Alien and Sedition Acts - Definition, Significance and Purpose

Alien and Sedition Acts - Definition, Significance and Purpose

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The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by the U.S. The four laws–which remain controversial to this day–restricted the activities of foreign residents in the country and limited freedom of speech and of the press.

Dueling Political Parties

The Federalist Party, which supported a strong central government, had largely dominated politics in the new nation before 1796, when John Adams won election as the second U.S. president.

In opposition to the Federalists stood the Democratic-Republican Party, commonly known as Republicans or Jeffersonians for their ideological leader, Thomas Jefferson. Republicans wanted to reserve more power to state governments and accused the Federalists of leaning more towards a monarchical style of government.

XYZ Affair

The two parties also diverged dramatically over issues of foreign policy. In 1794, the Federalist administration of George Washington signed the Jay Treaty with Britain, greatly improving Anglo-American relations but angering the French (who were then at war with Britain).

Soon after Adams took office, he sent a three-member delegation to Paris to meet with the foreign minister, Charles Talleyrand. Instead, three French representatives—referred to in official U.S. documents as X, Y and Z—demanded a $250,000 bribe, as well as a loan of $10 million, before talks could begin.

After the Americans refused, word of the so-called XYZ Affair spread at home, sparking outrage and calls for war against France.

What Were The Alien and Sedition Acts?

Amid mounting tensions, Federalists accused Republicans of being in league with France against their own country’s government. Writing in June 1798 in the Gazette of the United States, Alexander Hamilton called the Jeffersonians “more Frenchmen than Americans” and claimed that they were prepared “to immolate the independence and welfare of their country at the shrine of France.”

Fears of an imminent French invasion led the Adams administration to begin war preparations and pass a new land tax to pay for them.

With fears of enemy spies infiltrating American society, the Federalist majority in Congress passed four new laws in June and July 1798, collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

With the Naturalization Act, Congress increased residency requirements for U.S. citizenship to 14 years from five. (Many recent immigrants and new citizens favored the Republicans.)

The Alien Enemies Act permitted the government to arrest and deport all male citizens of an enemy nation in the event of war, while the Alien Friends Act allowed the president to deport any non-citizen suspected of plotting against the government, even in peacetime.

Most importantly, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which took direct aim at those who spoke out against Adams or the Federalist-dominated government.

Even as the bitter debates between the two fledgling political parties were being played out in rival newspapers and other publications, the new law outlawed any “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president, and made it illegal to conspire “to oppose any measure or measures of the government.”

Sedition Act Debate

The Republican minority in Congress complained that the Sedition Act violated the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protected freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But the Federalist majority pushed it through, arguing that English and American courts had long punished seditious libel under common law, and that freedom of speech must be balanced with an individual’s responsibility for false statements.

Adams signed the Sedition Act into law on July 14, 1798. It was set to expire on March 3, 1801, the last day of his term in office.

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were passed by the legislatures of their respective states in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. James Madison authored the Virginia Resolution in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson, who also authored the Kentucky Resolution. Both argued that the federal government did not have the authority to enact laws not specified in the constitution. Jefferson wrote: “[T]he several states who formed that instrument [the Constitution], being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those [states], of all unauthorized acts….is the rightful remedy.”

Reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts

Matthew Lyon, a Republican congressman from Vermont, became the first person tried under the new law in October 1798. A grand jury indicted Lyon for publishing letters in Republican newspapers during his reelection campaign that showed “intent and design” to defame the government and President Adams, among other charges. Lyon acted as his own attorney, and defended himself by claiming the Sedition Act was unconstitutional, and that he had not intended to damage the government.

He was convicted, and the judge sentenced him to four months in prison and a fine of $1,000. Lyon won reelection while sitting in jail, and would later defeat a Federalist attempt to kick him out of the House.

Another individual famously prosecuted under the Sedition Act was the Republican-friendly journalist James Callender. Sentenced to nine months in prison for his “false, scandalous, and malicious writing, against the said President of the United States,” Callender wrote articles from jail supporting Jefferson’s campaign for president in 1800.

After Jefferson won, Callender demanded a government post in return for his service. When he failed to get one, he retaliated by revealing the first public allegations of Jefferson’s long-rumored relationship with a slave woman, Sally Hemings, in a series of newspaper articles.

Legacy of Alien and Sedition Acts

All told, between 1798 and 1801, U.S. federal courts prosecuted at least 26 individuals under the Sedition Act; many were editors of Republican newspapers, and all opposed the Adams administration. The prosecutions fueled furious debate over the meaning of a free press and the rights that should be afforded to political opposition parties in the United States.

In the end, widespread anger over the Alien and Sedition Acts fueled Jefferson’s victory over Adams in the bitterly contested 1800 presidential election, and their passage is widely considered to be one of the biggest mistakes of Adams’ presidency.

By 1802, all of the Alien and Sedition Acts had been repealed or expired, save for the Alien Enemies Act, which has stayed on the books. In 1918, Congress amended the act to include women.


The Alien and Sedition Acts: Defining American Freedom, Constitutional Rights Foundation.
Alien and Sedition Acts, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.
Our Documents: Alien and Sedition Acts, National Archives and Records Administration.
The Sedition Act Trials, Federal Judicial Center.
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

Alien and Sedition Acts - Definition, Significance and Purpose - HISTORY

Alien and Secdition Act

The Alien and Sedition Acts marked an attempt by Federalists to suppress opposition at home. These acts gave the President the power to arrest and deport any alien suspected of having "treasonable or secret leanings."

The Alien and Seditions Acts were four separate laws. The first was the Naturalization Act. This act extended the time it was required to establish US citizenship for new immigrants. That time was extended from five years to fourteen. The Federalists were afraid that new immigrants were more likely to support the Democratic Party instead of the Federalist Party.

The second act was the Alien Act. This act gave the President power to imprison or deport any foreigner. The authors of the act hoped this would silence French refugees who opposed Federalist calls for war with France.

The third part of the laws was the Alien Enemies Act. This act allowed the government to arrest and deport any foreigners who were citizens of nations at war with the United States. The fourth act was the Sedition Act. This act was the most controversial, giving the government the power to arrest anyone who wrote critically of the President, the Congress, or the government. This law seemed to directly undermine the protection of the First Amendment, which guaranteed free speech.

All parts of the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. No one was ever deported based on the laws, but 25 newspapers editors were arrested and 10 were convicted and jailed.

Alien and Sedition Acts

In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed four acts to empower the president of the United States to expel dangerous Aliens from the country to give the president authority to arrest, detain, and deport resident aliens hailing from enemy countries during times of war to lengthen the period of naturalization for immigrants, and to silence Republican criticism of the Federalist Party. Also an act passed by Congress in 1918 during World War I that made it a crime to disrupt military recruiting or enlistments, to encourage support for Germany and its allies or disrespect for American war efforts, or to otherwise bring the U.S. government, its leaders, or its symbols into disrepute.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Passions over the French Revolution split early American politics. Having endured Shays's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, Federalists saw much to fear in the French Revolution. On the other hand, Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, proudly supported the French Revolution as the progeny of the American Revolution. Democratic-Republicans still viewed Britain as an enemy, while the Federalists regarded Britain as a bulwark against French militancy.

In early 1798, John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams and the U.S. ambassador to Prussia, advised his father that France intended to invade America's western frontier. Jonathon Dayton, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, speculated publicly that troops already massed in French ports were destined for North America. Federal officials feared parts of America were rife with French agents and sympathizers who might rise up in support of an invasion. George Tucker, professor of Law at the College of William and Mary, predicted that 100,000 U.S. inhabitants, including himself, would join a French invading army. Former president George Washington, summoned from retirement to lead the U.S. Army against a possible French invasion, expressed concerns that France would invade the southern states first, "because the French will expect from the tenor of the debates in Congress to find more friends there."

