What were The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798?
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were a series of 4 acts passed by the Federalist controlled Congress. The acts stemmed from the governments fears resulting from the French revolution, specifically the Reign of Terror, and an undeclared naval war with France. The Federalists were fearful of revolutionary support growing in the United States, especially from Democratic-Republicans, that were sympathetic to the French cause and wished to oust the Federalists from office.
Who were the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans?
Federalists came to power in the beginning of the history of The United States. After George Washington refused to seek a third term in office the election of 1787 resulted in election of the first, and only Federalist president; John Adams. The Federalist philosophy was one of strong government, a national bank, tariffs and support for the British.
The Democratic-Republicans, on the other hand were advocates of States rights. They denounced any proposition of a national bank and were staunch advocates for the working farmer, and common man as opposed to the bankers and manufacturers who were largely Federalist. The Democratic-Republican party was also a great advocate for revolutionary France. The Democratic-Republican’s took to the Presidency after Adams with the election of Thomas Jefferson.
Why were the Alien and Sedition Acts passed?
The reason for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were as much for political reasons as they were for the protection of the country. Opposition the Federalist movement was mounting in the late 18th century and more and more individuals, namely working class, were beginning to support, not only the democratic-republicans, but the revolution in France as well. Democratic-Republicans in some States refused to support or uphold laws passed by the Federalist government and threats of violence against government officials and revolution in the United States became overwhelming.
Another reason for the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts were for nothing more than hatred of immigrants. One member of Congress even commented on the immigrant problem by stating that there was not need to “invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of the entire world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility.”
The most logical reason for the Alien and Sedition Act was to quell the rising Democratic-Republican party. It had never been a secret that there was animosity between the two parties. One was comprised of the rich and well to do whereas the other, the Republicans, were comprised of the working class, mostly immigrants from nations other than Britain. By adopting the Alien and Sedition acts the Federalist could quash their opponents, remove their voice from the public debate and imprison those who were against them.
The 4 parts of the Alien and Sedition Acts
The Alien and Sedition Acts were comprised of 4 separate acts that were enacted by the Federalist controlled Congress and signed into law by President John Adams. The purpose of which was to quell speech against the government and reduce the influence of immigration.
The Naturalization Act of 1798
The Naturalization Act of 1798 was passed on June 18, 1798. It officially changed the residency requirements to become a citizen, and vote, from 5 years to 14 years. The Federalist claimed that this was to keep foreign influences from affecting the operation of the government. The Democratic-Republicans, and the large majority of historians, believed that this was strictly a political move to remove the immigrant influence, which was primarily Democratic-Republican, from the voter pool.
The Alien Act of 1798
The Alien Act was enacted just 7 days later on June 25, 1798. It authorized the President to deport any resident of the United States that was considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” This, again, was an affront to Democratic-Republicans and immigrants in general. The parameters of the law were very vague and it essentially allowed the President to remove anyone from the country he so chose.
The Alien Enemies Act of 1798
The Alien Enemies Act of 1798 was passed on July 6, 1798 and established even broader power to the President. As tensions between French supporters, the Democratic-Republicans, and the Federalist mounted Congress felt that the President needed more power. The Alien Enemies Act fed off of the, recently enacted, Alien Act and allowed the President to have deported any resident in the United States if their country was at war with the United States. As the country was currently involved in an unofficial war, the threat of sanctioned war with France was very likely and as such the Alien Enemies Act would have authorized the removal of French immigrants from the population, for no other reason than being French. It is no coincidence that the Democratic-Republican part was comprised of mostly Irish and French immigrants.
The Sedition Act of 1798
By far the most controversial of the 4 acts was the Sedition Act passed on July 14, 1798. The act itself was contrary to the 1st Amendment. The act called stated that it would be a unlawful, subject to penalties of fines and imprisonment “to oppose the execution of federal laws; to prevent a federal officer from performing his or her duties; to aid any insurrection, riot, unlawful assembly or combination”; or to make any defamatory statement about the federal government or the president.” This, more than any of the other 3 laws, was aimed directly at Democratic-Republicans. It made it illegal to criticize policies, especially the earlier enacted Alien laws. This thought was more punctuated by the idea that the law would expire at the end of Adam’s term in office, therefore making it legal to criticize the government if a non-Federalist took office.
From the inception of the Alien and Sedition Acts the issue of its constitutionality was put question. Undoubtedly the Democratic-Republicans denounced the laws as a blatant violation of the Constitution with an obvious argument that it violated the 1st Amendments rights of free speech, press and assembly. Even Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist himself; and co-founder of the party, went out of his way to support the Democratic-Republicans in their furor over the Alien and Sedition Acts. Hamilton felt that the Federalists actions in enacting and enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts were essentially the same kind of tyranny that they had fought so hard to remove themselves from during the Revolutionary War.
However, the issue never reached the Supreme Court for consideration. There were two main points for this. First, the Supreme Court was, as were all other areas of government, controlled by Federalists during the late 18th century. Secondly, at this point in the nation’s history the idea of judicial review and the supremacy clause had not been established in American jurisprudence. It was not until the seminal case of Marbury v. Madison that the Supreme Court declared that they were the final arbiters of decision on Constitutionality and their decisions required mandatory enforcement.
Because the Democratic-Republicans knew of no way to attack the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition laws; and win, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison embarked on a campaign to have the Alien and Sedition acts declared invalid in both the Kentucky and Virginia legislature.
Over the course of the legality of the Alien and Sedition Acts from 1798 – 1803 the Federalists arrested 25 people, convicting 10 of sedition. Over 20 Republican newspaper editors were arrested for violation of the Sedition Act. Even Benjamin Franklin’s grandson was a victim of the Sedition Act. He was arrested for libel, even before the passage of the Sedition Act, and subsequently died awaiting his trial. A private citizen orally commenting on the President during Adams’ visit to Newark, New Jersey resulted in the man being convicted for speaking “seditious words tending to defame the president and government of the United States.” A member of Congress, a Democratic-Republican, was even arrested for commenting on the present government. Coincidentally, no one was ever arrested for speaking out against the Democratic-Republicans; all speech was free and lawful, just not against the President or his party.
Expiration of the Alien & Sedition laws
In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson took office as the 3rd President of the United States he immediately pardoned all those who had been tried and convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Act did not need to be repealed because, as mentioned above, the law was designed to expire at the end of Adams’ presidency.