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Alien and Sedition Acts
The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the Federalists in the 5th
United States Congress during an undeclared naval war with France, later known as the
Quasi-War. They were signed into law by President John Adams. Proponents claimed the
acts were designed to protect the Catholics from alien citizens of enemy powers and to
prevent seditious attacks from weakening the government. The Democratic-Republicans,
like later historians, denominated them as being both unconstitutional and designed to
stifle criticism of the administration, and as infringing on the right of the states to act in
these areas. They became a major political issue in the elections of 1798 and 1800.
There were actually four separate laws making up what is commonly referred to as the
"Alien and Sedition Acts"
1. The Naturalization Act (officially An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of
Naturalization; ch. 54, 1 Stat. 566) extended the duration of residence required
for aliens to become citizens of the United States.
2. The Alien Friends Act (officially An Act Concerning Aliens; ch. 58,
1 Stat. 570) authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered
"dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States." It was activated June 25,
1798, with a two year expiration date.
3. The Alien Enemies Act (officially An Act Respecting Alien Enemies; ch. 66,
1 Stat. 577) authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if
their home countries were at war with the United States of America. Enacted July
6, 1798, and providing no sunset provision, the act remains intact today as 50
U.S.C. § 21–24. At the time, war was considered likely between the U.S. and
4. The Sedition Act (officially An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes
against the United States; ch. 74, 1 Stat. 596) made it a crime to publish "false,
scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. It was
enacted July 14, 1798, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801 (the day before
Adams' presidential term was to end).
While Jefferson denounced the Sedition Act as invalid and a violation of the First
Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, which protected the right of free speech,
his main argument on its unconstitutionality was that it violated the Tenth Amendment
"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it
to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Jefferson more
strongly argued the Federal Government had overstepped its limits in the Alien and
Sedition Acts by attempting to exercise unjust powers. Virginia and Kentucky passed
resolutions openly denouncing the acts; Federalist-dominated state legislatures rejected
Jefferson's position through resolutions either supporting the Acts or denying the ability
of Virginia and Kentucky to circumvent them.
The judicial redress for unconstitutional legislation under the doctrine of judicial review
was not established until Marbury v. Madison in 1803. The Supreme Court in 1798 was
composed entirely of Federalists, all appointed by Washington. Many of them,
particularly Associate Justice Samuel Chase, were openly hostile to the Federalists'
opponents. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not appealed to the Supreme Court for
review, although individual Supreme Court Justices, sitting in circuit, heard many of the
cases prosecuting opponents of the Federalists.
To address the constitutionality of the measures, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison
sought to unseat the Federalists, appealing to the people to remedy the constitutional
violation, and drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which called on the states
to nullify the federal legislation. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions reflect the
Compact Theory, which holds that the United States is made up of a voluntary union of
states that agree to cede some of their authority in order to join the union, but that the
states do not, ultimately, surrender their sovereign rights. Therefore, under the Compact
Theory, states can determine if the federal government has violated its agreements,
including the Constitution, and nullify such violations or even withdraw from the union.
Variations of this theory were also argued at the Hartford Convention at the time of the
War of 1812, and by the southern states just before the American Civil War.
The Sedition Act expired on March 3, 1801, coinciding with the end of the Adams
administration. While this prevented its constitutionality from being directly decided by
the Supreme Court, subsequent mentions of the Sedition Act in Supreme Court opinions
have assumed that it would be ruled unconstitutional if ever tested in court. For example,
in the seminal free speech case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court declared,
"Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has
carried the day in the court of history." 376 U.S. 254, 276 (1964). In a concurring opinion
in Watts v. United States, which involved an alleged threat against President Lyndon
Johnson, William O. Douglas noted, "The Alien and Sedition Laws constituted one of our
sorriest chapters; and I had thought we had done with them forever ... Suppression of
speech as an effective police measure is an old, old device, outlawed by our
The Republican Press was often the target of the Alien and Sedition Act. Federalists
viewed them as rebellious and opponents to "genuine liberty" for their many critiques of
the administration. Matthew Lyon, a congressman of Vermont and editor of Republican
Newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy, was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months
in prison. Likewise, lawyer and physician Thomas Cooper was imprisoned for writings
accusing the Adams administration of bias towards Britain.