Congress responded to these concerns by enacting the Alien and Sedition Acts, the popular names for four laws passed in 1798. On June 18, Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which extended from five to 14 years the period of residence required for alien immigrants to become full U.S. citizens (1 Stat. 566). On June 25, Congress passed the Alien Act, which authorized the president to expel, without a hearing, any alien the president deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety" of the United States or whom the president suspected of "treasonable or secret" inclinations (1 Stat. 570). On July 6, Congress passed the Alien Enemy Act, which authorized the president to arrest, imprison, or banish any resident alien hailing from a country against which the United States had declared war (1 Stat. 577).

None of these first three acts had much practical impact. The Naturalization Act contained a built-in window period that allowed resident aliens to become U.S. citizens before the fourteen-year requirement went into effect. President Adams never invoked the Alien Act, and the passing of the war scare in 1789 rendered the Alien Enemies Act meaningless.

However, the Sedition Act deepened partisan political positions between the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. The Sedition Act made it a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both, for citizens or aliens (1) to oppose the execution of federal laws (2) to prevent a federal officer from performing his or her duties (3) to aid "any insurrection, riot, Unlawful Assembly, or combination" or (4) to make any defamatory statement about the federal government or the president (1 Stat. 596).

Because the Federalists controlled Congress and the White House, Republicans believed these laws were aimed at silencing Jeffersonian critics of the Adams administration and its laws and policies. Eighteen people were indicted under the Sedition Act of 1798 14 were prosecuted, and 10 convicted, some of whom received prison sentences.

The validity of the Sedition Act was never tested in the U.S. Supreme Court before it expired in 1801. But Congress later passed a law that repaid all fines collected under it, and Jefferson, after becoming president in 1801, pardoned all those convicted under the act.

Before becoming president, Jefferson joined Madison in voicing opposition to the Sedition Act by drafting the virginia and kentucky resolutions . Jefferson was responsible for drafting the two Kentucky Resolutions, while Madison penned the one Virginia Resolution. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions condemned the Sedition Act as a violation of the Free Speech Clause to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The resolutions also argued that Congress had exceeded its powers by passing the law in the first place, since Congress may only exercise those powers specifically delegated to it, and nowhere in Article I of the Constitution is authority given to the legislative branch to regulate political speech. The Kentucky state legislature passed its two resolutions on November 16, 1798, and November 22, 1999, while Virginia passed its one resolution on December 24, 1798.

Sedition Act of 1918

Concern over disloyalty during wartime provided the backdrop for the second Sedition Act in U.S. history. In April 1917, the United States entered World War I when Congress declared war against Germany and its allies. A month later, the Selective Service Act reinstated the military draft. Both the draft and U.S. entry into the war were met with protest at home. Worried that anti-war protestors might interfere with the prosecution of the war, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918.

An amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a felony (1) to convey false statements interfering with American war efforts (2) to willfully employ "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the U.S. form of government, the Constitution, the flag, or U.S. military or naval forces (3) to urge the curtailed production of necessary war materials or (4) to advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any such acts. Violations were punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. The law was aimed at curbing political dissent expressed by socialists, anarchists, pacifists, and certain labor leaders.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act of 1918 over free speech objections made by civil libertarians. However, in a famous dissenting opinion that shaped First Amendment law for the rest of the twentieth century, Associate Justice oliver wendell holmes jr. encouraged courts to closely scrutinize prosecutions under the Sedition Act to make sure that only those individuals who created a Clear and Present Danger of immediate criminal activity were convicted (Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 1180, 40 S. Ct. 17, 63 L. Ed. 1173 [1919]).

Further readings

Miller, John Chester. 1951. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown.

Moore, Wayne D. 1994. "Reconceiving Interpretive Autonomy: Insights from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions." Constitutional Commentary 11 (fall).

Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts

On July 4, 1798, the citizens of the capital city of Philadelphia turned out in large numbers to celebrate the nation’s independence day. While militia companies marched through the streets, church bells rang, and artillery units fired salutes, members of the United States Senate were trying to conduct a debate on a critical bill. One senator noted ‘the military parade so attracted the attention of the majority that much the greater part of them stood with their bodies out of the windows and could not be kept to order.’ Once they resumed their deliberations, however, the Federalist majority succeeded in gaining passage of an implausible bill, one quickly approved by the House of Representatives and signed on July 14 by President John Adams.

Ironically, as senators celebrated the freedom they had won from Britain, they approved a sedition bill that made it illegal to publish or utter any statements about the government that were ‘false, scandalous and malicious’ with the ‘intent to defame’ or to bring Congress or the president into ‘contempt or disrepute.’ This bill, seemingly a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment free speech protections, had a chilling effect on members of the Republican Party and its leader, Thomas Jefferson, who admitted that he feared ‘to write what I think.’

Support for this restrictive legislation had grown out of Federalist belief that the young nation was facing its gravest crisis yet, in the possibility of war with France and the spread of anti-immigrant feeling. The new law violated the beliefs of many Republicans, who regarded Federalists as reactionary defenders of privilege intent on bringing back the monarchy. Federalists saw their Republican opposites as irresponsible radicals eager to incite a social revolution as democratic as the one that had torn through France.

Nothing divided Federalist from Republican more than their response to the French Revolution. Republicans applauded the revolutionaries’ destruction of aristocratic privileges, the overthrow of the monarchy, and the implementation of constitutional government. Yet, Federalists saw the same dramatic changes as the degeneration of legitimate government into mob rule, particularly during the bloody ‘Reign of Terror’ when ‘counterrevolutionaries’ lost their lives on the guillotine.

Federalist fears deepened as they watched the new French republican government encourage wars of liberation and conquest in Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, and the Italian peninsula. Rumors were rampant in 1798 about a possible French invasion of America, one that allegedly would be supported by American traitors and a population of French émigrés that had grown to more than 20,000.

The nation’s rapidly growing immigrant population deeply troubled Federalists. One Pennsylvania newspaper argued that ‘none but the most vile and worthless’ were inundating the country. William Shaw, the president’s nephew, arguing that ‘all our present difficulties may be traced’ to the ‘hordes of Foreigners’ in the land, contended America should ‘no longer’ be ‘an asylum to all nations.’ Federalists worried about the 60,000 Irish immigrants in the new nation, some of whom had been exiled for plotting against British rule. These malcontents, they argued, along with French immigrants, and a sprinkling of British radicals like the liberal theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, presented a grave challenge to the nation. The Federalists feared that the extremist ideas of the dissenters would corrupt and mobilize the destitute.

The British government, even more terrified than the Americans that ideas from the radical French regime might spread, had been at war with France for five years, trying to contain it. Both nations had seized neutral American ships headed to their enemy’s ports. President Adams initiated a two-pronged plan to stop the French from seizing any further ships. He sent three emissaries to negotiate with the French government, and he worked to push bills through Congress to increase the size of the navy and army. Federalist revulsion at anything associated with France reached a peak in spring 1798 when word arrived in Philadelphia that three French agents, identified only as X, Y, and Z, had demanded a bribe from the American diplomats before they would begin negotiations.

Insulted by the French government, convinced that war was inevitable, and anxious over a ‘dangerous’ alien population in their midst, Federalists in Philadelphia were ready to believe any rumor. They saw no reason to doubt the warning in a letter found outside the president’s residence in late April. It supposedly contained information about a plot by a group of Frenchmen ‘to sit [sic] fire to the City in various parts, and to Massacre the inhabitants.’ Hundreds of militiamen patrolled the city streets as a precaution, and a special guard was assigned to the president’s home. John Adams ordered ‘chests of arms from the war-office,’ as he was ‘determined to defend my house at the expense of my life.’

