The Alien and Sedition Acts: the Foundation Stone of Today's Attitude Towards Immigrants in America

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During various time periods following the formation of the United States, the four sections of the Alien and Sedition Acts were signed into law, appealed in the Supreme Court, reinstated and revised. However, during America’s heightened tensions with France in the late 1790’s, a great debate stirred between Republicans and Federalists on the necessity of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Some historians describe the Acts as necessary as they were an effect of the Federal government providing for the people in times of war, as well as reiterating an already declared statement of naturalization in the Constitution. However, the mainstream group of historians questions whether there was a legitimate threat and therefore whether the Acts were essential. The more substantial argument contends that instead of the government’s securing the country’s borders, the Alien and Sedition Acts were the Federalist’s attempting to undermine the Democratic-Republican party. In creating these laws, the Federalists were really intending to subvert the Democratic-Republican party and their ideals in order to stamp out any political opposition.

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The Federalists–who controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives by the end of the 1700’s–argued that the possibility of open war with France and attempts to spy by the French in the United States required Congress to take drastic action to prevent violations of national security. To this end, Congress passed a series of four measures known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed by John Adams during June and July 1798. The first, and least controversial, act was the Alien Enemies Act, in which US authorities could determine whether a citizen of an enemy nation posed a threat to national security during wartime. If found guilty under the law, one would be deported or detained. The second Act, the Alien Friends Act, was effective during peacetime, and allowed the president to deport any citizen of any foreign nation who he decided posed a threat to the nation while inside its borders. The law allowed the president to expel citizens without proof of guilt, claiming that spies would destroy evidence and be able to easily fool many authorities. The statute was only enforceable until June 25, 1800, before the end of Adams’s term and the 1800 congressional elections. The third act, the Naturalization Act, revised the measures by which an immigrant could become a citizen of the United States. Rather than having to establish residency in the US for only five years before becoming eligible to become a citizen, the Naturalization Act increased the residency condition to fourteen years. The final, and most controversial, of the Alien and Sedition Acts was the Sedition Act. It prohibited any individual or group from opposing any measure of the United States. Also, under the Sedition Act, it was illegal to speak, to write, or to print any statement about the president that portrayed him under bad light. (Stone 141) The strongest reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts occurred in the South. In November and December 1798,

shortly after the passing of the laws, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were written anonymously by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These resolutions stated that state legislatures maintained the power to judge the constitutionality of acts of Congress. In 1799, Kentucky passed a resolution that declared that states could nullify offensive federal laws. (Stone 305)

There are various opinions on the true intentions of the Federalists regarding the Alien and Sedition Acts. Andrew Lenner, a political scientist, argues that during the period of the Articles of Confederation, which eventually collapsed, states interacted as sovereign nations in foreign affairs, ignoring Congress’s authority. Therefore, when the constitution was created, States were only to be involved in domestic affairs; the federal government would handle foreign matters, and therefore the issue of war with France and potential aliens was an issue the Federal government was equipped to handle. (Berns 155) In contrast, Leonard Levy, an American historian, believed that free speech and press are essential elements of a free government. In his opinion, the Alien and Sedition¬¬¬ Acts were simply an abuse of federal power (that infringed on the First Amendment), which targeted Democratic-Republicans, not a justified means of authority as Lenner describes. (Berns 95) He stated, “A broad libertarian theory of freedom of speech and press did not emerge in the United States until the Jeffersonians, a minority party, were forced to defend themselves against the Federalist Sedition Act¬¬ of 1798.” (quoted in Berns 96) Historian Charles Warren contends one significant issue regardi¬¬ng the Acts: the prosecution of libels. He questions whether the courts could have provided impartial forums and whether they could be described as “independent of any influence whatever” considering leaders of Republican newspapers were indicted under Federalist prosecutors, proclaiming: (Berns 130)

Suppose a libel were written against the President, where is it most probable that such an offence would receive an impartial trial? In a court, the judges of which are appointed by the President, by a jury selected by an officer holding his office at the will of the President? or in a court independent of any influence whatever?” (quoted in Berns 130)

