it was politically motivated.

The Federalists never intended to impose a reign of terror on the nation. Rather, they wanted to intimidate Republican newspapers and politicians so as to prevent them from aiding the Republicans in the 1800 election. Instead, they sparked a resurgence of political opposition and turned much of the nation toward the Republicans. With all three branches of government under Federalist control, Republicans predicted the failure of the system of checks and balances, as the branches cooperated to amass power and become tyrannical. They saw their worst fears of centralized power in the form of the Alien and Sedition Acts. In response, the Republicans made the states' rights doctrine the centerpiece of the party ideology.

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