In such a crisis atmosphere, Federalists took action to prevent domestic subversion. They supported four laws passed in June and July 1798 to control the threats they believed foreigners posed to the security of the nation and to punish the opposition party for its seditious libel.

Two of these laws represented the Federalist effort to address perceived threats from the nation’s immigrant groups. The Alien Enemies Act permitted the deportation of aliens who hailed from a nation with which the United States was at war, while the Alien Friends Act empowered the president, during peacetime, to deport any alien whom he considered dangerous.

Although some historians acknowledge that there were legitimate national security concerns involved in the passage of the two alien acts, others conclude that the two additional pieces of legislation were blatant efforts to destroy the Republican Party, which had gained many immigrant supporters.

The Naturalization Act extended the residency requirement for citizenship from five to 14 years. For a few politicians, such as Congressmen Robert Goodloe Harper and Harrison Gray Otis, even this act was insufficient. They believed that citizenship should be limited to those born in the United States.

Apart from its limitations on speech, the Sedition Act, the last of the four laws, made it illegal to ‘unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government.’ While the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established that Congress couldn’t pass laws ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,’ there had been little discussion about the amendment’s precise meaning since its adoption seven years earlier.

In 1798 many Federalists drew upon Commentaries on the Laws of England written by Sir William Blackstone–the man considered by the framers of the Constitution to be the oracle of the common law–for their definition of liberty of the press. Blackstone wrote, ‘liberty of the press . . . consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications.’ However, if a person ‘publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity.’ In other words, if a person spoke or wrote remarks that could be construed as seditious libel, they weren’t entitled to free speech protection.

According to the Federalists, if seditious libel meant any effort to malign or weaken the government, then the Republican press was repeatedly guilty. Republican papers, claimed the Federalists, such as the Philadelphia Aurora, the New York Argus, the Richmond Examiner, and Boston’s Independent Chronicle printed the most scurrilous statements, lies, and misrepresentations about President Adams and the Federalist Party.

The president’s wife, Abigail, complained bitterly about journalistic ‘abuse, deception and falsehood.’ Particularly galling to her were the characterizations of her husband in editor Benjamin Bache’s Aurora. In April 1798 Bache called the president ‘old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams.’ Bache, she argued, was a ‘lying wretch’ given to the ‘most insolent and abusive’ language. He wrote with the ‘malice’ of Satan. The First Lady repeatedly demanded that something be done to stop this ‘wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse’ being ‘leveled against the Government.’ She argued that if journalists like Bache weren’t stopped, the nation would be plunged into a ‘civil war.’

At the same time, Federalists were hardly models of decorum when describing Republicans. Their opponents were, one Federalist wrote, ‘democrats, mobocrats and all other kinds of rats.’ Federalist Noah Webster characterized Republicans as ‘the refuse, the sweepings of the most depraved part of mankind from the most corrupt nations on earth.’

Although President Adams neither framed the Sedition Act nor encouraged its introduction, he certainly supported it. He issued many public statements about the evils of the opposition press. Adams believed that journalists who deliberately distorted the news to mislead the people could cause great harm to a representative democracy.

Letters and remarks of John and Abigail Adams made passage of a sedition bill easier, but the task of pushing it through Congress fell to Senator James Lloyd of Maryland and Congressmen Robert Goodloe Harper and Harrison Gray Otis. Although it passed by a wide margin in the Senate, the bill barely gained approval in the House of Representatives, where the vote was 44 to 41. To win even that small majority, Harper and Otis had to change the original bill in significant ways. Prosecutors would have to prove malicious intent, and truth would be permitted as a defense. Juries, not judges, would determine whether a statement was libelous. To underscore its political purpose, the act was to expire on March 3, 1801, the last day of President Adams’ term of office.

Prosecutions began quickly. On June 26, even before the Sedition Act was passed, Supreme Court Justice Richard Peters issued a warrant for the arrest of Benjamin Bache. Bache, the most powerful of all the Republican newspaper editors, was charged with ‘libeling the President and the Executive Government in a manner tending to excite sedition and opposition to the laws.’ Less than two weeks later, federal marshals arrested John Daly Burk, editor of the New York newspaper Time Piece, for making’seditious and libelous’ statements against the president. Neither faced trial, however. Bache died in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of September 1798, and Burk, who wasn’t a citizen, agreed to deportation if charges were dropped. He then fled to Virginia to live under an assumed name.

During the next two years 17 people were indicted under the Sedition Act, and 10 were convicted. Most were journalists. Included among them were William Duane, who had succeeded Benjamin Bache as editor of the Aurora Thomas Cooper, a British radical who edited a small Pennsylvania newspaper Charles Holt, editor of a New London, Connecticut, newspaper and James Callender, who had worked on the Aurora before moving to Virginia’s Richmond Examiner. Like Benjamin Bache, Callender delighted in condemning the president.

The Federalists didn’t target only journalists. They went after other individuals, including David Brown of Dedham, Massachusetts, who spouted anti-government rhetoric wherever a crowd gathered. Brown was arrested in April 1799, charged with ‘uttering seditious pieces’ and helping to erect a liberty pole with a placard that read ‘A Speedy Retirement to the President. No Sedition bill, No Alien bill, Downfall to the Tyrants of America.’

Incredibly, even an inebriated Republican, Luther Baldwin of Newark, New Jersey, became a victim. Following the adjournment of Congress in July 1798, President Adams and his wife were traveling through Newark on their way to their home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Residents lined the streets as church bells rang, and ceremonial cannon fire greeted the party. As the procession made its way past a local tavern owned by John Burnet, one of the patrons remarked, ‘There goes the President and they are firing at his a__.’ According to the Newark Centinel of Freedom, Baldwin added that, ‘he did not care if they fired thro’ his a__.’ Burnet overheard the exchange and exclaimed, ‘That is seditious.’ Baldwin was arrested and later convicted of speaking’seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States.’ He was fined $150, assessed court costs and expenses, and sent to jail until he paid the fine and fees.

The most outrageous case, however, involved Congressman Matthew Lyon, a Republican from Vermont. This fiery Irishman was one of the sharpest critics of President Adams and the Federalists. He had even engaged in a brawl on the House floor with Federalist Roger Griswold. Convinced that the Federalists intended to use the Sedition Act to silence their congressional opposition, Lyon confided to a colleague that it ‘most probably would be brought to bear upon himself first victim of all.’

While not the initial victim, Lyon quickly felt the wrath of the majority party. In the summer of 1798, he wrote an article criticizing President Adams’ ‘continual grasp for power’ and his ‘unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.’ During his fall re-election campaign, Lyon also quoted from a letter that suggested Congress should dispatch the president to a ‘mad house’ for his handling of the French crisis. In October, a federal grand jury indicted Lyon for stirring up sedition and bringing ‘the President and government of the United States into contempt.’

United States Supreme Court justices, sitting as circuit court judges, presided in the sedition trials. These judges, all Federalists, rejected the efforts of defendants and their counsel to challenge the law’s constitutionality. Samuel Chase, who sat in three of the cases, clearly was on a mission. ‘There is nothing we should more dread,’ he argued, ‘than the licentiousness of the press.’

Chase and the other judges handed down tough sentences. While none imposed the statute’s maximum penalties of a $2,000 fine or a jail sentence of two years, they often sent the guilty to jail. Most of the convicted endured three- or four-month sentences. James Callender, however, served nine months, and David Brown twice as long. The average fines were about $300, although Luther Baldwin’s fine was $150 and Matthew Lyon’s was $1,000.

