Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were enacted by a Federalist-controlled U.S. Congress in the hope of not only suppressing the immigrant vote, which had been aligning most often with the Republican Party, but also deporting noncitizens during wartime and noncitizens who were considered a threat to public safety. The Sedition Act, passed in the hope of limiting the power of the Republican press especially, made it a crime to write or publish criticisms of the federal government.

Summary of Event

News of the XYZ affair XYZ affair, a major conflict between the United States and France, descended French-American relations[French American relations]
American-French relations[American French relations] upon the American people and their representatives in Congress like a thunderbolt. It galvanized the government into action on the high seas; it helped unite Americans against the French, just as the initial news of British seizures had united them against Great Britain; it seriously weakened the infant Republican Party Republican Party, which was associated with Francophilism; and it firmly entrenched the Federalist Party Federalists in power. Even President John Adams, for a time, seemed to relish the thought of leading the United States against its newest antagonist, but Adams regained his sense of moderation in time to prevent a catastrophe. The same cannot be said of certain elements of the Federalist Party, which exploited the explosive situation to strike out at their political opponents. [kw]Alien and Sedition Acts (June 25-July 14, 1798)
[kw]Acts, Alien and Sedition (June 25-July 14, 1798)
[kw]Sedition Acts, Alien and (June 25-July 14, 1798)
Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)
Sedition Act (1798)
[g]United States;June 25-July 14, 1798: Alien and Sedition Acts[3350]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 25-July 14, 1798: Alien and Sedition Acts[3350]
[c]Government and politics;June 25-July 14, 1798: Alien and Sedition Acts[3350]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 25-July 14, 1798: Alien and Sedition Acts[3350]
[c]Communications;June 25-July 14, 1798: Alien and Sedition Acts[3350]
[c]Organizations and institutions;June 25-July 14, 1798: Alien and Sedition Acts[3350]
Adams, John (1735-1826)
Duane, William
Gallatin, Albert
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;Alien and Sedition Acts
Lyon, Matthew
Pickering, Timothy
Otis, Harrison Gray

The Federalist Party, or at least its old guard, deeply resented gains made by the Republican opposition. Many of the Federalist leaders resented the very existence of the other Political parties, U.S. political party. The High Federalists were by no means committed to a two-party system and rejected the idea of a loyal opposition. With the Republican tide at low ebb, these Federalists intended to strike a killing blow at two sources of Republican strength: the immigrant vote and the manipulation of public opinion through the use (and abuse) of the press. In selecting these targets, the Federalists demonstrated an acute awareness of the impact of the press on the growth of political parties, and they intended to use their political power to muzzle the Republican press, while leaving the Federalist press intact. Furthermore, Federalists expressed a deep Xenophobia xenophobia, as they viewed people of foreign birth as threats to the fabric of ordered liberty they believed the Federalists had built and must preserve.

Many Federalists had a long history of Immigration politics antiforeign sentiment. With the United States on the verge of French-American Half-War (1798-1800)[French American Half War] war with France, the Federalists were apprehensive over the loyalty of thousands of French West Indian refugees who had flocked to the United States in an effort to escape the ferment of the French Revolution and its accompanying “terror.” The Federalists were further concerned that the refugees who became U.S. citizens generally aligned themselves with the Republican Party. Much the same was true of the Irish, who supported anyone who opposed the English. Such conditions threatened the continued hold of the Federalists on political power in the national government. To deal with such potential subversives, foreign and domestic, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a series of four acts, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Three of the acts dealt specifically with aliens or immigrants. The Sedition Act Censorship;United States declared speech or writing with the intent to defame the president or Congress to be a misdemeanor. The Alien Friends Act permitted the president to deport allegedly dangerous aliens during times of peace. A third act, the Alien Enemies Act, authorized the imprisonment or deportation of aliens in wartime. The Naturalization Act (1798) Naturalization Act struck at the immigrant vote. Previously, aliens could become naturalized citizens after residing for five years in the United States. The new act raised the probationary period to fourteen years.

