Alien and Sedition Acts

From Academic Kids

The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed on July 14, 1798 under the administration of President John Adams. They were supposed to protect the United States from "dangerous" aliens, but were used by the Federalists in an attempt to stop the growth of the Democratic-Republican Party.

There were actually four separate laws making up what is commonly referred to as the "Alien and Sedition Acts":

  1. The Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to imprison or deport any alien associated with any nation the United States was fighting in a "declared war," during a war time.
  2. The Alien Act authorized the president to deport any alien considered dangerous, even in a peace time.
  3. The Naturalization Act extended the duration of residence required for aliens to become citizens, nearly tripling it from five years to 14.
  4. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against government or government officials.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed the Acts, and drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in protest.

Though the Acts were ostensibly written for security purposes, they were in reality a tool of the ruling Federalist party. Because most immigrants became Democratic-Republicans, the Naturalization Act's longer residency requirement meant that fewer of them could become citizens and vote against the Federalists. And if, under the Alien and Alien Enemies Acts, the president could deport any "dangerous" or "enemy" alien, potential Democratic-Republicans would never have the opportunity to vote against any Federalist.

Under the Sedition Act, 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 that criticized 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 the Act was passed.) The Sedition Act, however, was (and generally still is) looked at as a direct violation of the First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, which granted the right of free speech. Although the Federalists hoped the Act would muffle the opposition, Democratic-Republicans still "wrote, printed, uttered and published" their criticisms of the Federalists. Indeed they strongly criticised the act itself, and used it as an election issue.

Ultimately the Acts backfired against the Federalists; President Adams himself never supported or used them. Only one alien was actually deported, and only ten people were ever convicted of sedition. The Acts were all repealed or expired by 1802, and ultimately contributed to the Federalists' loss in the election of 1800.

Although the Supreme Court never ruled on the validity of any of the Alien and Sedition acts, subsequent mentions of the Sedition Act in particular in Supreme Court opinions have assumed that it was unconstitutional. For example in 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).


Later similar laws

Parallels to the "alien enemies" act can be seen in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the ongoing dispute about the president's power to designate and imprison detainees and "unlawful combatants."

A parallel to the Sedition Act of 1798 was the Sedition Act of 1918. However the 1918 ACT is far more narrowly drawn, taking effect only during wartime, and within the scope of military operations.

See also


  • American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns: The Suppressed History of Our Nation's Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It by Richard N. Rosenfeld (St. Martin's Press) 1997
  • Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from The Sedition Act of 1798 to The War on Terrorism by Geoffrey R. Stone (W. W. Norton & Company) 2004
  • Grand Inquests: The historic Impeachments of Justice Samual Chase and President Andrew Johnson by William H. Rehnquist (Morrow 1992) (ISBN 0688171710) Chase was impeached largely for his conduct of a trial under the Sedition act.

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