As the trials progressed, two Republican Party leaders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, tried to overturn the Sedition Act. Concluding that the Bill of Rights couldn’t prevent abuses of power by the federal government, the two men collaborated on a set of protest resolutions asserting that the government was a compact created by the states and that citizens, speaking through their state legislatures, had the right to judge the constitutionality of actions taken by the government. In this instance, they called upon the states to join them in declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts to be ‘void, and of no force.’

While only Kentucky and Virginia endorsed the resolutions, the efforts of Jefferson and Madison encouraged Republicans to make the Alien and Sedition Acts major issues in the campaign of 1800. Voter anger over these bills, along with higher taxes and the escalating federal debt resulting from increased defense spending, gave Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives. The Federalists lost almost 40 seats, leaving the new Congress with 66 Republicans and only 40 Federalists.

There were other unexpected results from the passage of the Sedition Act. Clearly, Federalists had hoped to stifle the influence of the fewer than 20 Republican newspapers published in 1798. Some, like John Daly Burk’s Time Piece, did cease publication others suspended operation while their editors were in jail. However, circulation increased for the majority of the periodicals. Most discouraging to the Federalists, particularly as the campaigns for the 1800 election got under way, was the fact that more than 30 new Republican newspapers began operation following passage of the Sedition Act.

Not even prison stopped Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon. The most visible target of the Federalists, Lyon conducted his re-election campaign from his jail cell in Vergennes, Vermont. Considered a martyr by his supporters, Lyon regularly contributed to this image through letters and newspaper articles. ‘It is quite a new kind of jargon to call a Representative of the People an Opposer of the Government because he does not, as a legislator, advocate and acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the Executive,’ he wrote. In a December run-off election, Lyon won easily.

By 1802, in the wake of the Federalist election defeat, the Alien Friends Act, the Sedition Act, and the Naturalization Act had expired or been repealed. The Alien Enemies Act remained in effect, but no one had been prosecuted under its provisions because the United States hadn’t declared war on France, a necessary condition for the law’s implementation. After winning the presidency in the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson pardoned all those convicted of violating the Sedition Act who remained in prison.

By virtually every measure, the Federalist effort to impose a one-party press and a one-party government on the fledgling nation had failed. Ironically, the Sedition Act prompted the opposition to expand its view of free speech and freedom of the press. In a series of essays, tracts, and books, Republicans began to argue that the First Amendment protected citizens from any federal restraint on the press or speech. Notable among them was a pamphlet entitled An Essay on the Liberty of the Press, published in 1799 by George Hay, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Hay argued ‘that if the words freedom of the press have any meaning at all they mean a total exemption from any law making any publication whatever criminal.’ In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson echoed Hay’s sentiments, stressing the necessity of preserving the right of citizens ‘to think freely and to speak and to write what they think.’

For most, the arguments of Hay and Jefferson have prevailed, although even the Republicans were willing to acknowledge that states could and should impose speech restrictions under certain conditions. Moreover, there have been occasions, most notably during World War I, when the federal government declared that free expression was secondary to military necessity. In an effort to suppress dissent and anti-war activity in 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, a law that made it a felony to try to cause insubordination in the armed forces or to convey false statements with intent to interfere with military operations. It was followed by the Sedition Act of 1918, which banned treasonable or seditious material from the mail. Under this provision the mailing of many publications, including the New York Times as well as radical and dissident newspapers, was temporarily halted.

In the 200 years since the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, each generation of Americans has struggled to determine the limits of free speech and freedom of the press. In large part, it has been a dilemma of reconciling freedom and security with liberty and order. For the Federalist Party in 1798, however, the answer was simple order and security had to prevail.

This article was written by Larry Gragg and originally published in the October 1998 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!


The U.S. government has attempted on several occasions to regulate speech in wartime, beginning with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. During and following World War I, a series of statutes addressed a complex of concerns that included enemy espionage and disruption, anti-war activism, and the radical ideologies of anarchism and Bolshevism, all identified with immigrant communities. Congressional investigations of 'extremist' organizations in 1935 resulted in calls for the renewal of those statutes. The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 addressed a particular concern but not the general problem. [3] As U.S. involvement in World War II seemed ever more likely, the possibility of betrayal from within gained currency. The Spanish Civil War had given this possibility a name, a "fifth column", and the popular press in the U.S. blamed internal subversion for the fall of France to the Nazis in just six weeks in May and June 1940. [4] Patriotic organizations and the popular press raised alarms and provided examples. In July 1940, Time magazine called fifth-column talk a "national phenomenon". [5]

In the late 1930s, several legislative proposals tried to address sedition itself and the underlying concern with the presence of large numbers of non-citizens, including citizens of countries with which the U.S. might soon be at war. An omnibus bill that included several measures died in 1939, but the Senate Judiciary Committee revived it in May 1940. It drew some of its language from statutes recently passed at the state level, and combined anti-alien and anti-sedition sections with language crafted specifically to help the government in its attempts to deport Australian-born union leader Harry Bridges. With little debate, the House of Representatives approved it by a vote of 382 to 4, with 45 not voting, on June 22, 1940, the day the French signed an armistice with Germany. The Senate did not take a recorded vote. [6] It was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 28, 1940. [7] The Act is referred to by the name of its principal author, Rep. Howard W. Smith (Democrat-Virginia), a leader of the anti-labor bloc in Congress. [8]

A few weeks later, The New York Times discussed the context in which the alien registration provisions were included and the Act passed: [9]

The Alien Registration Act was merely one of many laws hastily passed in the first spasm of fear engendered by the success of fifth columns in less fortunate countries. Suddenly the European war seemed almost at our doors, and who could tell what secret agents were already at work in America? So, partly because some such bill would be adopted anyway, and partly because the step, normally distasteful, appeared inevitable, the Administration sponsored the legislation.

Also in June, the President transferred the Immigration and Naturalization Service from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice (DOJ), demonstrating that the federal government viewed its alien population as a security concern as war grew more likely.

In mid-August, officials of the DOJ held a two-day conference with state officials they called "Law Enforcement Problems of National Defense". Attorney General Jackson and FBI Director Hoover delineated the proper roles for federal and state authorities with respect to seditious activities. They successfully forestalled state regulation of aliens and found state officials receptive to their arguments that states needed to prevent vigilantism and protect aliens, while trusting federal authorities to use the Smith Act to deal with espionage and "fifth column" activities. [10]

On October 13, 1941, the 77th United States Congress amended the Smith Act, authorizing a criminal offense for the unlawful reproduction of alien registration receipt cards. [11]

Title I. Subversive activities. The Smith Act set federal criminal penalties that included fines or imprisonment for as long as twenty years, and denied all employment by the federal government for five years following a conviction for anyone who:

. with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so or . organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof.

The Smith Act's prohibition of proselytizing on behalf of revolution repeated language found in previous statutes. It went beyond earlier legislation in outlawing action to "organize any society, group, or assembly" that works toward that end and then extended that prohibition to "membership" or "affiliation"—a term it did not define—with such a group.

Title II. Deportation. Because the Supreme Court in Kessler v. Strecker (1939) held that the Immigration Act of 1918 allowed the deportation of an alien only if his membership in a group advocating the violent overthrow of the government had not ceased, [12] the Smith Act allowed for the deportation of any alien who "at the time of entering the United States, or . at any time thereafter" was a member of or affiliated with such an organization. [13]

The Smith Act expanded the grounds for deporting aliens to include weapons violations and abetting illegal immigration. It added heroin to the category of drug violations.

Title III. Alien registration. The Smith Act required aliens applying for visas to register and be fingerprinted. Every other alien resident of the United States:

who is fourteen years of age or older, . and remains in the United States for thirty days or longer, [is] to apply for registration and to be fingerprinted before the expiration of such thirty days.