The Sedition Act was by far the most notorious. It imposed heavy fines and imprisonment as punishment on all those found guilty of writing, publishing, or speaking against the federal government. By allowing a defendant to prove the truth of statements as a defense, the Sedition Act was a definite improvement over the English laws of sedition libel. The fact remains, however, that its intent was the repression of political opposition and the annoying Republican press, and the Sedition Act seemed plainly to ignore the First Amendment (U.S. Constitution) First Amendment. Under the law, suits were initiated against the editors of eight major opposition presses. Newspapers;United States
Freedom of the press;United States
Freedom of speech;United States The principal target was the Philadelphia Aurora, whose editor, William Duane, was prosecuted under the act. Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont received a jail sentence of four months and was fined $1,000 for disparaging remarks he made about President Adams. Some of these suits gave a comic air to the gross abuse of power. One gentleman was fined $100 for wishing out loud that the wadding of a salute cannon would strike President Adams in his backside.

Republican opposition to these laws was immediate. Vice President Thomas Jefferson, himself a Republican, believed that the Alien and Sedition Acts were designed to be used against such leading Republicans as the Swiss-born congressman from Pennsylvania, Albert Gallatin. Republicans were convinced that the Sedition Act was designed to destroy them as an organized political party. The act had passed the house strictly along sectional-party lines. The vote was forty-four to forty-one, with only two affirmative votes coming from south of the Potomac River, where the Republicans were strongest.


From the Federalist point of view, the Alien and Sedition Acts were completely unsuccessful in suppressing the opposition. They were resented by many, and it soon became obvious even to those who first supported the new laws that they were as unnecessary as they were ineffective. The handful of “subversives” prosecuted under the Sedition Act hardly compensated for the fact that its existence gave the Republicans another campaign issue. Jefferson through the Kentucky legislature, and Madison through the Virginia legislature, penned immediate responses to the Alien and Sedition Acts. These remonstrances, known as the Virginia Resolves Virginia and Kentucky Resolves Kentucky Resolves, aroused little enthusiasm at the time but did point out not only some of the basic principles of the Republican Party but also some striking differences between two streams of thought within the party.

Both resolutions maintained that the Constitution, U.S. Constitution was a compact between sovereign states that granted to the federal government certain narrowly defined powers, while retaining all other enumerated powers. If the states created the Constitution, they had the power to decide when the federal government had overstepped its proper bounds. Jefferson, in the Kentucky Resolves, went much further than Madison in assigning to the states the power to nullify a federal law—to declare it inoperable and void within the boundaries of a state. South Carolina was to do so in 1832, when it nullified the Tariff of 1828. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolves had no immediate effect, but they had spelled out the theoretical position that those advocating States’ rights[States rights] states’ rights could, and ultimately did, take.

The Alien and Sedition Acts took their place among a growing list of grievances against the Federalist Party. The Alien Acts expired in 1800 and the Sedition Act in the following year. The Naturalization Act was repealed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1802. The only tangible effect of these measures was to contribute to the defeat of Federalism in 1800. However, the mood that led to their passage was to return in later days.

Further Reading

  • Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Chapter 15 of this gracefully written document captures the motives and mentalities of the principals responsible for the acts.
  • McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jefferson’s America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. Contains an excellent discussion of the competing theories of society and government discussed by Federalists and Republicans.
  • McCullough, David G. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. The definitive, best-selling biography provides a detailed account of Adams’s presidential administration, including the XYZ affair and the adoption and impact of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. A thorough and judicious narrative of the passage of, and response to, the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • Sharp, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Places the Alien and Sedition Acts in the context of the politics of the 1790’s.
  • Smith, James Morton. Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. Contains an excellent discussion of the congressional debates concerning the passage of these laws.
  • Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. This book, written after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the World Trade Center in New York City, examines how American liberties have been curtailed during wars or national emergencies. It cites passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts as an example of this restriction and describes the acts and the trial of Republican congress member Matthew Lyon.

The North Briton Controversy

Publication of The Federalist

Judiciary Act

First U.S. Political Parties

U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified

Fichte Advocates Free Speech

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Jay’s Treaty

Pinckney’s Treaty

XYZ Affair

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Sedition Act (1798)