What Were the Alien and Sedition Acts?
So, how did these acts come to be? Well, the main cause was the deterioration of relations between the United States and France just a few years after the American Revolution. The economic strain of supporting American independence bankrupted France and led to the overthrow of the monarchy. Around the same time, the U.S. moved to smooth relations with Britain, much to the chagrin of the French.
The 1794 Jay Treaty with Britain eased tensions and bought the Washington administration valuable time to strengthen a republic still very much in its infancy. However, the treaty was unpopular both at home, for it granted concessions to the British, and abroad, as the French viewed it as a de facto alliance with their enemy. Amid this diplomatic crisis, the United States held the first contested presidential election in 1796.
George Washington was unopposed in his two terms. The race to succeed him was between Vice-President John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, former Secretary of State. Adams represented the Federalist Party while Jefferson ran on the Democratic-Republican ticket, usually known as the Republicans. It should be noted that the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” have somewhat fluid definitions and did not necessarily mean the same thing as they do today. Washington warned against party politics in his farewell address but could do little to dissuade the growing influence and polarization of the parties. In the end, Adams won by three electoral votes and a slim majority of the popular vote. Jefferson became Vice-President as per the rule that the runner-up in the election would serve as Vice-President, and spent much of his time working in the background to win the presidency in 1800.
Adams wanted to mend relations with France, describing the situation as “a misunderstanding.” However, tensions escalated when messengers sent by Adams arrived in France. Not only were they treated with contempt, but French privateers also started to attack American merchant ships.
The question of what should be done in response to France’s actions was polarizing. The Federalists generally preferred a tougher stance, with some aggressive members seeking a declaration of war, while the Republicans were firmly against war. The battle of ideas was also waged in print, with Republican and Federalist newspapers attacking and defending the President. Benjamin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, edited the Aurora, a paper deeply critical of Adams and any measure around creating a strong central government. The Aurora was rivalled by Porcupine’s Gazette, a publication owned by William Cobbett, an English writer who favored strong action against the French.
Adams called for renewed efforts to negotiate with France alongside a build-up of military strength. Messengers departed for Europe while Congress approved funding for three frigates in the summer of 1797. In the meantime, French privateers continued to plunder American ships which had no protection.
Unfortunately, news travelled painfully slowly in the eighteenth century; it was not until the following spring that Adams learned of the failure of the diplomatic mission. The French foreign minister demanded a large personal bribe and a loan to the Republic of France which the Americans refused. This incident would be known as the XYZ Affair, “XYZ” being the coded names of the agents who brokered the meeting. The publication of the communications with France ignited a storm of controversy and pushed the country to the brink of war.
Efforts to strengthen the military were increased with the approval of funds to fortify the coast and arm merchant ships. The newly-built American warships were granted approval to engage any French vessel found in American waters. Plans were also drawn up for an army to be raised, though Adams shared the reluctance many Americans felt towards a standing army. While he benefited from a wave of patriotic support from many quarters, the Republican press ramped up its attacks. According to the Aurora, “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams” was unfit to lead.
As it turned out, a declaration of war never came. Instead, American and French ships occasionally fought from July 1798 until September 1800. The undeclared naval conflict would be known as the Quasi-War due to its unofficial nature and limited scope. It was in this tense climate of political polarization and informal war that the Alien and Sedition Acts came to be.
Some Federalists were afraid that the ideals of the French Revolution could be carried to the Americas by French arrivals. These fears were mostly unfounded though, because the French that were coming into the United States were mostly from the slave insurrection in San Domingo, or from those fleeing from the French Revolution.
After passing the Naturalization Act, which lengthened the amount of time you had to reside in the country before you could become a citizen, the Alien Acts were passed in 1798. The first, The Alien Friends Act, granted the President of the United States the power to deport any foreigner deemed a threat to national security. The second, The Alien Enemies Act, allowed the president to deport any nationals from a hostile country. The acts were introduced as temporary measures, due to expire in 1801.
The Sedition Act was the most contentious of the laws passed. It stated that any “false, scandalous, and malicious” writing against the president, the government, or Congress or any words or actions that caused unrest would carry a fine of up to $2,000 and up to two years in prison. Those who supported the law claimed it was a necessary wartime measure that simply strengthened similar laws that already existed. However, it was seen by most to be a clear violation of the First Amendment and as an attempt to silence the Republican Press.
Because his strong oppositions to the President were so clearly outlined on a daily basis in the Aurora, Benjamin Bache was arrested in June 1798 but died before his October trial. The partisan nature of the Sedition Act was demonstrated with the conviction of Matthew Lyon a month after Bache’s death. Lyon, a Congressman originally from Ireland, was already notorious for a brawl with another representative where a wooden cane and fire tongs were used as weapons. He denounced the Federalists as warmongers and authored several articles critical of the government. His arrest was likely at the insistence of another political enemy, Nathaniel Chipman. Lyon had attacked Chipman several years before over a remark about Lyons’ heritage. As a member of Congress, Lyon did not expect to be imprisoned but ended up receiving a four-month sentence. This act of petty vengeance by Chipman only served to significantly boost Lyon’s profile as a martyr against tyranny. He comfortably won reelection while behind bars.
The most notable opposition came from the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of November 1798, drawn up by Jefferson and James Madison. They described the Sedition Act as unconstitutional and an affront to liberty. The resolutions were both a challenge to the authority of a centralized government, still a novel concept in the eighteenth century, and an affirmation of state’s rights. Generally seen as going too far, the resolutions failed to repeal the acts but laid the foundations for further debate about state’s rights.
In February 1799, Adams sent word to the Senate seeking approval for the appointment of a foreign minister to travel to Paris to work out a definitive treaty. The messengers sent by the U.S. were properly received this time and a change of government in France suggested war could be avoided.
As the diplomats hammered out the details, the battle for the presidency in the U.S. began. In his bid to win the political rematch, Jefferson utilized the services of James T. Callender. Callender was a Scottish writer who gained infamy for his venomous pamphlets about Alexander Hamilton. With some financial support from Jefferson, he completed The Prospect Before Us in May 1800. The work was an anti-Federalist attack of quite astonishing personal criticism that seems to have been intended to provoke the prosecution which followed. Callender’s sentence of nine months was the longest jail sentence of anyone convicted by the Sedition Act.
The Quasi-War eventually ended in September 1800 after an agreement was reached with the French. The undeclared conflict resulted in a handful of captured French warships and the loss of around 2,000 merchant vessels. Unfortunately for Adams, news of the treaty did not reach the U.S. in time to boost his candidacy, and he ultimately lost to Jefferson. One of Jefferson’s first acts was to pardon those imprisoned by the Sedition Act.
Adams was not personally behind the Alien and Sedition Acts, a fact that would allow him to distance himself from both in the later years, but his lack of attempt to stop them was a serious mark against his legacy.
Ok, let’s recap. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were the result of escalating tensions between the United States and France which led to the outbreak of the Quasi-War. Justified as necessary temporary measures to protect the security of a nation at war, the acts were often used against newspaper editors critical of the government. The acts led to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which denounced the acts as unconstitutional and asserted the rights of states to reject such laws.
Before we go, let’s look at a couple of review questions!
1. What caused the breakdown of the U.S.-French relations?
A. The Jay Treaty
B. Mistreatment of American diplomats
C. Attacks on American ships
D. All of these
The correct answer is D.
2. Which of the following best describes the XYZ affair?
A. War plans against France
B. A diplomatic incident
C. A conspiracy to overthrow the American government
D. None of these
The correct answer is B. The XYZ affair was a diplomatic incident between the U.S. and France that resulted in the Quasi-War.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!