Registration would be under oath and include:

(1) the date and place of entry of the alien into the United States (2) activities in which he has been and intends to be engaged (3) the length of time he expects to remain in the United States (4) the criminal record, if any, of such alien and (5) such additional matters as may be prescribed by the Commissioner [of Immigration and Naturalization], with the approval of the Attorney General.

Guardians had to register minors, who had to register in person and be fingerprinted within 30 days of their fourteenth birthday. Post offices were designated as the location for registering and fingerprinting. Aliens were to notify the government if their residence changed, and to confirm their residence every three months. Penalties included fines up to $1000 and up to six months imprisonment.

Registrations began on August 27, 1940, and the newly created Alien Registration Division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service planned to register between three and three-and-a-half million people at 45,000 post offices by December 26, after which those not registered became subject to the Smith Act's penalties. The Division held the view that registration benefited the alien, who "is now safeguarded from bigoted persecution." The alien was to bring a completed form to a post office and be fingerprinted. Registration cards would be delivered by mail and would serve "in the nature of protection of the alien later runs afoul of the police." [sic] The details required for registration had been expanded since the passage of the Act to include race, employer's name and address, relatives in the U.S., organization memberships, application for citizenship, and military service record for the U.S. or any other country. Solicitor General Francis Biddle had responsibility for the Division, [9] which was headed by Earl G. Harrison during its first six months. [14] In a radio address meant to reassure aliens, Biddle said: "It was not the intention of Congress to start a witch hunt or a program of persecution." Calling it a "patriotic duty", he said: [15]

Many people still feel that there is a stigma attached to being fingerprinted. I have been fingerprinted, as have millions of others who served in the armed forces of the United States. All Federal civil service employees are fingerprinted. Even postal savings depositors are fingerprinted. I assure you that there is no stigma attached to being fingerprinted in this day and age.

Government efforts to encourage registration asked citizens to participate: [16]

The Immigration and Naturalization Service asks for the cooperation of all citizens in carrying out the Alien Registration program in a friendly manner so that our large foreign population is not antagonized. Citizens may be of great help to their non-citizen neighbors or relatives by explaining to those who do not speak English well what the registration is, where aliens go to register, and what information they must give.

The number registered passed 4.7 million by January 1941. [17]

After the U.S. declared war in 1941, federal authorities used data gathered from alien registrations to identify citizens of enemy nations and take 2,971 of them into custody by the end of the year. [18] A different set of requirements was imposed during the war on enemy aliens, citizens of nations with which the U.S. was at war [19] by presidential proclamations of January 14, 1942, [20] without reference to the Smith Act.

In December 1950, following an Immigration and Naturalization Service hearing, Claudia Jones, a citizen of Trinidad, was ordered deported from the U.S. for violating the McCarran Act as an alien (non-U.S. citizen) who had joined the Communist Party (CPUSA). The evidence of her party membership included information she provided when completing her Alien Registration form on December 24, 1940. [21]

Harry Bridges Edit

The Smith Act was written so that federal authorities could deport radical labor organizer Harry Bridges, an immigrant from Australia. [6] Deportation hearings against Bridges in 1939 found he did not qualify for deportation because he was not currently—as the Alien Act of 1918 required—a member of or affiliated with an organization that advocated the overthrow of the government. [22] The Smith Act allowed deportation of an alien who had been "at any time" since arriving in the U.S. a member of, or affiliated with, such an organization. A second round of deportation hearings ended after ten weeks in June 1941. [23] In September, the special examiner who led the hearings recommended deportation, but the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reversed that order after finding the government's two key witnesses unreliable. [24] In May 1942, though the Roosevelt administration was now putting its anti-Communist activities on hold in the interest of furthering the Soviet-American alliance, Attorney General Biddle overruled the BIA and ordered Bridges deported. [25] Bridges appealed and lost in District Court [26] and the Court of Appeals, [27] but the Supreme Court held 5–3 on June 18, 1945, in the case of Bridges v. Wixon that the government had not proven Bridges was "affiliated" with the CPUSA, [28] a word it interpreted to require more than "sympathy" or "mere cooperation". [29]

Minneapolis 1941 Edit

On June 27, 1941, as part of a campaign to end labor militancy in the defense industry, FBI agents raided the Minneapolis and St. Paul offices of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), [30] a Trotskyist splinter party that controlled Local 544 of the Teamsters union though it had fewer than two thousand members in 30 U.S. cities. The union had grown steadily in the late 1930s, had organized federal relief workers and led a strike against the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency. [31] In mid-July, a federal grand jury indicted 29 people, either members of the SWP or Local 544 of the Teamsters union, or both. [32]

SWP defendants included James P. Cannon, Carl Skoglund, Farrell Dobbs, Grace Carlson, Harry DeBoer, Max Geldman, Albert Goldman, and twelve other party leaders. Goldman acted as the defendants' lawyer during the trial. The SWP had been influential in Minneapolis since the Teamsters Strike of 1934. It advocated strikes and the continuation of labor union militancy during World War II under its Proletarian Military Policy. An SWP member edited the Northwest Organizer, the weekly newspaper of the Minneapolis Teamsters, and the local union remained militant even as the national union grew more conservative. The CPUSA supported the trial and conviction of Trotskyists under the Smith Act. [ citation needed ] The defendants were accused of having plotted to overthrow the U.S. government in violation of the newly passed Smith Act and of the Sedition Act of 1861, to enforce which, according to Wallace MG as at March 1920, it seems no serious previous attempt had ever been made. [33]

When critics argued that the government should adhere to the doctrine enunciated by Justice Holmes that free speech could only be prosecuted if it presented "a clear and present danger", Attorney General Biddle replied that Congress had considered both that standard and the international situation when writing the Smith Act's proscriptions. At trial, the judge took Biddle's view and refused to instruct the jury in the "clear and present danger" standard as the defendants' attorneys requested. [34] The trial began in Federal District Court in Minneapolis on October 27, 1941. The prosecution presented evidence that the accused had amassed a small arsenal of pistols and rifles and conducted target practices and drills. Some had met with Trotsky in Mexico, and many witnesses testified to their revolutionary rhetoric.

The judge ordered that five of the defendants be acquitted on both counts for lack of evidence. After deliberating for 56 hours, the jury found the other 23 defendants (one had committed suicide during the trial) not guilty of violating the 1861 statute by conspiring to overthrow the government by force. The jury found 18 of the defendants guilty of violating the Smith Act either by distributing written material designed to cause insubordination in the armed forces or by advocating the overthrow of the government by force. [35] The jury recommended leniency. [36] On December 8, 1941, 12 defendants received 16-month sentences and the remaining 11 received 12-months. [37] Time magazine minimized the danger from the SWP, calling it "a nestful of mice". The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and critics on the left worried that the case created a dangerous precedent. [38]

On appeal, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of the 18. The judges found it unnecessary to consider the "clear and present danger" standard in "situations where the legislative body had outlawed certain utterances". [39] The Supreme Court declined to review the case. Those convicted began to serve their sentences on December 31, 1943. The last of them were released in February 1945. Biddle, in his memoirs published in 1962, regretted having authorized the prosecution. [40]

Nazi sympathizers Edit

Early in 1942, President Roosevelt, supported by the rest of his Cabinet, urged Attorney General Biddle to prosecute fascist sympathizers and anti-Semites. [41] Biddle thought the Smith Act inadequate, but Congress refused to renew the Sedition Act of 1918 as he asked. [42]

In 1942, 16 members of the "Mankind United" semi-religious cult, including founder Arthur Bell, were arrested by the FBI under the act. Although 12 were found guilty, they all won on appeal and none served a jail sentence.