Overall, the controversy stands on whether the Federalists passing the Alien and Sedition Acts was to ensure safety during a perilous war time or rather to cause weakening in the Democratic-Republican party.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were enacted with the alleged intention of protecting the country during an allegedly perilous war time, but there was not enough of a reason–such as a threat to national security– to pass such laws, especially ones that infringe on citizens’ liberties. With about thirty thousand Frenchmen in the United States, it might seem that there was good reason for apprehension. But the great majority were either émigrés from France or fugitives from the Revolution in Saint-Domingue. In Federalist orations, according to Federalist Harrison Gray Otis, the country was made to seem to swarm with “French apostles of Sedition”–enough “to burn all our cities and cut the throats of all the inhabitants.” Otis was threatened by “the crowd of spies and inflammatory agents who spread the country like the locusts of Egypt…fomenting hostilities against this country and alienating the affections of our own citizens.” (DeConde 175) Federalists viewed the residing Frenchmen as a potential enemy who were attempting to extend French influence over the United States, and join a French army of invasion. Senator Albert Gallatin estimated that ninety-nine out of hundred are eager to return to their own country and live in peace than to revolutionize the United States. (DeConde 176)

To the Federalists–who equated sedition with treason–there were no greater enemies of the order and good government than those native-born radicals, French sympathizers to a man, unnatural children, who were ready to join the French army in subjugating the United States. Federalist journalist William Cobbett said, “surely we need a sedition law to keep our own rogues from cutting our throats, and an alien law to prevent the invasion by a host of foreign rogues to assist them.” (Stone 149) The Federalist promoted national fear in order justify the passing of the Acts. Only the prospect of impending war with France and the fear of a stab in the back by a domestic “French faction” persuaded the American people not to oppose to such an encroachment upon their liberties. Congressman Williams observed that whenever governments want “to make inroads upon the liberties of the people” they trump up an alarm of danger. He objected that no amount of danger could ever justify assigning such an “arbitrary power to the President.” (Miller 58) For instance, the Federalists did not regard the Alien Enemies Acts as sufficient to their needs. They also enacted the much more controversial Alien Friends Acts. This law empowered the president to seize, detain and deport any noncitizen he deemed dangerous to the United States. This was without regard to whether the United States was at war with the individual’s native country. (Miller 59)

In 1799, Democratic–Republican editor Benjamin Bache printed a series of three letters from French diplomat Pierre Adet, the French minister to America, to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, even before Pickering had a proper chance to translate and transmit the letters to Congress. The letters detailed France’s resentment against Washington’s administration. Adet stated that the nation’s relationship with France depended on the outcome of the election of 1800. If Americans chose Adams, the result would be war with France. If they wanted peace they should elect Jefferson. In his second letter, also known as the cockade proclamation, he called upon Frenchmen residing in the United States to show their support for their country. For Federalists, Adet’s letters and Bache’s printing of them were further proof of French treachery and most significantly Democratic-Republican disloyalty. (DeConde 312)

This incident confirmed Federalists’ wariness of the French, both pro-revolution and anti-revolution, who they believed threatened to destabilize America. About the same time of Adet’s letters, Adams did agree to issue deportation orders for three people, including Georges-Henri-Victor Collot, a French general who was “connected” to a plot to separate Louisiana from Spain and parts of western America. These men seemed to be just the kind of people the Alien Friends Act was meant to target. Pickering, however, did not immediately implement the orders. Instead, he arranged for the men to be surveilled in the hopes of collecting evidence against other suspicious aliens. Nearly a year later, Pickering updated Adams and admitted that there was little to no evidence to support using such measures, reaffirming the lack of a genuine French threat to America in an invasion and that it was only a massive exaggeration by the Federalists. (DeConde 313-14)

Not only did Adams restrict the French immigrant intake, but he also added several sanctions on France. Many believed that there were in truth two obstacles to negotiations: Adams’s sanctions on the French and fiery speeches on French affairs. Congress created the Department of the Navy in 1798 and authorized the president to commission and arm 12 ships. Congress prohibited French ships from entering American ports unless in distress. Southerners feared a slave rebellion as rumors spread that the French would land in the Carolinas and recruit slaves as cavalry. Federalist politicians, especially Hamilton, greeted war with excitement. They saw the crisis as an opportunity to quell resistance to national power. (DeConde 286) In 1798, the Federalist¬–controlled–government recognized a French threat to the United States exemplified by the war at sea. However, the Federalists cooked up the drama of an invasion and Republican treachery in order to solidify their hold on the government. Then the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed that summer, and criticism of the national government became a crime.

