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The Alien and Sedition Acts were four laws passed by the Federalists in Congress in 1798 during the administration of President John Adams. Proponents claimed they were designed to protect the United States from alien citizens of enemy powers and to stop seditious attacks from weakening the government. The Democratic-Republicans, like later historians, attacked them as being both unconstitutional and designed to stifle criticism of the administration, and as infringing on the right of the states to act in these areas. They became a major political issue in the elections of 1798 and 1800. One act (the Alien Enemies Act) is still the law in 2007, and has frequently been enforced in wartime. The others expired or were repealed by 1802. Thomas Jefferson held them all to be unconstitutional and void, and pardoned and ordered the release of all who had been convicted of violating them.
There were actually four separate laws making up what is commonly referred to as the “Alien and Sedition Acts“:
- The Naturalization Act (official title: An Act to Establish an Uniform Rule of Naturalization) extended the duration of residence required for aliens to become citizens, from five years to fourteen. Enacted June 18, 1798, with no expiration date, it was repealed in 1802.
- The Alien Friends Act (official title: An Act Concerning Aliens) authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” These acts were created in fear of French sympathizers. A war was pending between a young America and the French (renown for their navy). Enacted June 25, 1798, with a two year expiration date.
- The Alien Enemies Act (official title: An Act Respecting Alien Enemies) authorized the president to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States. Enacted July 6, 1798, with no expiration date, it remains in effect today as 50 USC Sections 21-24.
- The Sedition Act (official title: An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States) made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials. Enacted July 14, 1798, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801.
The Sedition Act says anyone “opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States” could be imprisoned for up to two years. It was also illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything critical of the president or Congress. It was notable that the Act did not prohibit criticism of the Vice-President. Jefferson held the office of Vice-President at the time that the Act was passed, leaving him open to criticism under the new law.
There has been considerable debate over the meaning and interpretation of the Sedition Act. It is clear that American jurisprudence regarding the freedom of speech at some point broke from earlier British law, which held that speech was an act that could be “seditious” regardless of its truth or veracity, and that free speech could be limited based on governmental priorities. For example, the Democratic-Republicans and a number of moderate Federalists successfully added language to the Sedition Act that, by its terms, required “a false, scandalous and malicious writing,” pointing to the trial of John Peter Zenger, which established that colonial courts might treat truth as a defense to libel. However, many Federalist judges did not interpret the law consistently with this reading, and there is an ongoing historical debate — highly relevant in particular to originalist interpretations of the First Amendment and to the question of whether the Sedition Act was unconstitutional — as to when and the extent to which the break with British precedent occurred.
While Jefferson did denounce the Sedition Act as a violation of the First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, which protected the right of free speech, his main argument on the unconstitutionality of the act was that it violated the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In 1798 when the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, First Amendment rights did not restrict the states, as they now do. Jefferson more strongly argued the Federal Government had overstepped its bounds in the Alien and Sedition Acts by attempting to exercise undelegated powers. Apart from Virginia and Kentucky the other state legislatures, all of them Federalist, rejected Jefferson’s position by resolutions that either supported the acts, or denied that Virginia and Kentucky could denounce it.
The judicial redress for unconstitutional legislation under the doctrine of judicial review was not established until Marbury v. Madison in 1803; the Supreme Court in 1798 was openly hostile to the Federalists’ opponents. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not appealed to the Supreme Court for review, although individual Supreme Court Justices, sitting in circuit, heard many of the cases prosecuting opponents of the Federalists.
In order to address the constitutionality of the measures, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to unseat the Federalists, appealing to the people to remedy the constitutional violation, and drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which called on the states to nullify the federal legislation. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions reflect the Compact Theory, which states that the United States are made up of a voluntary union of States that agree to cede some of their authority in order to join the union, but that the states do not, ultimately, surrender their sovereign rights. Therefore, under the Compact Theory, states can determine if the federal government has violated its agreements, including the Constitution, and nullify such violations or even withdraw from the Union. Variations of this theory were also argued at the Hartford Convention at the time of the War of 1812, and by the Southern states just before the American Civil War.
The Sedition Act was set to expire in 1801, coinciding with the end of the Adams administration. While this prevented its constitutionality from being directly decided by the Supreme Court, subsequent mentions of the Sedition Act in Supreme Court opinions have assumed that it would be unconstitutional today. For example, in the seminal Free Speech case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the 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.” 376 U.S. 254, 276 (1964).
Elections of 1800
Although the Federalists hoped the Act would muffle the opposition, many Democratic-Republicans still “wrote, printed, uttered and published” their criticisms of the Federalists. Indeed, they strongly criticized the act itself, and used it as one of the largest election issues. It also had enormous implications on the Federalist party after that point, and ended up being a major contributing factor of its demise. The act expired when the term of President Adams ended in 1801.
Ultimately the Acts backfired against the Federalists; while they prepared lists of aliens for deportation, and many aliens fled the country during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams never signed a deportation order. Twenty-five people, primarily prominent newspaper editors but also Congressman Matthew Lyon, were arrested. Of them, eleven were tried (one died while awaiting trial), and ten were convicted of sedition, often in trials before openly partisan Federalist judges. Federalists at all levels, however, were turned out of power, and, over the following years, Congress repeatedly apologized for, or voted recompense to victims of, the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jeffereson, who won the 1800 election, pardoned all of those that were convicted for crimes under the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act.