Alien and Sedition Acts

Start Your Visit With

Historical Timelines
Chronological Eras
Information Tables
General Interest Maps
Glossary
History Quizzes
nav

Travel and History Blog


Follow OregonCoastMag on Twitter

Share

In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a series of laws which, on the surface, were designed to control the activities of foreigners in the United States during a time of impending war. Beneath the surface, however, the real intent of these laws was to destroy Jeffersonian Republicanism. The laws, known collectively as the "Alien and Sedition Acts," included:

Sedition campaign poster, 1800

Edward Livingston, in the early Congressional debate over the bills, brought out arguments similar to those that would bring down Joseph McCarthy a century and a half later:

No evidence, then, being produced, we have a right to say that none exists, and yet we are about to sanction a most important act; and on what ground? Our individual suspicions, our private fears, our overheated imaginations. Seeing nothing to excite those suspicions, and not feeling those fears, I could not give my assent to the bill even if I did not feel a superior obligation to reject it on other grounds.

"Long John" Allen of Connecticut retorted that the bill was fully justified:

I hope this bill will not be rejected. If ever there was a nation which required a law of this kind it is this. Let gentlemen look at certain papers printed in this city and elsewhere and ask themselves whether an unwarrantable and dangerous combination does not exist to overturn and ruin the Government by publishing the most shameless falsehoods against the Representatives of the people of all denominations, that they are hostile to free governments and genuine liberty, and of course to the welfare of this country ; that they ought, therefore, to be displaced, and that the people ought to raise an insurrection against the Government.

The Alien Acts were never enforced, but the Sedition Act was. A number of Republican newspaper publishers were convicted under the terms of this law. The Jeffersonians argued quite rightly that the Sedition Act violated the terms of the First Amendment and offered a remedy in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.

While these laws were either repealed or allowed to expire in the next administration, they were significant as rallying points for the Jeffersonians. The heavy-handed Federalist policies worked to the advantage of the Republicans as they prepared for the Election of 1800.

- - - Books You May Like Include: ----

Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism by Geoffrey R. Stone.
Stone incisively investigates how the First Amendment and other civil liberties have been compromised in America during wartime, from the Sedition Act...
The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800 by Jay Winik.
Fresh and brilliant, this is the book that completely redefines the founding era. As the 1790s began, America was struggling to survive at home and a...
The Age Of Reason by Thomas Paine.
Thomas Paine who was a dynamic philosophical presence in the American Revolution of 1776 wrote his last book in 1795 on an investigation and commentar...