Eventually, the Americans became weary of Federalist war measures. For a year the people had lived in constant expectation of war, and now there was evidence of a burnout. One instance of this was the denouncement of a French plot intended to subvert the government beginning in 1798. Timothy Pickering learned from Joseph Pitcairn, the American Consul in Hamburg, that a Democratic-Republican advocate, Matthew Salmon, was on his way to South Carolina. Pitcairn warned that Salmon might be carrying dispatches from the French headquarters, the Executive Directive, concealed in tubs with false bottoms. Eager to keep the war spirit alive, Pickering rashly assumed that now he would uncover firm evidence of a French plot to destroy the United States. Since Salmon was bi-racial, the Secretary of State could accuse Salmon of coming to the country to ignite a slave rebellion, stirring public admiration. Pickering quickly wrote to the Governor of South Carolina asking him to arrest the plotters when Salmon disembarked. When Salmon arrived, he was found with tubs with false bottoms containing documents written in French. Federalists newspapers said that by uncovering the tub plot, Pickering had saved the nation from subversion, racial rebellion and bloodshed. However, in reality, the Federalists had no evidence for any French plot intending to any harm to the country, especially any slave revolt. (Halperin 55)

As the months passed, eventually Federalist speakers found themselves unable to persuade Congress that subversive French ideas were destroying the nation. Even before Washington’s death, Federalist leaders had realized that the Provisional Army, formed in the event of a war with France, had proved to be uncalled for. Congressman Theodore Sedgwick had concluded “Good men in New England, where tranquility prevails, cannot easily be led to understand for what purpose the Army could have been and can be necessary”. (Stone 40) As the events of 1798 illustrate, those in power may exploit a threat to the nation’s security to serve their partisan ends. A time-honored strategy for consolidating power is to inflate the public’s fears, inflame its patriotism, and then condemn political opponents as “disloyal” despite how fabricated the crisis may be.

Not only did Federalists unnecessarily pass the Act, but they exploited its stated intention as well. To Federalists, the greatest internal danger facing the nation was the rapidly growing foreign-born population. Between 1790 and 1798, a wave of foreigners entered the United States, especially from France, Ireland, and Germany. Federalists like Congressman Otis feared that immigrants would “contaminate the purity … of the American character.” (Halperin 205) He was appalled at the prospect that the “turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world” would come to America to “disturb our tranquility.” Federalist Senator Rufus King complained that such immigrants “are hardly landed in the United States, before they begin to cavil against the Government.” Senator Robert Goodloe Harper stormed that it is “high time we should recover from the mistake of admitting foreigners to citizenship.” (Halperin 45) Federalists saw these immigrants, many of whom had fled what were in the immigrants’ views tyrannical governments, as a nest of potential disloyalty and future Republican strength. Under the Alien Enemies Acts these immigrants were deported, not because they were a (French) threat to the country but rather to the Federalists. Republicans attacked the act as a xenophobic betrayal of the nation’s most fundamental principles.