Historian Leo P. Ribuffo coined the term "Brown Scare" to cover the events leading up to the Washington 1944 sedition trial. [43] President Roosevelt, who especially held non-interventionist Charles Lindbergh in disdain, had already asked J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI to investigate pro-Nazi individuals back in 1935. The pro-fascist right in the United States collapsed within a year of the attack on Pearl Harbor in midst of the investigations. [43]

Crusader White Shirts Edit

In March 1942, the government charged George W. Christians, founder of the Crusader White Shirts, with violating the Smith Act by attempting to spread dissent in the armed forces. [44] Life had published a photo of Christians in 1939 under the heading "Some of the Voices of Hate". [45] Christians said he promoted a "human effort monetary system" [46] and supported "a paper and ink revolution for economic liberty". After a four-day trial, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison on June 8. [47]

Washington 1944 Edit

Thirty prominent individuals were indicted in Washington, D.C., in July 1942, accused of violations of the Smith Act, in what became the largest sedition trial in the US. [43] After delays while the government amended the charges and struggled to construct its case, the trial, expanded to 33 defendants, began on April 17, 1944. The defendants were a heterogeneous group that held either isolationist or pro-fascist views. In the case of United States v. McWilliams named after Joe McWilliams, the prosecutor, O. John Rogge, hoped to prove they were Nazi propaganda agents by demonstrating the similarity between their statements and enemy propaganda. The weakness of the government's case, combined with the trial's slow progress in the face of disruption by the defendants, led the press to lose interest. [48] A mistrial was declared on November 29, 1944, following the death of the trial judge, Edward C. Eicher. [49] [50] Defendant Lawrence Dennis mocked the affair by subtitling his account of the trial The Great Sedition Trial of 1944. [51]

Only Rogge, a committed liberal, wanted to retry the case to "stop the spread of racial and religious intolerance." [49] Supreme Court decisions since the 1942 indictments made convictions appear ever more unlikely. [52] Roger Baldwin of the ACLU campaigned against renewing the prosecutions, securing the endorsement of many of the defendants' ideological opponents, including the American Jewish Committee, while the CPUSA held out for prosecuting them all to the limit. Tom Clark, Biddle's replacement as Attorney General in the Truman administration, vacillated about the case. In October 1946, he fired Rogge in a public dispute about publicizing DOJ information about right-wing activities. With the end of World War II, attention turned from the defeated ideologies of the Axis powers to the threat of Communism, and in December 1946 the government had the charges dismissed. [53]

Communist Party trials Edit

After a ten-month trial at the Foley Square Courthouse in Manhattan, eleven leaders of the Communist Party were convicted under the Smith Act in 1949. [54] Ten defendants received sentences of five years and $10,000 fines. An eleventh defendant, Robert G. Thompson, a distinguished hero of the Second World War, was sentenced to three years in consideration of his military record. The five defense attorneys were cited for contempt of court and given prison sentences. Those convicted appealed the verdicts, and the Supreme Court upheld their convictions in 1951 in Dennis v. United States in a 6–2 decision.

Following that decision, the DOJ prosecuted dozens of cases. In total, by May 1956, another 131 communists were indicted, of whom 98 were convicted, nine acquitted, while juries brought no verdict in the other cases. [55] Other party leaders indicted included Claudia Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founding member of the ACLU who had been expelled in 1940 for being a Communist.

Appeals from other trials reached the Supreme Court with varying results. On June 17, 1957, Yates v. United States held unconstitutional the convictions of numerous party leaders in a ruling that distinguished between advocacy of an idea for incitement and the teaching of an idea as a concept. The same day, the Court ruled 6–1 in Watkins v. United States that defendants could use the First Amendment as a defense against "abuses of the legislative process". On June 5, 1961, the Supreme Court upheld by 5–4 the conviction of Junius Scales under the "membership clause" of the Smith Act. Scales began serving a six-year sentence on October 2, 1961. He was released after serving fifteen months when President John F. Kennedy commuted his sentence in 1962. [56]

Trials of "second string" communist leaders also occurred in the 1950s, including that of Maurice Braverman.

For More Information

Christensen, Erika L. "Face of the Enemy: the Japanese-American Internment and its Significance on Ethnic Conflict in America." Master's thesis, Utah State University, 2010.

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Miller, John Chester. Crisis in Freedom: the Alien and Sedition Acts . Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.

Miyake, Lika C. "Forsaken and Forgotten: The U.S. Internment of Japanese Peruvians During World War II" (May 2002): 18666 words.

Neuman, Gerald L., and Charles F. Hobson. "John Marshall and the Enemy Alien." The Green Bag (Autumn 2005). .

Peltner, Arndt. "Unforgettable Justice." The Atlantic Times , May 2007. .

Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism . New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives . New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

In American History

Although the young American republic was theoretically more stable and centralized than ever before, the first decade under the Constitution ratified in 1789 was fraught with political fears arising from both genuine threats and overreactions to wholly unexpected developments.

Perhaps the most important of these unexpected developments was the rapid emergence of political divisions that matured into parties competing to name the nation’s chief executive, a circumstance unprecedented in world history. Although parties are now considered a basic aspect of U.S. democracy, this was far from intended by the founders.

Believing that a republic could never survive the strain of constant battles for power, and that good, trustworthy leaders would never want to engage in those battles, the framers of the Constitution intentionally designed the new system to prevent the development of political parties or any other kind of organized competition for control of the national government.

The hope was that the increased size and diversity of the territory being governed, coupled with a multilayered structure of representation that included an appointed senate and an indirectly elected president, would make it impossible for the country’s many local political factions and interests to organize themselves sufficiently to control the national government.

Without the need to please or compete for public favor, learned, enlightened statesmen would be able to deliberate more or less in peace at the national capital, making wise, well-reasoned decisions for the good of all.

To the founders, parties and other forms of organized opposition to government were inherently conspiratorial, especially when a legitimate republican government existed. When the people already ruled, efforts to defeat or stymie their chosen leaders were considered plots against the people themselves by cabals of “artful and designing men” out for private gain, tyrannical power, or some other sinister purpose. Those who followed such evil leaders showed themselves to be mere “tools” or “dupes,” unworthy of the rights of independent citizenship.

In a comment that somewhat hyperbolically reflected the feelings of many colleagues, Thomas Jefferson expressed revulsion at the very idea of joining a political party: “Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

Despite this deep aversion to parties, the choices facing the young nation were simply too momentous and too divisive to be contained by the makeshift structure that the framers had devised. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton came into conflict immediately over financial policy and broader matters such as the basic structure of the new government and the future character of the nation.

Jefferson became convinced that Hamilton was the leader of a “corrupt squadron” who sought “to get rid of the limitations imposed by the constitution” with the “ultimate object” of “a change, from the present republican form of government, to that of a monarchy” modeled on Great Britain’s (Jefferson, 986).

Hamilton, for his part, was equally certain that Jefferson and his lieutenant James Madison led “a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and . subversive of . good government and . the union, peace and happiness of the Country”.

Believing that they were fighting for the very soul of the new nation, Jefferson, Hamilton, and their respective allies instinctively reached out for support among their fellow politicians and the citizenry at large, eventually spawning a party conflict whether they intended to or not.

Unfortunately, U.S. politicians of the 1790s engaged in party politics without really ever learning to approve of the practice. They saw themselves as taking necessary if sometimes distasteful steps to save the republic, and their opponents as conspirators against it, plain and simple.

Especially among the Federalist supporters of the Washington and Adams administration, there was no sense that there could be any such thing as a “loyal opposition,” and it was perhaps inevitable that steps would be taken to curb opposition to the government when the opportunity arose.