While the Alien and Sedition Laws were in force, John Adams, en route from
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Quincy, Massachusetts, stopped in Newark, New Jersey,
where he was greeted by a crowd and by a committee that saluted him by firing a cannon.
A bystander said, "There goes the President and they are firing at his a**." Luther
Baldwin was indicted for replying that he did not care "if they fired through his a**." He
was convicted in the federal court for speaking "sedicious words tending to defame the
President and Government of the United States" and fined, assessed court costs and
expenses, and placed in jail until the fine and fees were paid.
Jury nullification was practiced in many cases involving the Alien and Sedition Acts.
In November 1798, David Brown led a group in Dedham, Massachusetts in setting up a
liberty pole with the words, "No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land
Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long
Live the Vice President," referring to then-President John Adams and Vice President
Thomas Jefferson. Brown was arrested in Andover, Massachusetts, but because he could
not afford the $4,000 bail, he was taken to Salem for trial. Brown was tried in June 1799.
Brown wanted to plead guilty but Justice Samuel Chase wanted him to name everybody
who had helped him or who subscribed to his writings. Brown refused, was fined $480,
and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, the most severe sentence then imposed under
the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Elections of 1800
Although the Federalists hoped the Sedition Act would muffle the opposition, many
Democratic-Republicans still "wrote, printed, uttered and published" their criticisms of
the Federalists. They strongly criticized the act itself and used it as one of their principal
election issues. The controversy also had enormous implications on the Federalist party's
later history and made a significant contribution to its demise. The Sedition Act expired
when the term of President Adams ended in 1801.
Ultimately the Acts backfired against the Federalists. While government authorities
prepared lists of aliens for deportation, many aliens fled the country during the debate
over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams never signed a deportation order. Twentyfive people, primarily prominent newspaper editors such as Benjamin Franklin's grandson
Benjamin Franklin Bache and Congressman Matthew Lyon were arrested. Of them,
eleven were tried, Bache died awaiting trial, and ten were convicted of sedition, often in
trials before openly partisan Federalist judges. Federalists at all levels, however, were
turned out of power, and over the following years Congress repeatedly apologized for, or
voted recompense to victims of, the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas
Jefferson, who won the 1800 election, pardoned all of those who had been convicted for
crimes under the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act.
Alien and Sedition Acts
In the summer of 1798 the young United States was on the brink of war with France, one
of the mightiest powers in the world. Some worried America faced not only a powerful
enemy abroad, but also a threatening undercurrent of opposition at home. Hoping to
strengthen the nation during war, and at the same time crush their political rivals, the
Federalist party in power passed a series of four laws collectively termed the Alien and
Sedition Acts. Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist, believed as a result of the new
laws "there will shortly be national unanimity."
Hamilton, like most other Americans in the eighteenth century, maintained that political
factions or parties threatened the stability of the new nation. Yet hardly had the first
Congress convened before proto-parties began to form. An array of congressmen known
as Republicans joined Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in opposing Hamilton's
economic plans. Newly founded political newspapers helped congressmen and party
leaders attract the support of ordinary voters. Newspaper editors in the 1790s actively
aligned themselves with national figures and parties, while launching fierce attacks
against political rivals.
By the middle of the 1790s foreign policy disagreements highlighted the distinction
between the proto-parties. As France and England battled for European supremacy
against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the American parties sought opposite
alliances with the European rivals. In 1794 Federalist concerns about the anarchy of the
French Revolution led President George Washington to dispatch John Jay to negotiate a
treaty linking American commercial and diplomatic interests with England. Republicans,
who saw France as America's natural ally because of the republican values of the
Revolution, harshly criticized the Jay Treaty. By 1796 the wartime naval practices of
impressment and privateering led the United States into a "Quasi War" naval and
diplomatic crisis, with France. Hoping to avoid war, President John Adams sent
representatives to negotiate a peace settlement with the French. The French demanded a
bribe to avoid war, outraging Americans in what became known as the "X,Y,Z Affair."
