Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)

Updated: April 27, 2015

Enacted in 1798 by the 5th United States Congress, the Alien and Sedition Acts served the dual purpose of attempting to muffle anti-war sentiment and to cripple the Democratic-Republican Party.

On March 4, 1797, John Adams became the second President of the United States. Before leaving office, his predecessor, George Washington, warned his countrymen "against the insidious wiles of foreign influence" and the "mischiefs of foreign intrigue." Although Washington's advice was sound, Adams soon found himself immersed in a cauldron of controversy precipitated by an ongoing war in Europe between Great Britain and France.

During the first year of Adams's administration, both nations vied for United States support. Adams tried to maintain neutrality despite his distaste for the excesses of the French Revolution. When the French navy began interfering with American shipping, Adams sent emissaries to France in an effort to maintain peace. After news leaked that three French agents, known only as X, Y, and Z, demanded that the American envoys make cash payments to France before being allowed to meet with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the American public was outraged. Members of the pro-British Federalist Party embraced the motto "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." As anti-French sentiment swelled, the Adams administration and the Federalist-controlled Congress began preparing for war.

Despite the XYZ Affair, not all Americans favored a war with France. Members of the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, remained sympathetic to the French revolutionary goals of "liberty, equality, fraternity." Much of their membership included newly-arrived, underprivileged European immigrants--people whom the Federalists distrusted. Theorizing that newly-arrived foreigners might be unsupportive or even disloyal in the event of a Franco-American War, the 5th United States Congress enacted four laws in 1798 that served the dual purpose of attempting to muffle anti-war sentiment and to cripple the Democratic-Republican Party simultaneously. Collectively, these laws came to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

Connecticut Representative Joshua Coit introduced the first of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the United States House of Representatives on April 19, 1798. Eventually approved as An Act to Establish an Uniform Rule of Naturalization, it is more commonly known as the Naturalization Act. The Naturalization Act extended the time that immigrants had to live in the United States to become naturalized citizens from five to fourteen years. Extending the naturalization process decreased the number of immigrants eligible to vote, thereby diminishing the pool of Democratic-Republican voters. The bill also required immigrants to register with a United States district court within forty-eight hours of landing on American soil. The Naturalization Act was approved on June 18, 1798, having passed the Senate (thirteen to eight) and surviving by a single vote in the House (forty-one to forty).

On June 25, 1798, Congress passed a second bill affecting immigrants titled An act concerning aliens. That bill, simply known as the Alien Act, authorized President Adams "at any time . . .  to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States . . . to depart out of the territory of the United States." The law also stipulated "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." The final provision of the Alien Act stated that "this act shall continue and be in force for and during the term of two years from the passing thereof." The Adams administration never used the Alien Act to deport any aliens during the two years of its existence.

The third of the Alien and Sedition Acts, An act respecting alien enemies, was approved by Congress on July 6, 1798. More commonly known as the Alien Enemies Act, the bill stated that "whenever there shall be a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation . . . all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation . . . being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, . . . and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies." Although enacted, the law was not utilized at the time, because the anticipated war with France never materialized. The law was enforced 150 years later against Americans of Japanese, German, and Italian decent during World War II. A derivative of this law (50 USC Sections 21–24) still remains in effect.

The fourth and by far the most controversial element of the Alien and Sedition Acts was An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States, commonly known as the Sedition Act. The Sedition Act made it illegal for any persons (citizens or aliens) to "combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States" or for anyone to "write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States." Ironically, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure on Independence Day 1798. The bill barely survived a House vote (forty-four to forty-one) on July 10, before President Adams signed it into law on July 14, 1798.

Later events proved what might be deemed as "false, scandalous and malicious" was in the eye of the beholder. During the next two years, the federal government implemented the law only approximately two dozen times. Many of the alleged offenders, however, were prominent Democratic-Republican journalists. Among those who were arrested for criticizing President Adams or his administration were:

  • William Durrell, publisher and editor of the Mount Pleasant Register
  • Franklin Bache, editor of Philadelphia's Aurora
  • William Duane, Bache's successor at the Aurora
  • John Daly Burk, editor of The Time-Piece
  • Thomas Adams, editor of the Boston Independent Chronicle
  • Abijah Adams, employee of the Boston Independent Chronicle
  • Anthony Haswell editor of the Vermont Gazette
  • Thomas Cooper, editor of the Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Gazette,
  • James Thompson Callender, writer for the Richmond Examiner
  • Charles Holt, editor of the New London Bee,
  • David Frothingham, employee of the New York Argus
  • Ann Greenleaf, owner of the New York Argus
  • John Daly Burk, publisher of the New York Time Piece
  • John S. Lillie, editor of the Boston Constitutional Telegraphe
  • Conrad Fahnestock, co-editor of the Harrisburger Morgenrothe
  • Benjamin Moyer, co-editor of the Harrisburger Morgenrothe

One can only speculate as to the chilling affect that these arrests, indictments, and convictions may have had upon other journalists during the Adams presidency.