The debate regarding the new naturalization law began in 1797, at a time in which Federalist discomfort with immigrants also exhibited itself in the controversy with the Republicans. Federalist senators challenged whether Gallatin, who was originally from Switzerland, was a resident in the country enough years, questioning the legitimacy of his citizenship. With a near party line vote, Federalists denied Gallatin his seat. This is a clear example, during the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, to stamp out Republican opposition. Gallatin wasn’t affiliated with the French and in no way, was a threat to the State or the People. He was simply a Republican. (Miller 174) Gallatin asserted that “no facts had appeared, with respect to alien friends, which require these arbitrary means to be employed against them,” and demanded that, if supporters possessed such facts, they “lay them before the House.” (Miller 175) Moreover, even if such danger existed, it should be addressed by conventional laws, without adopting such an extreme measure that infringed on the First Amendment. Also, during this period, even though the people were not at the moment seditious, the Federalists felt no assurance that they would remain loyal if long exposed to Republican parties. Treasurer Alexander Hamilton stated: “A few men of sense form base views, and some ignorant and wicked men, by falling in with all the popular clamors and flattering the popular passions can lead the people as they please.” They would “servilely caress and flatter even the fiends of hell itself, did they declare themselves inimical to our virtuous rules and admirable constitution.” (Miller 169)

During the creation of the Constitution, one grievance was listed for the Test Acts. These English Acts signed into law in 1678, were imposed on the American colonies, punishing crimes against public safety and dissent, whether expressed in speech or writing, and had effectively silenced the Loyalist minority. If such Acts had been found unconstitutional in the struggle for American freedom, said Chief Justice Dana of Massachusetts, how much more cause did the Federalists have in 1798 to take action against the Republican “faction” through the Alien and Sedition Acts. When the Federalists saw Republican resistance to their policies rising in the United Stated, they called it a “faction” and “enmity to the Constitution.” From 1797 onward–eventually written in the Alien and Sedition Acts–opposition to the administration became opposition to the Constitution. From the get go, they gave their political opponents no benefit of the doubt, and it had become almost impossible for the Federalists to regard the Republicans as other than traitors, including Jefferson, as Hamilton referred to them as “Frenchmen in all their Feelings and wishes.” (Deconde 45)

Congressman John Nicholas charged in 1797 that whenever he disagreed with the Federalists, he was immediately branded with treason. Congressman William Giles of Virginia described the Federalists as spewing “a most uncommon strain of calumny.” Robert Williams of North Carolina complained that the Federalists’ strategy of character assassination (and eventually imprisonment) was intended to destroy the “freedom of debate,” and Gallatin accused the Federalists of attempting to intimidating their opponents into silence by approaching John Adams with such legislation. (Miller 61) At the outset of the debate over the president’s war policy, Republicans charged that Federalists were exaggerating the danger and that the steps they proposed would precipitate, rather than avoid, a perilous and unnecessary war. Congressman Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania, the leader of the House Republicans, derided Federalist fears of a French invasion as “as a mere bugbear,” and Congressman Richard Brent observed that he was no more apprehensive of a French invasion than he was of being “transported before night into the moon.” (Miller 62) The implication was that Federalists were cynically inflating the threat to American interests in order to further their partisan ends. In this crisis, the Federalists saw and seized the opportunity to strike a critical blow at the Republicans. By discrediting Jefferson and his colleagues as disloyal and treasonous, they attempted to entrench themselves as the nation’s dominant party. By leveraging a moment of high patriotism, they set in motion a legislative program designed to cripple, perhaps even destroy, the Republican Party.

One could see the true intentions of the Federalists in enacting the Acts, by examining in what matter they were utilized shortly afterward. Throughout the months following the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts, over twenty-five well known Republican journalists, congressman, and advocates were indicted under the Acts for promoting anti-Federalist views, exploiting the supposed intention of laws such as stopping enemies of the State, or aliens with the desire to harm the United States, especially the French. Benjamin Franklin Bache was the editor and publisher of the Philadelphia newspaper the General Advertiser (also known as the Aurora), and was a fierce and constant opponent of the Federalist Party. As a journalist, Bache displayed a degree of vindictiveness that distinguished him even among the journalists of his generation. Republicans described his behavior as patriotic and of public spirit; to the Federalists, his behavior indicated that Bache was probably possessed of a French origin. (Miller 27) In Federalist circles, Bache was considered the typical American Jacobin, according to the founder of the Federalist newspaper Gazette of the Unite States: Bache was “eager to apply the torch to American cities and to set up the guillotine in every public square for the themselves”. (Miller 28) However, although Bache was convicted for seditious behavior and attacks on the reputation of governors, it was not under the jurisdiction of the Sedition Act, which had not yet taken effect, but under the provisions of British common law on seditious libel. Needless to say, once the law was passed, the Federalists unleashed it against him, vowing to crush him and in so doing stamping out Republican opposition completely. (Hughes 97)