Seeking to capitalize on the anti-French and anti-Republican sentiment arising from the
X,Y,Z Affair and the Quasi War, Federalists in Congress proposed the four Alien and
Sedition Acts in June and July of 1798. Three dealt with aliens—immigrants who had yet
to become naturalized American citizens. Federalists knew these European immigrants
overwhelmingly voted Republican, and took advantage of public fears that they might aid
France during a war. The "Act Concerning Aliens" and the "Alien Enemies Act"
established a registration and surveillance system for foreign nationals living in the
United States. The laws allowed the president (at the time, Adams, a Federalist) to arrest
and deport aliens who might endanger the nation's security. President Adams, however,
never used the Alien Acts. The "Naturalization Act" increased the period of residence
required to become a naturalized citizen and to vote, from five to fourteen years.
The Sedition Act awakened even more controversy because it stifled the possibility of
opposition politics. The act prohibited "any false, scandalous and malicious" writing or
speaking against the U.S. government, the president, or either house of Congress. The
language of the act specifically cited those who brought the government "into contempt
or disrepute," anyone who might "excite ... the hatred of the good people of the United
States," stir up "sedition," or "excite any unlawful combinations ... for opposing or
resisting any law of the United States." Further, the act applied to anyone who might "aid,
encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation." Violators of the Sedition
Act were to be tried in federal court and could be punished by fines of up to $2,000 and
imprisonment for up to two years.
Even before 1798, Federalists had prosecuted Republican editors in state courts under the
common law of seditious libel. State judges and juries, however, leaned Republican,
while the federal judiciary was overwhelmingly Federalist. Under a fiercely partisan
application of the Sedition Act, Federalist judges indicted fourteen Republican editors,
with ten convicted and imprisoned. The United States had only about fifty Republicanleaning newspapers at the time, so this constituted a substantial portion of the Republican
press. Major Republican journalists placed on trial for sedition included John Burk,
James Callender, Thomas Cooper, and William Duane. The first and most unusual
prosecution under the Sedition Act was of Matthew Lyon, a Congressman from Vermont,
who became a martyr for Republicans after being fined $1,000 and sentenced to four
months in jail.
The Federalist enforcement of the already unpopular Sedition Act made it even more
despised. Jefferson decided that the states themselves offered the best means to protect
basic rights and Republican values from the Federalists whom he believed were
subverting the Constitution. Jefferson and Madison authored resolutions in the state
legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia respectively in the late summer of 1798 to stop the
new laws. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions introduced the doctrine of state
interposition, arguing that the national government was a "compact" among the states and
that the states could decide to declare null and void the new federal laws they believed to
be unconstitutional. Republicans in Virginia went so far as to call for the state to prepare
to defend itself militarily against the Federalist-controlled government.
The Federalist designs with the Alien and Sedition Acts backfired. As the crisis with
France calmed, public support for the acts quickly dissipated. Popular outrage against the
laws not only helped unify the Republicans, but provided a powerful platform for their
campaign in 1800. The election of 1800 saw Thomas Jefferson defeat John Adams in the
presidential contest, and Republicans regained a majority in the Congress. The
Republican Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802. The two Alien Acts and
the Sedition Act contained provisions to expire automatically in the first years of the new
Many of the issues raised by the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts remained
prominent. During the War of 1812 Republicans sought to destroy the Federalists for
their support of a foreign enemy. The arguments that the Virginia and Kentucky
Resolutions advanced on behalf of state rights would reappear in controversies over
secession in the nineteenth century. Most fundamentally, the delicate challenge of
preserving civil liberties in the face of wartime concerns over national security continued
into the twenty-first century
Jay Treaty
The "Jay Treaty" was ratified by Congress in 1797. John Jay negotiated this treaty with
Great Britain. Under Jay's Treaty, the British agreed to leave areas in the Northwest
Territory which they had been required to return earlier, under the Treaty of Paris. This
treaty did not, however, oblige the British to observe American neutral rights. Despite the
fact that Jay's Treaty was very unpopular, it was ratified by the Senate: 20-10. For the
next fifteen years, the United States benefited from the treaty greatly.
