Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
Date: Enacted in June and July, 1798
Significance: These laws were the first example in the United States of repressive immigration legislation enacted amid fear of foreigners and war hysteria, coupled with a willingness to suppress dissent and punish free expression.
Fearing war with France and fed by nationalist suspicion of foreigners, the Federalist-controlled U.S. Congress passed a series of four laws signed by President John Adams in 1798. The Naturalization Act (officially An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization), enacted on June 18, 1798, extended the duration of residence required for aliens to become U.S. citizens from five to fourteen years. It was repealed in 1802. The Alien Friends Act (officially An Act Concerning Aliens), enacted on June 25, 1798, authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” It expired after two years. The Alien Enemies Act (officially An Act Respecting Alien Enemies), enacted on July 6, 1798, authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States. It had no expiration date and remained in effect into the early twenty-first century. The Sedition Act (officially An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States), enacted on July 14, 1798, prohibited the publication of “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the U.S. government and its officials. It expired on March 3, 1801.
By 1798, Adam’s Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party were clashing over U.S. policy toward the new revolutionary government in France. A war was raging in Europe between England and France. Jefferson, who had served as minister to France, was sympathetic to the French, but Adams had signed a treaty with England and, seeing France as a threat to America’s interests, put the country on a war footing as part of an undeclared “quasi-war,” which bred antagonism toward French immigrants and unleashed widespread xenophobia.
Republicans depended on recent immigrants to enlarge their voting strength, a fact that provided the Federalists with a good reason to postpone immigrants’ access to citizenship and the right to vote as long as possible. Federalists, by and large the party of the established propertied class, sought to create a homogeneous American nation and viewed immigrants with suspicion and disdain and as a source of unrest and even revolution. In this anti-immigrant atmosphere, the Federalists pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts. Under the Alien Enemies Act, with no right to a hearing or to present evidence in their defense, noncitizens could be arrested, detained, and deported. When Republicans objected that this was unconstitutional, the Federalists responded that aliens had no rights under the U.S. Constitution because they were not part of the document’s “We the People.”
The Sedition Act was intended to quell a flood of orations and pamphlets critical of the policies promoted by the Federalists. In 1799, four Irish immigrants were charged in Philadelphia with violating the law by urging Irish natives to sign petitions against the acts. The prosecutor opened their trial by telling the jury that “the greatest evils this country has ever endured have arisen from the ready admission to foreigners to a participation in the government and internal arrangements of the country.” He accused the defendants of being among those “who are stirring up sedition and strife, who plant confusion, tumult and national ruin.”
Alien and Sedition Acts
Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798, condemning subversiveness not only among immigrants and noncitizens but also among citizens who dared disagree with the federal government. The acts, excerpted here, were adopted without regard for the civil rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and were so unpopular that they were repealed after two years.
An Act Concerning Aliens.
Sec. 1: That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as 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, to depart [be deported] out of the territory of the United States. . . . (June 25, 1798, p. 571)
An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States.
Sec. 1: That if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States, or to intimidate or prevent any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States, from undertaking, performing or executing his trust or duty. . . shall be punished. . . .
Sec. 2: That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writing against the government of the United States, . . . or to stir up sedition, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, . . . shall be punished. . . . (July 14, 1798, p. 596)
Source: Statutes at Large, 5th Cong., Sess. II, June 25 and July 14, 1798. Library of Congress, U.S. Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsl.html. Accessed August, 2005.
Jefferson called the Alien and Sedition Acts “an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution” and objected to Federalist attempts to purge the country of foreigners and their new ideas. Jefferson and James Madison helped draft the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which condemned the acts and called on the states to nullify them.
President Adams never signed any deportation orders under the acts. In the end, the laws backfired on the Federalists and may have cost them the election of 1800, in which Jefferson defeated Adams’s bid for reelection. As president, Jefferson pardoned all those convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. In 1964, in a landmark First Amendment case, New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court declared, “Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history.”
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, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Watkins,William J., Jr. Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
See also: Deportation; Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-1918; French immigrants; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Naturalization Act of 1790; Political parties.