The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

The original, handwritten copy of the Sedition Act of 1798
Original Copy of the Sedition Act of 1798.

Wikimedia Commons / US Federal Government

 

The Alien and Sedition Acts were four national security bills passed by the 5th U.S. Congress in 1798 and signed into law by President John Adams in the midst of fears that a war with France was imminent. The four laws restricted the rights and actions of U.S. immigrants and limited the First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of the press rights.

The four acts—the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Act—increased the minimum U.S. residency requirement for the naturalization of aliens from five to fourteen years; empowered the President of the United States to order aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” or who came from a hostile county deported or imprisoned; and restricted speech that criticized the government or government officials. 

Alien and Sedition Acts Key Takeaways

  • The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed in 1798 by the 5th U.S. Congress and signed into law by President John Adams.
  • The four national security bills were passed amid fears that a war with France could not be avoided.
  • The four acts were: the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Act.
  • The Alien and Sedition Acts restricted the rights and actions of immigrants and limited the freedoms of speech and of the press contained in the Constitution’s First Amendment.
  • The Sedition Act, limiting the freedoms of speech and of the press, was by far the most controversial of the four laws.
  • The Alien and Sedition Acts were also a part of a power struggle between America’s first two political parties; the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.

While presented on the premise of preparing for war, the laws were also part of a larger power struggle between the nation’s first two political parties—the Federalist Party and the Anti-federalist, Democratic-Republican Party. The negative public opinion of the Federalist-backed Alien and Sedition Acts proved a major factor in the controversial 1800 presidential election, in which Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent federalist President John Adams.

The Political Aspect

When John Adams was elected as the second President of the United States in 1796, his Federalist Party, which favored a strong federal government, had started losing its political dominance. Under the Electoral College system at the time, Thomas Jefferson, of the opposing Democratic-Republican Party, had been elected as Adams’ vice president. Democratic-Republicans—especially Jefferson—believed the states should have more power and accused the Federalists of trying to turn the United States into a monarchy

When the Alien and Sedition Acts came before Congress, the laws’ Federalist backers argued they would strengthen America’s security during the looming war with France. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans opposed the laws, calling them an attempt to silence and disenfranchise voters who disagreed with the Federalist Party by violating the right of freedom of speech in the First Amendment.

  • At a time when most immigrants supported Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, the Naturalization Act raised the minimum residency requirement to qualify for American citizenship from five to 14 years.
  • The Alien Friends Act empowered the president to deport or jail any immigrant deemed to be “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” at any time.
  • The Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to deport or jail any male immigrant above age 14 from a “hostile nation” during times of war.
  • Finally, and most controversially, the Sedition Act restricted speech considered critical of the federal government. The law prevented people accused of violating the Sedition Act from using the fact that their critical statements had been true as a defense in court. As a result, several newspaper editors who criticized the Federalist Adams administration were convicted of violating the Sedition Act.

The XYZ Affair and the Threat of War

Their fight over the Alien and Sedition Acts was just one example of how America’s first two political parties were split over foreign policy. In 1794, Britain was at war with France. When Federalist President George Washington signed the Jay Treaty with Britain it greatly improved Anglo-American relations but enraged France, America’s Revolutionary War ally. 

Shortly after taking office in 1797, President John Adams tried to smooth things over with France by sending diplomats Elbridge Gerry, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Marshall to Paris to meet face-to-face with French foreign minister, Charles Talleyrand. Instead, Talleyrand sent three of his representatives—referred to as X, Y, and Z by President Adams—who demanded a $250,000 bribe and a $10 million loan as conditions of meeting with Talleyrand.

After the U.S. diplomats rejected Talleyrand’s demands, and the American people became angered by the so-called XYZ Affair, fears of an outright war with France spread.

While it never escalated beyond a series of naval confrontations, the resulting undeclared Quasi-War with France further strengthened the Federalists' argument for passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

Sedition Act Passage and Prosecutions

Not surprisingly, the Sedition Act evoked the most heated debate in the Federalist-controlled Congress. In 1798, as it is today, sedition is defined as the crime of creating a revolt, disturbance, or violence against lawful civil authority—the government— with the intent to cause its overthrow or destruction.

Loyal to Vice President Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican minority argued the Sedition Act violated the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and the press. However, President Adams’ Federalist majority prevailed, arguing that under both U.S. and British common law, seditious acts of libel, slander, and defamation had long been punishable offenses and that freedom of speech should not protect seditious false statements.

President Adams signed the Sedition Act into law on July 14, 1798, and by October, Timothy Lyon, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont, had become the first person convicted of violating the new law. During his current reelection campaign, Lyon had published letters criticizing Federalist Party policies in Republican-leaning newspapers. A grand jury indicted him on charges sedition for publishing material with “intent and design” to defame the U.S. government in general and President Adams personally. Acting as his own defense attorney, Lyon argued that he had no intent to harm the government or Adams by publishing the letters and that Sedition Act was unconstitutional.

Despite being supported by popular opinion, Lyon was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail and fined $1,000, a sizable amount at a time when members of the House received no salary and were paid only a $1.00 per diem. While still in prison, Lyon easily won reelection and later overcame a Federalist motion to expel him from the House.

Perhaps of more historic interest was the Sedition Act conviction of political pamphleteer and journalist James Callender. In 1800, Callender, originally a backer of Republican Thomas Jefferson, was sentenced to nine months in jail for what a grand jury called his “false, scandalous, and malicious writing, against the said President of the United States,” then Federalist John Adams. From jail, Callender continued to write widely-published articles supporting Jefferson’s 1800 campaign for president.

After Jefferson won the controversial 1800 presidential election, Callender demanded that he be appointed to a postmaster position in return for his “services.” When Jefferson refused, Callender turned on him, taking his revenge by publishing the first evidence supporting the long-rumored claim that Jefferson had fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings.

Including Lyon and Callender, at least 26 people—all opposing the Adams administration—were prosecuted for violating the Sedition Act between 1789 and 1801.

The Legacy of the Alien and Sedition Acts

Prosecutions under the Sedition Act spurred protests and widespread debate over the meaning of freedom of the press in the context of political speech. Credited as being the deciding factor in Jefferson’s election in 1800, the law represented the worst mistake of John Adams’ presidency.

By 1802, all of the Alien and Sedition Acts except the Alien Enemies Act had been allowed to expire or had been repealed. The Alien Enemies Act remains in effect today, having been amended in 1918 to allow the deportation or imprisonment of women. The law was used during World War II to order the confinement of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in internment camps until the end of the war.

While the Sedition Act violated key provisions of the First Amendment, the current practice of “Judicial Review,” empowering the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of laws and executive branch actions had not yet been perfected.

Sources and Further Reading