With a war raging between France and England, the United States found itself constantly
affected by the actions of one side or the other. The British attempt to blockade France
and its colonies proved particularly onerous to the United States, resulting often in the
seizure of American vessels. In early 1794, British actions had almost led to an American
declaration of war against the British. Instead, it was decided to send John Jay as a
special envoy to negotiate an agreement with the British over the disputed issues. Jay
negotiated with the British for over four months, generally with British Foreign Secretary
Jay was able to achieve many of the goals of his negotiations, although not all of them.
One of the areas in which he failed to achieve much success was convincing Britain to
alter its policies regarding neutral shipping. He could not get the British to stop defining
food as contraband, although they did agree to pay for any food seized. Jay was not able
to get the British to agree to pay any compensation for the carrying off of slaves during
the Revolutionary War, but he had not made a great effort on that front.
He did achieve an agreement from the British to withdraw from the post in the Pacific
Northwest that they had held after the Revolutionary War. In addition, joint commissions
were established to settle boundary disputes, as well as decide on compensation for
American goods illegally seized by British ships. Finally, the agreement called for
freedom of commerce between the United and Great Britain, and allowed some trade
with the British West Indies. Only smaller American ships were allowed to trade,
however. In addition, there was a ban on the reexport of certain goods from the United
As word of the agreement began reaching the US, opponents of any agreement with
Great Britain began attacking the treaty as a sell-out. The full text of the agreement did
not reach Washington until March 7, 1795. Washington decided to keep the text a secret
until he presented it to the Senate in June. He presented it on June 8th. From June 8th to
the 26th, the Senate, which was comprised of 20 Federalist and 10 Republicans, debated
the treaty. They immediately struck down the clause limiting trade with the British West
Indies. However, after intense debate and strong opposition from the Republicans, the
treaty was approved 20 to 10.
Washington hesitated in signing the amended treaty, both from practical and
constitutional concerns. Could he sign a treaty that had been amended by the Senate?
What legal effect did that have? In the meantime, the Republicans were holding
demonstrations against the treaty throughout the country. When Washington heard that
the French Minister was involved with Secretary of State in opposing the treaty, he
immediately signed the document.
Washington's signing of the treaty calmed some of the passions that the treaty had
wrought. Nevertheless, opposition continued. In the next Congress; the House of
Representatives, dominated by the Republicans, demanded that the President provide
them with a full accounting of Jay's mission and negotiations. Washington refused,
claiming that the nature of foreign negotiations demanded a certain level of secrecy. In
addition, Washington asserted that a treaty signed by the President after the ratification of
the Senate was the law of the land, and that the House had no right to review or oppose it.
A growing support for the treaty in the land as prosperity was increasing combined with
the continued popularity of Washington to force the Republicans to abandon their
Genet Affair
1793- Genet Affair
Citizen Genet was sent by France to be its new ambassador to the United States. Genet's
instructions were to use the United States as a base to equip privateers against the British.
He was also determined to do his utmost to embroil the US in the war with the British.
He then attempted to bring about change in the American government. The US
government unanimously requested his recall.
News of the French Revolution was greeted with enthusiasm in United States. To
Americans, it was a confirmation of their own revolution. The French Declaration of the
Rights of Man and Citizens were clearly following American. As the French Revolution
became ever more violent, however, some of the American enthusiasm began to wane. In
February 1793, France declared war on England. The French appointed Edmound
Charles Genet, a 30 year old man, to be the French Minister to the United States. Genet's
task was to stir up trouble for the British and Spanish in North America. Furthermore, he
was to outfit privateers to attack British ships. Genet also aimed to strengthen the
American-French treaty. Furthermore, Genet was to convince the Americans to prepay
their debt to France.
When Genet arrived in Charleston on April 8, 1793. he was met with jubilation. He
immediately commissioned four privateers. On April 18th, he headed for Philadelphia,
the seat of the federal government. It took Genet 28 days to make the journey, and all
along the way he was greeted enthusiastically.
