Adams’s popularity skyrocketed, and Congress braced for war. Although no war declaration was ever made, the United States and France waged undeclared naval warfare in the Atlantic for several years. Shortly before he left office several years later, Adams negotiated an end to the fighting: in exchange for ignoring damages to seized cargos, France agreed to annul the Franco-American alliance.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

Adams’s sudden boost in popularity gave him and the Federalist-controlled Congress the confidence to make the federal government even stronger. In an attempt to prevent French immigrants from making trouble within the United States in the event of a war with France, Congress in 1798 passed the Alien Acts, which extended the residency time required for foreigners to become American citizens from five years to fourteen years and gave the president the power to expel any aliens who were considered to be dangerous.

In the hopes of seriously weakening or eliminating the Democratic-Republicans, Congress also passed the Sedition Act in the same year, which banned all forms of public expression critical of the president or Congress.

Democratic-Republican Reaction

The Alien and Sedition Acts kicked the Democratic-Republican opposition into high gear despite the fact that the laws were intended to silence them. They considered the laws unrepublican and an affront to their First-Amendment right to free speech. For the first time, the Democratic-Republicans began to organize as a true opposition party in Congress: they formed caucuses, selected party leaders, and outlined a platform. They also challenged Federalists for the office of Speaker of the House, which previously had been a nonpartisan position.

This growing opposition only made the Federalists angrier and even more determined to ruin their opponents. Not surprisingly, the growing power struggle in Congress produced heated debates and even a few fistfights. In the most notorious fight, two Congressmen attacked each other with a cane and a hot fire poker.

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

Vice President Jefferson and James Madison, even bolder in their opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, anonymously drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which proclaimed the Alien and Sedition Acts null and void in those states. The Resolutions argued that the Constitution was a contract among states and that when Congress violated that contract by passing unconstitutional legislation, the individual states reserved the right to nullify it.

Popular pages: The Constitution (1781–1815)