Political paranoia became far worse in the latter half of Washington’s presidency, when the French Revolution grew more radical and war broke out between France and Great Britain. The question of which side to take in the conflict, if any, came to define U.S. politics, and pushed foreign subversion to the head of the list of fears. Although highly exaggerated in practice, fears of foreign subversion in this period were probably more plausible than at any other time in U.S. history.

The United States was no world power in the 1790s, but occupied a situation much closer to those of developing or Third World nations during and after the cold war: small, weak, and subject to harsh buffeting by political, economic, and cultural winds coming from the more developed world.

Revolutionary France expected U.S. support as a sister republic and in return for France’s aid to the U.S. during the American Revolution. Beginning with “Citizen” Edmond Genet’s arrival in 1793, French envoys did their best to draw Americans into the conflict with Great Britain and influence American politics in favor of the French cause.

Genet greeted crowds of well-wishers, handed out military commissions, and outfitted privateers, while later French ministers fed politically calculated information through friendly newspaper editors. The British kept a lower profile, but successfully pressed to keep the United States militarily neutral and commercially dependent on British trade (by means of the controversial Jay Treaty), while staying in secret, sometimes illicit, conflict with various U.S. officials.

Republicans generally took the side of France, or opposed closer ties to Great Britain the Federalists generally took the opposite approach, and increasingly regarded France as a dire threat to U.S. independence, the Christian religion, and everything else they held dear.

More important than what the French or British actually did was the growing conviction, within each of the emerging parties, that the other side was working, out of greed or fanaticism, in treasonous collusion with a foreign aggressor.

Republicans regarded the Federalists as the “British party” and their leader Jefferson infamously labeled Washington, Hamilton, and Adams as traitors (in an inadvertently published letter), “men who were Samsons in the field & Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England” (Jefferson, 1037).

However, the Federalists gave far more than they got in this respect, calling their opponents “Jacobins” after the most radical, conspiratorial, and ultimately bloodthirsty faction of the French Revolution. This was equal parts a venomous partisan label and a sincere statement of who and what many Federalists thought was driving the opposition to their policies, an international revolutionary conspiracy.

Through the battles over Hamilton’s financial system, the French Revolution, and the Jay Treaty, the incipient party conflict had matured to the point of a contested presidential election by 1796, pitting Vice-President John Adams against former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

Deteriorating relations with France in the wake of the Jay Treaty, including attacks on U.S. shipping, French threats, and the distinct possibility of war, put the Federalists in a strong position. Adams won, and soon after the XYZ Affair inflamed the country against France and set up the belligerent national mood that made the Alien and Sedition Acts possible.

The Press, Immigration, and the Origins of the Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were the domestic planks of an aggressive national security program passed by the Federalists in preparation for an allout war against France that many of them desired but never managed to make happen.

A military build-up was also put in motion, including the construction of a fleet of war-ships and a vastly enlarged army that included forces designed to rapidly mobilize against rebellious Americans as well as foreign invaders.

This early homeland security legislation’s specific targets were determined by two aspects of the party conflict that disturbed the Federalists most: the role of the press and the role of immigrants in the growing popular opposition to the policies of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, and in the democratization of U.S. political culture more generally.

The press was seen as a powerful political weapon that had fallen into the hands of conspirators, mercenaries, and fools. As the founders and other U.S. politicians perceived it, the press was the “great director of public opinion” and capable of destroying any government by turning its own people against it. “Give to any set of men the command of the press, and you give them the command of the country,” declared an influential Pennsylvania Federalist (Addison, 1798, 18󈝿).

Although still a relatively primitive medium by modern standards—a standard U.S. newspaper featured only four pages, filled haphazardly with a seemingly random assortment of miscellaneous material without real headlines or illustrations— newspapers (along with pamphlets) were thought to have been instrumental in bringing about both the American and French Revolutions, as well as numerous political developments in Great Britain.

Founders on both sides of the 1790s political spectrum, including Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, and Samuel Adams, had relied on the press as their “political engine” during the movement for independence from Great Britain.

The founders began their new nation assuming that, with British tyranny defeated and republican government established, the press would now serve a more passive political role. It would build loyalty to the new regime, chiefly by providing the people with basic information about their government’s activities, such as copies of the laws that had been passed.

As the first Washington administration gathered, it seemed more than enough when Boston businessman John Fenno showed up in the national capital and started the Gazette of the United States (the G.U.S.), a would-be national newspaper intended to “endear the general government to the people” (Pasley, 57) by printing documents and congressional proceedings, along with letters, essays, and even poetry hailing President Washington and Vice-President John Adams as gods among men.

When fundamental disagreements broke out among the leading founders, however, the press was quickly drawn into the growing partisan conflict. To those who saw Hamilton as a not-sohidden hand guiding the country toward monarchy and aristocracy, the G.U.S. began to seem positively sinister, an organ for government propaganda that might be able to overbear the voters’ better judgment.

Jefferson and Madison sought to counter the influence of the G.U.S. by helping create a new Philadelphia newspaper, the National Gazette, to lead the public charge against Hamilton’s policies. The editor, the poet Philip Freneau (a college friend of Madison’s), was given a no-work job in Jefferson’s office.

The newspaper provided Jefferson with a surrogate that would fight in the war for public opinion and still allow him to remain above the fray and within the administration. When he was exposed as the National Gazette’s sponsor and confronted by President Washington, Jefferson claimed that Freneau’s paper had “saved our constitution” from Hamilton.

Although the National Gazette folded in 1793, it set a number of important precedents. In some places, it was the birthplace of the party system, since it was in the National Gazette’s pages that the very idea of an opposition political party (as opposed to a mere group of like-minded legislators) was first floated. Again and again in the following century, politicians and parties looked to newspapers as their primary public combatants in the bruising battles that followed the Jefferson-Hamilton split.

The Philadelphia Aurora, founded by a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, took over as the leading Jeffersonian paper, and around it developed a loose national network of local newspapers that spread the opposition movement’s ideas around the country by copying from each other. Such newspaper networks became the primary means through which nineteenth-century U.S. parties sought to influence the U.S. public and a vital component of their campaigning.

The Federalists of the 1790s thought of themselves as the nation’s rightful ruling class, “the wisest and best” rather than a political faction that had to compete for public favor and control of the government. The development of an opposition party and an opposition press was threatening, offensive, and patently a conspiracy.

During the congressional debates on the Sedition Act, arch-conservative congressman John Allen of Connecticut read from a New York newspaper in which the strongest words used against President Adams were that he was “a person without patriotism, without philosophy” and “a mock Monarch.” Allen flatly declared that, “If this be not a conspiracy against Government and people,” he did not know what a conspiracy was (Debates and Proceedings in Congress).

The opposition press was doubly or triply bad because of the fact it was largely manned by men that the aristocratically minded Federalists considered thoroughly unfit to “undertake the high task of enlightening the public mind.”

Whereas in colonial times most newspaper writing was done by men of education and social prestige—the lawyers, ministers, and merchants of the major towns—the political writing of 1790s fell increasingly to much lesser sorts of men, especially the generally selfeducated artisan printers who produced the hundreds of new journals that popped up across the country. “Too many of our Gazettes,” lamented Rev. Samuel Miller, “are in the hands of persons destitute at once of the urbanity of gentlemen, the information of scholars, and the principles of virtue”.

The Alien and Sedition Acts’ strongest supporters feared a kind of social and political subversion, in which worthy officials stood to lose their stations and reputations to upstarts and nobodies who would sling mud and rouse the rabble. “It is a mortifying observation” Judge Alexander Addison wrote in one of many published charges to his grand jury, “that boys, blockheads, and ruffians, are often listened to, in preference to men of integrity, skill, and understanding”.

