Alien and Sedition Acts — Quick Facts
The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress in 1798
- The Naturalization Act, passed on June 18, extended the residency period from 5 to 14 years for aliens seeking citizenship; this law was aimed at Irish and French immigrants who were often active in Republican politics.
- The Alien Act, passed on June 25, allowed the expulsion of aliens deemed dangerous during peacetime.
- The Alien Enemies Act, passed on July 6, allowed the expulsion or imprisonment of aliens deemed dangerous during wartime. This was never enforced, but it did prompt numerous Frenchmen to return to France.
- The Sedition Act, passed on July 16, provided for fines or imprisonment for individuals who criticized the government, Congress, or president in speech or print.
Federalists claimed that the laws were enacted to control the activities of foreigners in the United States during a time of impending war with France.
The only journalists prosecuted under the Sedition Act were editors of Democratic-Republican newspapers.
Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions that called upon states to nullify the Acts on the grounds that they were unconstitutional.
The constitutionality of the Sedition Act was never determined by the Supreme Court because it expired in 1801 before the doctrine of judicial review was established in the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803.
One of the people indicted for stirring up sedition was Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon, a harsh critic of President Adams, who conducted his successful re-election campaign from jail in 1800.
Ten people were convicted for violating the Sedition Act.
Sedition Act trials, along with the Senate’s use of its contempt powers to suppress dissent, set off a firestorm of criticism against the Federalists and contributed to their defeat in the election of 1800.
After becoming President, Thomas Jefferson pardoned all of those that were convicted for crimes under the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act.