In 1798 four federal laws restricting U.S. citizenship and severely curtailing the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly were adopted by a Federalist Party–dominated Congress and signed by President John Adams. Sparked by mounting tensions between the United States and its former ally, France, these laws purported to be essential to the young nation’s security. In fact, they were mainly used to silence domestic critics as intense partisanship emerged.
War certainly seemed a strong possibility as the French seized U.S. ships and sailors, schemed to regain control of Spanish Louisiana, and blatantly demanded bribes in return for diplomatic recognition. As Americans expressed patriotic outrage, those who still viewed France as a key ally and hailed the French Revolution were painted as traitors. Chief among these was Democratic-Republican leader Thomas Jefferson, who was both Adams’s vice president and chief political rival. As these laws were implemented by his Federalist foes, Jefferson would call the years 1798 to 1801 “the reign of witches.”
A new naturalization statute and two alien laws created major barriers to what had been an extremely liberal U.S. policy of welcoming and extending citizenship benefits to foreigners. Emerging nativist suspicions focused on French “Jacobins” and the supposedly “wild” Irish. The Alien Acts gave the president broad powers to have noncitizens arrested or deported in both peace and wartime. Anticipating deportation, French visitors chartered 15 ships to return to Europe. Soon after, Adams would personally prevent French scientist Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, whose son would later found a major American chemical company, from setting foot in the United States.
The effects of the Sedition Act would prove even more significant, posing a clear challenge to the First Amendment of the Constitution, adopted just eight years earlier. Zealously enforced by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, this act forbade utterances that might bring the president or Congress “into contempt or disrepute.” It produced 17 known indictments, focusing on Republican newspaper publishers. One of these was Benjamin Franklin Bache, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora and grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Despite violent attacks on his home and person, Bache continued to publish until he died of yellow fever a month before his scheduled trial.
Politicians, too, were targeted. Matthew Lyon, an Irish immigrant and Vermont congressman who was one of very few non-Federalist politicians in New England, was convicted for calling the Sedition Law unconstitutional. Conducting his reelection campaign from jail, Lyon won easily and was freed when supporters paid his $1,000 fine. Federalist Jedidiah Peck, a New York assemblyman, was dumped by his party and arrested for petitioning to repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was also handily reelected, as a Republican.
Opponents got no help from the Supreme Court, where ardently Federalist Associate Justice Samuel Chase personally prosecuted several sedition trials. The predominantly Republican states of Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions condemning the laws. It took Jefferson’s narrow victory in the bitter presidential campaign of 1800 to assure that the acts, already set to expire in March 1801, did not continue. Jefferson also pardoned those still jailed for sedition. Years later, Charles Francis Adams, diplomat grandson of John Adams, would call the Sedition Act the fatal error that ultimately doomed the Federalist Party to oblivion after the War of 1812.
- Miller, John C. 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, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.
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