During the summer of 1798, Matthew Lyon was one of the most despised Republican congressmen in the nation. In in his hometown of Vermont, his political prospects were uncertain. He had lost three of the four previous elections, his dis¬trict was predominantly Federalist, and the publicity he had received from Philadelphia was mostly opposition. To counter unremitting Federalist attacks on him, Lyon published a letter in Spooner’s Vermont Journal, explaining why he rejected the “principle of Presidential infallibility.” (Stone 49) In this letter, Lyon sharply criticized John Adams and his administration, declaring that under President Adams “every- consideration of the public welfare” was “swallowed up in a continual grasp for power.” (Stone 49) Although the letter was published before Adams signed the Sedition Act, Lyon read it to audiences several times thereafter in his Congress campaign speeches in Vermont. In those speeches, Lyon also quoted a letter writ¬ten by Joel Barlow, an expatriate American poet, to the effect that Congress should have sent Adams to “a mad house” (Stone 49) for the way he had dealt with the French. In October 1798, in his newly established magazine, the Scourge of Aristocracy of Repository of Important Political Truths, Lyon accused the Federalists of “falsehood, defamation and calumny”. He was charged with “malicious” intent “to bring the President and government of the United States into contempt”, violating the Sedition Act. He was found guilty and given a four-month sentence in a federal prison and a hefty fine. (Stone 52)

Samuel Chace, a Federalist Supreme Court Associate Justice, traveled around the country indicting Republican advocates under the Alien and Sedition Acts. In one instance, James Callender, one of the most vitriolic Republican journalists of the time, was described by Federalists as “a little reptile” and as “a dirty, little topper with shaved head and greasy jacket.” (Stone 71) The Gazette of the United States characterized as the “scum of party filth” and believed Callender deserved “the benefit of the gallows.” At Federalist gatherings in the spring of 1798, a common tune sung was that of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”–accusing Callender and Bache of treason–to the lyrics:

Tom Callender’s a nasty beast,

Ben Bache dirty fellow;

They curse our country day and night,

And to the French would sell her.

Fire and murder, keep it up,

Plunder is the dandy;

When some folks get the upper hand,

With heads they’ll be so handy (Stone 75)

In The Prospect before Us, Callender advocates the election of Jefferson over Adams in 1800, describing the “reign of Mr. Adams” as “one continued tempest of malignant passions” and that the president “has never opened his lips or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding.” (Stone 75) After discovering the pamphlet, Chace noted that Callender should be hanged. Callender was promptly arrested and indicted and eventually proven guilty. The above instances demonstrate how the usage of the Acts are a clear portrayal of the original intentions when passing the Acts.

Insults in the Federalist Papers were rampant, targeting Republicans or anyone who spoke out against the Federalists. The Albany Sentinel prayed that “the good God grant this may be the case of every Jacobin.” The Salem Gazette cheered that “the vile career of the beast of the mountain” has ended in disgrace; and the Gazette of United States celebrated Lyon’s conviction as the power of the law over the “unbridled spirit of opposition to government.” (Stone 65)

During the late 1790’s, the country remained at peace, and the Alien and Sedition Acts remained unjustified. These laws, when war failed to come, began to appear more and more like a federalist plot to create tyranny at home by crying “crisis” when real crisis existed with a target on the Democratic–Republican party. (Miller 40) Republican newspapers were held up in Connecticut post offices; stage drivers were reported to be bribed to destroy copies; Republican newspapers were found on streets torn to bits as onlookers applauded. The Hartford Courant, acknowledging to have discovered the list of subscribers of a rival Republican newspaper, threatened to publish their names, quoting the Alien and Sedition Acts, accusing them of being enemies of the states. (Halperin 104) Whatever the initial motivation for the Sedition Act, the concerns about wartime security soon became a pretext for securing political advantage. During an incident in Dedham, war veteran David Brown set up a liberty pole and posted on it were flyers promoting negative ideas of John Adams. The fear was not that the liberty pole would undermine the nation’s defense or incite a violent insurgence but that it would rally citizens to the Republican cause. (Halperin 105)

