What Were the Alien and Sedition Acts?


The Alien and Sedition Acts
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Alien and Sedition Acts


The Alien and Sedition Acts were established in 1798, in part because of xenophobia arising from conflict with the French. Xenophobia is a dislike or fear of others, of people from another country, of outsiders. Because of conflict with the French around this time, there was a vigorous sense of xenophobia among U.S. citizens. During this time, the Alien and Sedition Acts were enacted. The Alien Act increased the number of years before one could obtain citizenship.


It made you wait longer to become a U.S. citizen if you weren’t actually born in the United States. It also gave the president the power to deport anyone. If the president said a foreign person who was residing in the United States had to leave, he could send them back home at any time. The Alien Act allowed the president to jail dangerous aliens during times of war. It was, again, going to be up to the president or the government to decide who was dangerous.


During times of war, or the quasi-war we had with France, where it was mainly just some naval skirmishes, if there were French people living in the United States, they could be deemed dangerous and jailed. They could have been deported. Anyone trying to gain U.S. citizenship now had to wait longer. This all reflects that feeling of xenophobia that was in the United States at this time. The Sedition Act was also established. This one made it a crime to libel or slander any United States officials or policies.


Many people believed this policy was a violation of First Amendment rights. Again the First Amendment is giving you the freedom of speech, the freedom to write what you wanted to. Basically, this Sedition Act was making it illegal to do so. It was a crime to say anything bad or write anything bad about a U.S. official or about a U.S. policy. Basically, people were muzzled. They couldn’t say what they wanted to say or write what they wanted to say, because it would now be a crime if they were saying something against the U.S. government or a U.S. official.


Many people did believe that this one, this act, was a violation of First Amendment rights. Not everyone actually said anything or did anything about that, but the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves were written and promoted by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and then 1798 and 1799. Their resolves claimed that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. Many people believed that the Sedition Act at least did violate First Amendment rights, but most states, most people, didn’t actually say anything or do anything about it.


However, Kentucky and Virginia came up with these resolves and they claimed that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. They stated that a contract exists between the state and national governments and that the national government had exceeded its authority and broken the contract. There is a kind of contract between the state and national governments and this isn’t something written. This is something that’s more implied.


The national government is supposed to have final authority on everything except for things that are listed in the Constitution that the states get control over. The national law is what with the central government comes up with as a whole for the United States. It’s supposed to be what everyone does, and then individual states have some things that they can take care of on their own that they can make their own decisions about.


In the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, they were stating that this contract, not a physical written thing, but this understood contract between the state and national governments had been broken, because the national government had exceeded its authority. This document advocated that states should have the power of nullification over national policies. That basically meant if the national government can make whatever laws it wanted, but if the states felt like they didn’t really like that law, they could nullify it and do what they wanted.


That would provide way too much opportunity for there to be disjointed laws. Each state could come up with what they wanted to do on their own if they could just nullify anything they didn’t like about the Federal Government. It’s very important that only two states felt this way, or at least felt strongly enough to write something about it, because if more states had felt this way or had pushed for this it could have caused disunity.


It could have caused the United States to break up. If each state was coming up with its own laws again and was overriding what the national government was saying, then it wasn’t really going to be United States anymore. It would be each individual state. Only Virginia and Kentucky supported this policy, which had the potential to fatally undermine the Constitution. It was good that only a couple of states supported this, or the United States may have broken up around this time. Instead, it was just these two states.


The rest of the states all were kind of appalled that Kentucky and Virginia would write this, because they wanted to be the United States. The idea that they could just override the Constitution and say, “Okay, well, if a state doesn’t like a law, then we’ll just nullify it, no matter what the national government says.” That was just pretty appalling to a lot of the other states. The Alien and Sedition Acts came about primarily because of the xenophobia that was going around in the United States at this time due to conflict with the French.


The Alien Act increased the number of years before you could obtain citizenship, gave the president the right to deport anybody, and gave the president the right to jail anyone deemed a dangerous person, dangerous alien, during times of war. The Sedition Act made it a crime to libel or slander U.S. officials or policies. People weren’t allowed to say anything bad about U.S. officials or their policies.


Though many people believed this is a violation of First Amendment rights, only Kentucky and Virginia actually pushed for anything, actually wrote anything, and tried to get something to change. In the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves, they wrote that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional, because this implied contract exists between the state and national governments and that the national government had over stepped its authority, and this contract was therefore broken.


They thought that states should have the power of nullification over national policies. Luckily, these were the only two states that thought this, because this had the power to undermine the Constitution and break up the United States at this time. Since we only had two states think that, it kind of fizzled out, but you can see what kind of atmosphere was in the United States during this time with the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts.



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Last updated: 09/10/2018

 

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