Even more threatening than the printers were the immigrants. The British government harshly repressed the radical democracy movements that had grown up in England, Scotland, and Ireland in response to the French Revolution. Working-class journalists were among the most influential activists in those movements, and many of them were forced into exile during the mid-1790s to avoid mobs and jail.

Not a few of these transatlantic “Jacobins,” including the Alien and Sedition Acts victims James Thomson Callender, William Duane, and John Daly Burk, ended up in the port cities of the United States, doing the work they knew best, for Democratic Republican newspapers. Duane became editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, the Republicans’ most widely read journal, and thus in many respects the national voice of the party.

Along with the refugee journalists came a politically noticeable number of other immigrants whom the Federalists found suspicious, especially the Irish who became a major presence in the capital city of Philadelphia during the 1790s. In the spring of 1797, Federalists tried to impose a tax on certificates of naturalization, hoping to keep out what Rep.

Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts called the “hordes of wild Irishmen” who might “disturb our tranquility” (Debates and Proceedings in Congress). The Federalists’ prejudice ensured that the Irish and other recent immigrants would become an important voting bloc for their opponents.


SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States, within such time as shall be expressed in such order, which order shall be served on such alien by delivering him a copy thereof, or leaving the same at his usual abode, and returned to the office of the Secretary of State, by the marshal or other person to whom the same shall be directed. And in case any alien, so ordered to depart, shall be found at large within the United States after the time limited in such order for his departure, and not having obtained a license from the President to reside therein, or having obtained such license shall not have conformed thereto, every such alien shall, on conviction thereof, be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, and shall never after be admitted to become a citizen of the United States. Provided always, and be it further enacted, that if any alien so ordered to depart shall prove to the satisfaction of the President, by evidence to be taken before such person or persons as the President shall direct, who are for that purpose hereby authorized to administer oaths, that no injury or danger to the United States will arise from suffering such alien to reside therein, the President may grant a license to such alien to remain within the United States for such time as he shall judge proper, and at such place as he may designate. And the President may also require of such alien to enter into a bond to the United States, in such penal sum as he may direct, with one or more sufficient sureties to the satisfaction of the person authorized by the President to take the same, conditioned for the good behavior of such alien during his residence in the United States, and not violating his license, which license the President may revoke, whenever he shall think proper.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, whenever he may deem it necessary for the public safety, to order to be removed out of the territory thereof, any alien who may or shall be in prison in pursuance of this act and to cause to be arrested and sent out of the United States such of those aliens as shall have been ordered to depart therefrom and shall not have obtained a license as aforesaid, in all cases where, in the opinion of the President, the public safety requires a speedy removal. And if any alien so removed or sent out of the United States by the President shall voluntarily return thereto, unless by permission of the President of the United States, such alien on conviction thereof, shall be imprisoned so long as, in the opinion of the President, the public safety may require.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That every master or commander of any ship or vessel which shall come into any port of the United States after the first day of July next, shall immediately on his arrival make report in writing to the collector or other chief officer of the customs of such port, of all aliens, if any, on board his vessel, specifying their names, age, the place of nativity, the country from which they shall have come, the nation to which they belong and owe allegiance, their occupation and a description of their persons, as far as he shall be informed thereof, and on failure, every such master and commander shall forfeit and pay three hundred dollars, for the payment whereof on default of such master or commander, such vessel shall also be holden, and may by such collector or other officer of the customs be detained. And it shall be the duty of such collector or other officer of the customs, forthwith to transmit to the office of the department of state true copies of all such returns.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the circuit and district courts of the United States, shall respectively have cognizance of all crimes and offences against this act. And all marshals and other officers of the United States are required to execute all precepts and orders of the President of the United States issued in pursuance or by virtue of this act.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for any alien who may be ordered to be removed from the United States, by virtue of this act, to take with him such part of his goods, chattels, or other property, as he may find convenient and all property left in the United States by any alien, who may be removed, as aforesaid, shall be, and remain subject to his order and disposal, in the same manner as if this act had not been passed.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That this act shall continue and be in force for and during the term of two years from the passing thereof.

Jonathan Dayton, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

TH. Jefferson, Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate.

I Certify that this Act did originate in the Senate.

Attest, Sam. A. Otis, Secretary

President of the United States.


The Alien Act of 1798—officially, An Act Concerning Aliens, and sometimes also called the Alien Friends Act—authorized the president to detain, arrest, deport, or imprison any alien that was considered dangerous to the country, whether during peace or war. The law had the potential to authorize the removal of large numbers of immigrants, though it never resulted in the deportation of any aliens and was in effect for only two years.

Besides the Alien Act, the Alien and Sedition Acts also contained three other acts. First, the Alien Enemies Act (An Act Respecting Alien Enemies) authorized the president, once war had been declared, to deport or imprison any male citizen associated with a country fighting against the United States. This law could potentially have led to the removal of 25,000 French-American citizens. No person was deported under this law, however, because the country did not go to war. Second, the Naturalization Act (An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization) increased residency requirements from five years to fourteen years for immigrants seeking citizenship. Since immigrants generally joined the Jeffersonian Party, lengthening the citizenship time would have impeded the growth of the Jeffersonians and strengthened the power of the Federalists. Third, the Sedition Act (An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States) outlawed conspiracies and made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. In reality, any Jeffersonian who spoke against Federalists—especially the Adams administration—were likely targets.

Although the Federalists stated publicly that these acts were intended to increase national security, for all intents and purposes the laws were enacted to control dissent, to silence opposing views, and to increase Federalist power. The laws were enacted specifically to eliminate criticisms levied against the Adams administration and the Federalists by Thomas Jefferson and the Jeffersonians.

The four laws limited the right of free speech and dissent in the United States. In particular, the Jeffersonians felt that the Alien Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). Consequently, the Jeffersonians drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which sought elimination of the Alien Act at the state level. In the resolutions, the authors accused Congress of exceeding its powers. They also declared the Alien and Sedition Acts void.

At the same time, Federalist members organized an alien list for deportation. Prominent Jeffersonian newspaper editors and publishers and U.S. Congressman Matthew Lyon (a Jeffersonian from Vermont) were on the list. Lyon was indicted for intentionally criticizing President Adams. He was found guilty by a Federalist judge, spent four months in jail, and was re-elected to office from his jail cell. Thirteen more indictments were brought under the acts, with some people being brought to trial.

During these years, the acts provoked a debate between Federalist and Jeffersonian politicians over freedom of speech and the press. Of note, James Madison (1751–1836), who became the fourth U.S. president, wrote an exceptionally skillful argument against the acts.

The acts expired at the end of John Adams's presidency, which occurred on March 3, 1801. Thomas Jefferson was elected the third U.S. president and members of the Jeffersonian Party were elected to a majority in the Congress. Jefferson stopped prosecutions under the acts, and he arranged for those affected by these laws to be compensated or apologized to by members of Congress. During Jefferson's two terms as president, he developed new definitions of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are in effect in the United States today. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Alien and Sedition Acts were known as the first attack on basic American civil liberties.

In the twenty-first century, parallels have been drawn between the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (short for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the PATRIOT Act has increased the power of the federal government to gather domestic intelligence and restrict the activities of potentially dangerous citizens. Many organizations and individuals find a connection between the Alien and Sedition Acts, especially the Alien Act, and the PATRIOT Act with regards to limiting civil liberties for the sake of security in the pursuit of domestic and international terrorism. Others see the additional security restrictions as necessary in a time of war on terrorism.



Rudanko, Martti Juhani. James Madison and Freedom of Speech: Major Debates in the Early Republic. Dallas, TX: University Press of America, 2004.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition haws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

How to use Alien and Sedition Acts in a sentence

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Watch the video: The Alien and Sedition Acts