Alien and Sedition Acts

In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a series of laws which, on the surface, were designed to control the activities of foreigners in the United States during a time of impending war. Beneath the surface, however, the real intent of these laws was to destroy Jeffersonian Republicanism. The laws, known collectively as the "Alien and Sedition Acts," included:

  • The Naturalization Act, which extended the residency period from 5 to 14 years for those aliens seeking citizenship; this law was aimed at Irish and French immigrants who were often active in Republican politics
  • The Alien Act, which allowed the expulsion of aliens deemed dangerous during peacetime
  • The Alien Enemies Act, which allowed the expulsion or imprisonment of aliens deemed dangerous during wartime. This was never enforced, but it did prompt numerous Frenchmen to return home
  • The Sedition Act, which provided for fines or imprisonment for individuals who criticized the government, Congress, or president in speech or print
  • .

Sedition campaign poster, 1800

Edward Livingston, in the early Congressional debate over the bills, brought out arguments similar to those that would bring down Joseph McCarthy a century and a half later:

No evidence, then, being produced, we have a right to say that none exists, and yet we are about to sanction a most important act; and on what ground? Our individual suspicions, our private fears, our overheated imaginations. Seeing nothing to excite those suspicions, and not feeling those fears, I could not give my assent to the bill even if I did not feel a superior obligation to reject it on other grounds.

"Long John" Allen of Connecticut retorted that the bill was fully justified:

I hope this bill will not be rejected. If ever there was a nation which required a law of this kind it is this. Let gentlemen look at certain papers printed in this city and elsewhere and ask themselves whether an unwarrantable and dangerous combination does not exist to overturn and ruin the Government by publishing the most shameless falsehoods against the Representatives of the people of all denominations, that they are hostile to free governments and genuine liberty, and of course to the welfare of this country ; that they ought, therefore, to be displaced, and that the people ought to raise an insurrection against the Government.

The Alien Acts were never enforced, but the Sedition Act was. A number of Republican newspaper publishers were convicted under the terms of this law. The Jeffersonians argued quite rightly that the Sedition Act violated the terms of the First Amendment and offered a remedy in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.

While these laws were either repealed or allowed to expire in the next administration, they were significant as rallying points for the Jeffersonians. The heavy-handed Federalist policies worked to the advantage of the Republicans as they prepared for the Election of 1800.

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