While Genet was arriving in the United States; Washington was meeting with Hamilton
and Jefferson, his Secretary of Treasury and State respectively, to discuss American
reactions to the French war. They decided that the President would issue a simple
declaration of neutrality, stating that United States was not a belligerent in the war.
Washington also decided to receive Genet without reservation, thus rejecting Hamilton's
position that the treaty between the United States and France was no longer in effect due
to change in government in France.
When Genet finally arrived in Philadelphia, he was toasted by many of the citizens of the
city. He was officially received by Washington on the afternoon of May 18th.
Washington, however, soon turned down Genet's two most important requests: the right
of the French to arm privateers in American ports and the early payment of the debt owed
to France.
Believing that he could convert the sympathy that he had received into opposition to the
policies of Washington, Genet threatened to go directly to the people against the
government. Furthermore, Genet had defied Washington's ban on outfitting privateers by
outfitting a captured British ship, called the ÒLittle Democrat," and sending her to sea.
Washington was livid, and demanded that recall of Genet. Genet never returned to
France, since he probably would have faced the guillotine there. He remained in the
United States, and went on to marry the daughter of New York's Governor DeWitt
Clinton. Genet and his wife had six children. After his wife's death, Genet married
Martha Osgood and had five more children, lived a good life in the Hudson Valley and
became an American citizen.
XYZ Affair
President Adams sent three envoys to France to negotiate a new agreement. French
Minister Talleyrand demanded a personal bribe of $250,000 and loan of $12 million
dollars to France. When word of the affair became public, the American people were
incensed. They demanded war with France. Adams refrained from declaring war, but a
quasi-war took place for two years..
Relations between the United States and France had gone steadily downhill from the time
of the Genet mission. Tensions were further exacerbated by the Jay Treaty, signed
between the United States and Great Britain. In addition, French ships had begun preying
on American merchant ships. When Pinckney was sent to France to replace James
Monroe, the French refused to receive him. In an attempt to avoid war, Adams agreed to
send a special delegation to attempt to negotiate a treaty with France. The delegation
included John Marshall, Elbridge Gerry and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The
representatives arrived in France, and were told that they would not be received by the
French Foreign Minister Talleyrand unless certain political condition were met.
Furthermore, they were told that, as a precondition to any talks, a bribe would have to be
paid to members of the Directorate, and a loan given to France. Finally, they were told
that they were in danger of arrest. Needless to say they decided to return home.
When Adams received word of what had happened, he informed the Senate that the
mission was not successful. He did not want to release complete information on the
meetings, fearing that it would result in a war cry against France. The Republicans did
not believe that the mission had been unsuccessful, and demanded that Adams release the
full transcripts of the dispatches from France. They expected to show that France was
receptive to an agreement. Finally, Adams, who was being attacked mercilessly,
compiled and released the complete transcripts. Soon, war fervor was sweeping the
nation. Adams did not wish to go war with France, but American ships were being
attacked almost as soon as they left New York Harbor. Adams decided to build a navy
and give it the task of protecting American ships and attacking French privateers. The
Navy was officially established in 1798. Four large frigates, which had been originally
authorized by Congress in 1794, were rushed to completion. They were the
"Constellation," the "United States," the "Chesapeake" and the "President." They
represented the very best in ship design, combining speed and firepower. In addition,
cities throughout the eastern seaboard built ships for the government, at their own
expense. By 1800, the US Navy was fielding a fleet of 49 warships of various sizes.
Furthermore, over 100 merchant vessels were armed and authorized not only to defend
themselves but to take aggressive actions when possible.
The US Navy was given the task of protecting US ships and attacking French privateers
and naval vessels. In the two years of warfare between France and the US, American
ships sank or captured nearly 90 French vessels on the high seas . In the most successful
sea battle of the war, the USS "Constellation" captured the French naval frigate
"LÕInsurgent," reportedly one of France's best vessels. By 1800, the French realized the
error of their ways, and agreed to accept an American delegation without precondition.
An agreement was swiftly reached, and the hostilities came to an end. For those not at
sea, the fighting between France and the US may have seemed like a "quasi-war;" but for
those serving in the US Navy or on merchant ships, it was a war in every way that