At first Federalists did succeed in labeling some of the Democratic-Republican and their ideas as unpatriotic, and moderating some people’s views. However, at the end of the day, many Democratic-Republican leaders did not and could not remain quiet. The irony of the Sedition Acts was that the number of Democratic-Republican papers actually increased as a result of the law. Due to the unfair targeting of Republicans, readers and editors began to see the truth (as displayed in the Republican victory of 1800). As Jefferson puts it, “the people quickly recovered their true sight” and swayed the bipartisan fight more to the Democratic-Republican side. There was at least one Democratic-Republican paper in every major city and in many small towns. Nearly fifty Democratic-Republican papers were founded after the passage of the Sedition Law. (Miller 213)

During the period of the political war, the party of Jefferson and Madison was never recognized as a lawfully created party by the Federalists. Jefferson was still viewed as a leader of a “faction” who objective was the subversion of the Constitution. Washington therefore predicted dire consequences if the Democratic-Republican party were to fulfill its true purposes, which he saw as subverting the regular process of government, such as elections. The party could “become a potent engine by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enable to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” (Halperin 84) Washington believed the justification for the Alien and Sedition Acts was the threat to the republic due to the opposition (Republican) to the government he initially formed. The “faction” was branded disloyal to the United States, as it was to the Adams Administration. The Federalists declared a “French fraction” at work in the United Sates, and that the political allegiance of the Republican party and this French faction were identical. (Halperin 85) They gave their political opponents no benefit of the doubt, and it became almost impossible for the Federalists to regard the Republicans as anything other than traitors, and therefore a logical campaign would be to portray them as “Frenchmen in all their feelings and wishes.” When “some bold truth” is stated by a Republican, the Federalists “send forth most pitiful yelling and yet they do not scruple to traduce and calumniate the purest characters [Republicans] of the Union.” (Halperin 88) This demonstrated that the Acts were partisan legislation not needed for the protection of the government, but rather for the destruction of the Republican opposition.

Many Federalists over the period during and after the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts believed that such laws were necessary to protect the country from possible danger from France. According to Federalists, seditious libels threatened the survival of an ordered government, especially during high tensions with France. and that the government’s suppression of the recklessness of the press was “necessary to its preservation,” (Berkin 204) Congressman Allen expressed this during the debate on the Sedition bill in the House of Representatives: “a law to punish false, scandalous, and malicious writings against the government, with intent to stir up sedition, is a law necessary for carrying into effect the power vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, and in the officers and departments thereof.” (Berkin 18) Also, the Naturalization Act was not a new concept, in Article 1, section 8, clause 4, the Constitution grants Congress power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization. The Alien and Sedition Acts changed the minimum time residing in the country in which one could become a citizen from two years to four years. (Berkin 20) Federalists hoped these laws would protect against the rise of new plots that challenged the sovereignty of the United States. In one instance, the laws were a response to the Genets enlisting Americans to invade Louisiana or Spanish Florida and Frenchman such as Andrew Michaux pretending to be on scientific exploration but working secretly for his country’s army. These Acts were considered by Federalists as intended to prompt a formal and necessary declaration of war against France. (Berkin 45)

In conclusion, the controversy surrounding the effects of the Alien and Sedition Acts allows us to appreciate the significance of limiting free speech and the exploitation of federal power. While some historians claim that the laws were enacted due to a heightened fear of war with France, there is no substantial evidence supporting these claims. As presented, the Acts were really a ploy by the Federalists to target the Democratic-Republican party. Since then, similar laws have been passed during various times of war, such as in the Espionage Act of 1917 in the beginning of World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 in continuation of the previous Act, the Alien Registration Act of 1940 in World War II, and the PATRIOT Act of 2001 during an ongoing war on terrorism. The Alien and Sedition Acts are laws that have been deemed necessary during numerous perilous war times, however, in 1798, the laws were nothing more than a political campaign tool.

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