Passed by the Federalist-dominated Fifth Congress in June and July 1798 and signed into law by President John Adams ( 1735–1826 ), the Alien and Sedition Acts were four separate bills ostensibly introduced in the interests of national security but politically aimed at stifling Democratic-Republican criticism of the Federalist Party and the Adams administration.
The immediate justification for the acts was a looming threat of armed conflict with France. Although allies in the American War of Independence, relations between France and the early Republic soured, in part because of Federalist wariness about the radical republicanism endorsed by the French Revolution. When Congress defaulted on the nation's war debt to France on the pretext that the debt was owed to the French sovereign rather than to the Republic, French naval vessels began seizing American merchant ships. In early July 1798, Congress authorized the small American naval flotilla to retaliate, ushering in a de facto state of war.
Domestically, panic over the large number of French èmigrès, many of them aristocrats who had fled the Revolution, mounted, thanks in large part to scaremongering in the Federalist press. There was an especially large French population in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at the time, and it gave rise to fears of a fifth column. Adding to the anxiety about domestic radicalism was an influx of refugees from the 1798 Irish Rebellion, all of whom were staunch opponents of British sovereignty.
The Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, for the most part were ardent supporters of both the French Revolution and the Irish Rebellion, and party editors were outspoken and frequently libelous in their denunciations of the Federalists and President Adams. So when one of the bills in the acts mandated that criticism of the government was sedition, the Republican press was a predictable and deliberate target.
The Alien and Sedition Acts comprised four bills: the Naturalization Act, passed June 18; the Alien Friends Act, passed June 25; the Alien Enemies Act, passed July 6; and the Sedition Act, passed July 14. The Naturalization Act, clearly intended to watchdog immigrants, mandated that the legal residency requirement for citizenship be lengthened from five to fourteen years, and that all foreign nationals living in the United States be required to register. The Alien Friends Act gave the president authority to imprison or deport any aliens “he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof.” It also obliged captains of all ships docking in American ports to report aliens aboard their vessels. The Alien Enemies Act empowered the president to “apprehend, restrain, secure, and remove” from the United States citizens of hostile foreign powers.
The acts’ first three bills were received tamely enough. But the fourth, the Sedition Act, officially titled “An act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” was greeted with outrage by the Democratic-Republicans. Its first section somewhat inoffensively outlawed conspiracy against the government. But its second section, which declared that “false, scandalous, and malicious” statements against the nation, Congress, or the president were seditious and punishable by fine and imprisonment, struck many as a direct challenge to the First Amendment. Even some Federalists, most notably future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, thought it unwise.
Some twenty-five people were indicted under the Sedition Act, and ten of them were convicted. All but one were from the New England and Middle Atlantic states, and all of them were outspoken critics of the Adams administration. They included the political philosopher Thomas Cooper ( 1759–1839 ); Benjamin Franklin Bache ( 1769–1798 ), editor of the Republican Aurora and grandson of his namesake; and James Callender ( 1758–1803 ), one of the most vitriolic Republican spokespersons of his generation.
Adams's vice president, Thomas Jefferson, made no public statement immediately following the passage of the Sedition Act. But he set about secretly writing a repudiation of it, as did his younger colleague James Madison. Known as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions after the two states that passed them into law in 1798 and 1799, Jefferson's Kentucky Resolution argued that states had a natural moral right to nullify federal legislation they deemed unconstitutional. Madison's Virginia Resolution was more circumspect.
Outcry over the Sedition Act helped propel the Democratic-Republicans into the White House when Jefferson challenged Adams in the presidential election of 1800. Congress allowed the Sedition Act to expire that same year, and the Alien Friends Act followed the next. The Naturalization Act was repealed in 1802. The Alien Enemies Act remains law, and was especially enforced during the two world wars. The Alien and Sedition Acts are sometimes cited as precedents for subsequent federal legislation, notably the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Law of 1918, as well as certain provisions of the Patriot Act of 2001, which critics maintained clashed with the First Amendment. Although Adams neither asked for nor encouraged the Alien and Sedition Acts, his willingness to sign them has lead most historians of the presidency to consider this the great blot on his administration.
One unanticipated consequence of the acts was the legacy of Jefferson's and Madison's Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Despite Madison's protestations, John C. Calhoun later drew on Jefferson's proposed right to nullify federal legislation, providing justification for the growing disaffection of the southern states in the first half of the nineteenth century. States’ rights champions appealed to the resolutions during the Nullification Crisis of 1832, as well as in the congressional debates over the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the 1844 debate over the admission of Texas to the Union, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1850, and the eventual secession of slaveholding states in 1860 and 1861.
SEE ALSO American Constitutional Development from 1789 to 1868 ; Freedom of Speech: Advocacy in Times of Crisis ; Interposition ; Jefferson, Thomas ; Nullification ; Sunset Provision .
Curtis, Michael Kent. Free Speech, “The People's Darling Privilege”: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Miller, John Chester. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.
Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956.
Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: Norton, 2004.