Although newspaper publishers and editors took the brunt of the punishment administered by the Federalists under the Sedition Act, others were not immune. On October 5, 1798, officials arrested Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon and indicted him on the next day for writing and abetting in the publication of "a certain scandalous and seditious writing or libel in form of a letter" that was printed in a Democratic-Republican newspaper.

Brought before United States Circuit Court for the District of Vermont on the next day, Lyon was indicted for being:

a malicious and seditious person and of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition and deceitfully wickedly & maliciously contriving to defame the government of the United States and with intent and design to defame the sd government of the United States and John Adams the President of the United States and to bring the said government and President into contempt and disrepute and with intent and design to excite against the said Government and President the hatred of the good people of the United States and to stir up sedition in the United States.

On October 9, a jury found Lyon guilty of sedition. Justice William Paterson sentenced Lyon to four months in prison and fined him one thousand dollars plus the court costs of $60.96. Lyon served his sentence in the jail in Vergennes, Vermont. During his incarceration, voters of Vermont's first congressional district re-elected him to the United States House of Representatives.

Among the more outrageous enforcements of the Sedition Act were the cases of David Brown and Luther Baldwin. In March 1799, Brown was arrested in Dedham, Massachusetts, for erecting a liberty pole, bearing the proclamation, "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." Indicted for "uttering seditious pieces," Brown was sentenced to eighteen months in jail and fined $480. Because he was unable to pay his fine, Brown remained in jail two months beyond the length of his term. Brown unsuccessfully petitioned Adams twice for his release and did no gain his freedom until Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency and pardoned him in March 1801.

The case against Baldwin was even more frivolous. In July 1788, outside of a tavern, someone overheard an inebriated Luther Baldwin make a disparaging remark about President Adams. Two months later, Baldwin was indicted for uttering "seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States." Found guilty on October 3, 1798, United States Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington and District Judge Robert Morris ordered Baldwin jailed until he paid a fine of 150 dollars plus court costs.                                                                        

As the arrests, indictments, and trials progressed, members of the Democratic-Republican Party looked on with alarm, because they believed that the Sedition Act violated the First and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution. Because doctrine of judicial review had yet to be established, the fledgling nation had no established protocol for challenging the constitutionality of legislation enacted by Congress. Unable to find a federal solution for addressing their concerns about the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison turned to the states.

Madison authored a document, adopted by the Virginia Senate on December 24, 1798, titled the Virginia Resolutions. In that instrument, Madison asserted that "in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the (Constitution), the states . . .  have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil." Interposition, as spelled out by Madison, meant that "the General Assembly doth solemnly appeal to the . . . other states, in . . . declaring . . . that the (Alien and Sedition) acts . . . are unconstitutional." The document concluded by appealing to the other states to join Virginia "in maintaining the Authorities, Rights, and Liberties, referred to the States respectively, or to the people."

Jefferson went even further when he anonymously penned a set of resolutions adopted by the legislature of the Commonwealth of Kentucky November 16, 1798. The Kentucky Resolutions asserted that "the several states composing the US. of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government." Instead, Jefferson argued, the states "constituted a general government for special purposes, delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each state to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government." Jefferson concluded "that whensoever the General government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, & of no force." He went on to add that each state "has an equal right to judge for itself . . . as of the mode & measure of redress."

While Madison's resolutions portrayed interposition as a collective right of the states, Jefferson implied that "each state to itself" held the authority to declare federal acts "void, and of no force" and to "take measures of its own for providing that . . . acts . . . of the General Government not plainly and intentionally authorized by the Constitution, shall (not) be exercised within their respective territories." Jefferson's articulation of the doctrine of nullification had a major impact on American history three decades later when John C. Calhoun and other South Carolina leaders brought the nation to the brink of civil war during the Nullification Crisis of 1833.

During the general election of 1800, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans made the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts a major campaign issue. In November, the American electorate brought an end to the bad blood engendered by the unpopular legislation by sweeping the Federalists out of office. Jefferson won the presidency, and the Democratic-Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. One of Jefferson's first acts as president was to pardon all of those who were still imprisoned for violating the Sedition Act. On April 14, 1802, Congress repealed the Naturalization Act.

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"Alien and Sedition Acts." (2019) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved November 19, 2019, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1518

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